Convention Party Talk Aside, Where’s the Work?

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Susan Feiner

(WOMENSENEWS)–Democratic conventioneers are rustling it up in Denver this week. Sure, the hype will be that the Dems have a bead on pocketbook issues, but how real is their commitment to women’s economic well-being?

The National Council for Research on Women frames women’s economic security this way:

  • Of families headed by single mothers nearly 29 percent (4 million) live below the poverty line compared to 13 percent (669,000) of single-headed households led by men.
  • In 2005, the proportion of women aged 16 and older in poverty was nearly 13 percent compared to about 9 percent of men.

Narrowing these gaps, the authors say, would improve women’s economic security helping us provide for our families, pursue our preferred occupations and develop our capacities without restrictions or discrimination.

The council then lists the policies needed to create greater economic security for women: paid sick leave, equitable taxes, Social Security, elder and child care, housing and pay equity.

I applaud every item on the list but want to point out something very basic: What are these policies worth if you don’t have a job?

Paid sick leave doesn’t matter if you don’t have a job.

Tax reform doesn’t matter if you don’t have any income to be taxed.

Retirement supports don’t matter if you don’t have a job from which to retire.

Social Security benefits don’t help if you don’t have earned income on which to calculate your monthly check.

Housing and joblessness don’t mix.

And pay equity doesn’t mean much in the face of widespread unemployment.

2.7 Million Women Out of Work

Jobless women number 2.7 million, or nearly 5 percent of female workers. The Center for Economic Policy Research reports that this recession will cause between 1 million and 1.6 million more women to lose their jobs. To help them, Democrats must push for strong stimulus programs to restore full employment.

Simultaneously, women must push for government support for expanded elder and child-care programs so care providers can earn a decent living.

Making care affordable and available supports working women, both those with the children who need caring, and those who provide the care.

Child-care employment will grow about18 percent in the next decade, according to a 2006 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Today many of the 1.4 million child-care workers work part time. Their pay is awful: the middle 50 percent earned between $14,790 and $21,930, putting their annual income below that of service station workers and locker room attendants. Worse, child-care workers rarely get benefits. Terrible working conditions contribute to the high turnover rates that undermine high-quality child care.

Similar conditions face elder-care workers.

Between 1990 and 2005 employment in elder care grew 173 percent, government reports show. Women represent more than 90 percent of nurses, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists in this industry. Black and Latina women are concentrated in the lowest paying occupations: home health aides, nursing aides, orderlies and attendants. Low pay and benefits, the unpleasant nature of some duties and the lack of opportunity for advancement means employment growth in elder care is no assurance that women’s economic security will increase.

Give Caregiving Its Due

Women’s economic security depends on professionalizing care work so that it carries the pay, prestige and benefits it deserves. Moreover, this work can’t be outsourced so growth in the field poses important opportunities to upgrade traditional “women’s work.”

But more jobs for care workers is not enough to solve the unemployment problem facing women.

Which brings us back to jobs, jobs and more jobs.

Sen. John McCain insists that lower taxes create jobs. He’s committed to the Bush tax cuts. Tax cuts do not create jobs.

During the Bush era a paltry 700,000 jobs were created per year, the lowest rate of job creation on record. Taxes rose in the Clinton period and–surprise!–almost 3 million jobs per year were created. It’s hard to argue that tax cuts mean more jobs.

McCain won’t rely entirely on tax cuts; in early July he talked about helping small businesses because they create so many jobs. Fine, but what the Arizona senator doesn’t mention is that small businesses also lose the most jobs! They are also less likely to provide health insurance, pensions, sick days or paid vacations. These jobs are no ticket to economic security.

Sen. Barack Obama strikes a brighter note with his pledge to expand and extend unemployment insurance to cover workers out of work for more than 26 weeks. Bush initially fought proposals to extend these benefits. Earlier this summer he approved about $8 billion to help the long-term unemployed; in exchange he got more than $160 billion in war spending. Bottom line: Hugely profitable military contractors feast at the public banquet while workers scavenge for table scraps.

McCain opposes the current system of public unemployment benefits because he believes the economy automatically provides jobs for all who want them. If the economy did naturally move to full employment his plan to privatize unemployment insurance and cut government might not be so bad.

Cutting Spending Not the Solution

But as we’ve known since the Great Depression the private economy (firms plus households) doesn’t provide all the jobs we need. Government economic activity is fully 36 percent of total spending. Cutting this spending stream–as McCain proposes–would send joblessness through the roof!

McCain doesn’t support equal pay either. He didn’t even bother to show up to vote on the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, legislation needed to restore women’s access to the courts in cases of pay discrimination.

Obama voted for it.

Obama also supports raising the minimum wage. McCain has voted against raising it at every opportunity. Adding insult to injury, in June he held a rally at Worth and Company, a Pennsylvania firm convicted of paying workers less than the minimum wage! What a slap in the face, particularly the female face. Eight million women are 60 percent of the 13 million minimum-wage workers in the United States.

Obama certainly isn’t talking about what women really need for economic security either.

The $50 billion stimulus for infrastructure repairs that he’s calling for falls well short of the $140 billion (or 1 percent of national economic output) needed to make a dent in the recession.

Note too that infrastructure spending mainly creates jobs for men since women are only 9 percent of all construction workers.

Obama, in a recent New Mexico speech, endorsed extending leaves for new parents and those with other care responsibilities. But this doesn’t level the caregiver playing field. Since the leaves are unpaid and women earn less than men, it makes sense for women to take the leaves. Employers, knowing that women are going to take longer leaves will be less likely to hire them, making women’s unemployment problems worse. The real solution is a Swedish-style system of professionalized caregiving.

True, Obama’s proposed $50 billion stimulus is too small to generate full employment and is targeted at jobs that don’t benefit women. His economic plan ignores the care industry, which both employs women and eases the time bind on women in other endeavors.

But at least he’s not talking about making our problems worse.

Susan Feiner is professor of economics and director of the women’s and gender studies program at the University of Southern Maine. You can read more about feminist economics on her blog “Economics,” she wrote at www.economics-she-wrote.org. She was recently a guest blogger for Feministing and Talking Points Memo. Her book “Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work and Globalization” is a Choice Outstanding Academic Title.

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