The Obamas in Parade

(via Parade Magazine Interview with the Obamas) President Barack Obama and wife Michelle have never been your typical working stiffs. With four Ivy League degrees between them, they’ve enjoyed high incomes and strong job security. But before and during college, they each worked minimum-wage jobs. And there was a time when they felt the same kind of financial aches and marriage strains that today’s dual-income families know all too well. As a young married couple in Chicago, they were mired in student debt, juggling multiple jobs and two kids, and bickering over who did what housework. “I wouldn’t fold,” remembers the president. “I didn’t separate, and Michelle’s point was, that’s not laundry.”

On June 23, to help raise the national discussion of these issues, the president will host the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington, D.C., a listen, learn, and recommendation session open to business leaders, lawmakers, economists, and ordinary citizens. Says the president, “There are structures that can help families around child care, health care, and schooling that make an enormous difference in people’s lives.”

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In a May 20 interview with Parade editor in chief -Maggie Murphy and contributing writer Lynn Sherr in the Oval Office, the first couple discussed their work experiences, what they hope to get done before they leave the White House, and their roots in the ordinary. The president, who once scooped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, began by recalling his days as a waiter in an assisted living facility—a story that even surprised his wife.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was a great job, although the folks there sometimes were cranky because they were on restricted diets. Mr. Smith would want more salt, and you’d say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith. You’re not allowed.”

MICHELLE OBAMA: I never knew about that one!

PO: I also worked as a painter. My first four jobs were minimum wage or close to it.

MO: My last year in high school, I worked at a bindery, side by side with grown-ups who had been there their entire lives. Knowing that I, as a 16-year-old, was getting the same income and doing the same work… it gave me respect for those workers. But it also gave me an understanding that more is needed for folks to be able to cobble together a decent life on minimum wage.

PARADE: When you first got married, you weren’t poor, but you did have some economic struggles. How did you pay for your mortgage? Could you save money?

PO: When Michelle graduated from law school, she went back and lived in her parents’ house, upstairs. When I got out of law school, I moved in with her. So we lived for a year in Michelle’s mom’s second floor.

And now she’s living upstairs.

PO: Right. [laughs] The car I drove for the first five years of our marriage was used. I bought it for $1,000, paid cash. So, we pinched pennies. But we also got help. My grandmother helped a little bit on the down payment [for a condo]. And we scraped together what savings we had.

Who handled the budget?

PO: I was usually the bill payer,

the grocery shopper, and generally the dishwasher. Michelle was -usually the bathroom cleaner, just because she didn’t think I did a good enough job. [laughs] There were certain things she just didn’t trust me to do.

One of your initiative’s priorities is fair pay—and equal pay for women. Mrs. Obama, when you were working in law, did you think you were being paid less than your male coworkers? 

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MO: You know, I didn’t really think about it. Because—and I think this is one of the challenges women face—we don’t think about salary enough. When I got hired in my firm, I was grateful. There wasn’t even a thought of negotiating at all. I thought I was there to do a good job.

Now I realize that that’s one of the challenges that we have as women:  We don’t negotiate for ourselves. We don’t negotiate hard. And I realized that again later on when I had Malia, my first child. After a while, I asked for part-time work [at the University of Chicago]. And I did the same job, part time. Essentially, I just got paid less. That was the first time I realized I would never again work part time, because that’s not a good deal for women.

As you, Mr. President, write in The Audacity of Hope, there were “strains” in your marriage during that period. 

PO: Look, we had Malia, and then three years later we have Sasha. At that point, our student loans are still more than our mortgage. Michelle’s working full time. I have three jobs. There are stretches where I’ll be away for three days at a time. If the babysitter can’t make it, Michelle’s the one who’s got to scramble and figure it out.

….read the rest at Parade Magazine

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