KANSAS CITY — Sheila Johnson is the single mother of 17- and 23-year-old daughters and has one grandchild. She’s also caring for an aging mother and trying to pay off more than $100,000 in student loans.
While her job as a sales executive pays around $75,000, the increasing cost of gasoline, food and other daily expenses has curtailed her ability to save money, and she is afraid things may get worse.
“I have never, ever experienced the crunch I’m feeling now,” the 40-year-old Johnson told Michelle Obama during a roundtable discussion of women’s issues Thursday at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “And I cannot imagine families who have not been as blessed as I am, how are they surviving, how are they able to make it from one day to the next?”
The roundtable discussion was one of a series of such gatherings Obama is holding to listen to women’s concerns and promote the presidential campaign of her husband, Democrat Barack Obama.
The five women chosen to talk to Obama were from varying economic situations, but they all discussed how difficult the economy has made it to pay bills and provide good lives for their children.
The main subjects they raised were the high cost of health insurance, college loans, gasoline prices and providing adequate education for children.
Obama said she had heard similar stories across the country.
“These are working folks, many with jobs we would all covet, college education, good trade jobs,” Obama said. “This is sort of the state of things for people who are working, with no clear emergency going on. ... We have to begin to recognize the crunch we’re putting people in.”
Obama acknowledged that she and her husband are more fortunate than many people, but she said they understood the difficulties of balancing work and family. Of her many roles, she said, the most important is being mother to two daughters.
“For me, policies that promote women and families, it’s not just about politics, this stuff is personal,” she told the crowd. “These are the issues that I have mulled around in my head my entire life.”
Obama assured the audience that her husband would promote family friendly policies if he is elected. For example, she said, he supports universal health care, programs to defray the cost of a college education, investing billions in public education and ensuring that women are paid the same as men for similar work.
New policies are especially important for women and children who are living in poverty or foster care, said Sister Berta Sailer, the adoptive and foster mother of five children and co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, a center that cares for hundreds of children living in poverty.
She told Obama that the systems designed to help the country’s poorest are outdated and often become a barrier to improving lives. She cited women who want to marry a man who works a low-paying job but don’t because doing so would cost them health care or other benefits, or grandmothers who can’t get benefits because the children they’re raising aren’t theirs.
“The systems that were designed to help families, but what happens is the systems stay the same and the families change, so the systems becomes useless,” she said. “If we are a family friendly society, we have to have family friendly rules.”
Obama said her husband, who was raised mostly by his mother and grandmother, would remember women’s struggles if he becomes president.
“Barack is determined to change Washington so that we don’t just talk a good game about family values but that we actually develop real policies that have meaning to working women and families ... to ensure that we are not just surviving, but we’re thriving,” she said.
Later, at a private Mission Hills, Kan., home, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius joined a number of dignitaries from Missouri and Kansas at a $1,000-a-head fundraiser.
Sebelius, who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, talked in detail about Michelle Obama's life, according to a pool report from the event.
As the governor took the steps in the home's foyer, someone shouted "vice president!'" But she did not respond or acknowledge the remark.
"One of the great things about Michelle is that she's engaging folks in conversations across this country,'' Sebelius said.
"Obama told of how senior citizens had slipped $20 bills into her hand when she greeted them, noting that the money means more to them than to richer Americans who write maximum campaign checks of $2,300.
"I guarantee you that Barack Obama will not disappoint you,'' Obama said. "You may disagree with him; I do it all the time. He is the right man for the job.''