Politics & Government

Obama rolls out sweeping benefits plan for workers, women

WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is rolling out a cradle-to-grave tax-and-benefit program aimed at women and working-class families.

The sweeping subsidies and mandates reflect his past as a professional community organizer and his preference for government to take a stronger role in ensuring people's rights at their workplaces.

Campaigning on Wednesday in Iowa, the only early-voting state where polls show him competitive with Hillary Clinton, the Illinois senator proposed a 50 percent match on the first $1,000 a year of retirement savings for families earning up to $75,000, an expansion of the current "saver's credit."

He also proposed:

_ Requiring all companies — except those in their first two years of operation or with fewer than 10 workers — to enroll employees in retirement plans or direct-deposit individual retirement accounts. Workers could opt out.

_ A $4,000 annual college-tuition tax credit.

_ A major expansion of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which ensures that workers can take time off for various health or family reasons.

He'd extend it to cover:

_ Businesses with as few as 25 employees; the current law applies to companies with 50 workers or more. That could give hundreds of thousands more women a guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave.

_ Seven paid days of sick leave per year for workers at companies with at least 15 employees.

_ Leave to care for elderly parents or for individuals who live in a worker's home long term even if they aren't immediate family members.

_ Up to 24 hours leave per year for parents to participate in school-related activities.

_ Leave for workers to deal with domestic violence or sexual assault affecting them or their immediate families.

_ Federal aid to states such as California that provide paid family leave.

Obama's latest proposals would cost $26 billion a year, his advisers estimate. That comes atop an annual $85 billion middle-class tax-cut plan he introduced in September, which he planned to pay for largely by raising taxes on people with higher incomes.

He said he could offset the latest $26 billion by capping congressional earmark spending, requiring more competitive bidding on federal contracts and closing capital-gains tax loopholes.

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow with the center-left research center The Brookings Institution, said the FMLA changes were "still pretty conservative" compared with other wealthy nations that provided paid leave.

But expanding a government retirement match is problematic, she said.

"This one is going to require either going deeper in debt or raising taxes," Sawhill said. "I'd argue any sweetening of the pot should be done as part of an overall Social Security reform."

Aaron Chatterji, an assistant professor of business strategy at Duke University and a fellow with the Center for American Progress, a center-left research center, said that expanding family leave laws would be a "tough sell for small business" but could pass a Democratic-led Congress if faith-based groups and big businesses signed on.

However, anti-discrimination safeguards might be needed, or "businesses might be more reluctant to hire anyone they think may be most likely to take that leave: young women who might be likely to get pregnant or middle-aged women more likely to be caretakers."

As far as making employees opt out of retirement savings rather than opt in, Alex Brill, a tax and pension specialist with the pro-business research center the American Enterprise Institute, said many Republicans supported the idea.

"Particularly for low- and middle-income families, people aren't saving sufficiently. Over a lifetime, those funds can accumulate significantly," Brill said.