AUGUSTA — It’s clear that issues affecting women will take center stage in 2014.

Come fall, we women can expect candidates to appeal for our support, and experience tells us they’ll offer warm statements that idealize motherhood and express opposition to domestic violence.

All too often, however, the policy and spending choices that our elected leaders make tell a different story. For example:

Gov. Paul LePage has been stirring distrust and resentment of people who receive public assistance – namely poor women.

Proposals to close the state budget gap include funding cuts to General Assistance and Head Start. The former is the safety net of last resort that sometimes pays rent for women escaping abusive relationships, and the latter is a proven program that allows parents to work while preparing their children to learn.

While the shortfall in the state budget stems from several factors, the budget line that gets the blame is Medicaid, the federal-state health program that by design primarily serves women.

Last year, lawmakers and the governor failed to accept federal funds already set aside for Maine under the Affordable Care Act in order to create access to health care for 70,000 low-income Mainers. By definition, this means primarily women, because women are more likely to be poor and to work in low-wage jobs that lack benefits.

In order to encourage our elected leaders to adopt public policies that reflect the full range of women’s needs and priorities, the Coalition for Maine Women will host our annual Maine Women’s Day at the State House on Tuesday, Jan. 21. Members of organizations working across the state will be on hand to remind legislators of the realities facing Maine women and our families, including:

Women are more likely to be single or custodial parents, to be caring for aging parents, and to be experiencing poverty, hunger or homelessness.

Adult women are the majority of minimum-wage workers.

Maine’s poverty level for people over age 65 is above the national average, with higher pockets of poverty in rural areas. Nearly 60 percent of those poor seniors are women.

One in five of all Maine children lives in poverty.

One in four Maine children under age 5 lives in poverty, and nearly 60 percent of them live in a household headed by a single woman.

Eighty percent of domestic violence victims are women, and reports of abuse in Maine grew in both 2011 and 2012.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We do in fact know how to create the strong middle class that is essential to Maine’s future prosperity. Just as we invest in the roads and bridges that keep our economy moving, so too can we build the social infrastructure to keep Maine the kind of place where we want to live.

We can start by creating access to health care, including contraception and prenatal care. Let’s not forget the connection between dental and physical health.

From there, we can ensure that every Maine child gets a safe, nurturing, stimulating start in life, because investing in developing brains pays dividends down the road. We can increase access to quality, affordable child care that prepares children to learn while allowing parents to work.

Next, we need strong education and workforce development systems that prepare youth and adults to be self-sufficient through critical thinking and other workforce readiness skills. We need to make higher education a priority, keep it affordable, and help all students gain the skills they need to be successful in their work, businesses and communities.

We can ensure that workers can support themselves and their families by increasing the minimum wage, expanding family medical leave, and requiring employers to allow workers to earn paid sick days so they can meet their obligations both at work and at home.

We can accomplish these goals by adopting fair tax policies that benefit everyone, ending ineffective tax breaks and wasteful subsidies while redirecting public dollars to benefit all of us rather than a few.

There are reasons that candidates seek out women’s support: We’re 51 percent of the population, we outnumber men among registered voters and we turn out to vote at higher rates. Women affect elections, but we can’t stop there.

Beginning Tuesday and continuing throughout this critical year, we will raise our voices on behalf of sensible policies that allow women and our families to thrive. Join us, won’t you? We’ll be easy to spot in the halls of the State House – we’ll be the ones wearing red.

– Special to the Press Herald