Mimi Abramovitz

(WOMENSENEWS)–Contrary to popular wisdom, spending on services like health care and education produces a bigger bang for the economic-stimulus buck than billions of dollars devoted to roads and bridges.

While both types of spending yield important payoffs, the Japan Institute for Local Government, a nonprofit research group, says that during its decade-long economic collapse Japan learned this the hard way.

The Institute found that every 1 trillion yen, or $11.2 billion, spent on social services such as the care of the elderly and monthly pension payments added 1.64 trillion yen in growth. Financing schools and education delivered even more, 1.74 trillion yen. By contrast, every 1 trillion yen spent on infrastructure projects in the 1990s increased Japan’s gross domestic product by only 1.37 trillion yen.

For years service jobs have been "reserved" for women. Could this be why mostly male economists have pushed for "shovel ready" jobs held mostly by men as the way to dig us out of the economic quagmire? Could it be that sustaining the male-breadwinner and female-homemaker division of labor trumped economic good sense?

Last Friday, Feb. 6, the New York Times reported that the U.S. work force is about to include more female workers than male because the jobs so many women hold in teaching, nursing, home health care and social services tend to be more recession-proof than those in manufacturing and construction.

During the last 12 months men have lost more than 2.7 million jobs, or more than 82 percent of all the nation’s lost jobs.

Gender Division Dies Hard

But the gender division of labor dies hard.

Not only has the mostly male Congress included too few service jobs in the economic stimulus plan, but a recent analysis by two economists, Alan B Krueger and Andreas Mueller, found that women’s work is never done.

The economists looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey of 2007 that measures the amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as paid work, child care, volunteering and socializing. They found that when women work outside their homes they spend more time daily on child care and housework than their male counterparts.

Jobless women, meanwhile, double the hours that jobless male counterparts spend on child care and housework. Jobless men are more likely to sleep, watch TV, look for a job or help with other household chores.

In the final analysis no one wins when the economy fails because women are still far more likely to work part-time or in non-union jobs, lack health insurance and earn less than men.

‘I Earn Practically Nothing’

A high school librarian quoted by the New York Times who kept working after her well-paid husband lost his job mused: "I don’t know if I’d really call myself a breadwinner since I earn practically nothing."

In December 2008 in an open letter to then President-elect Barack Obama a new group of historians, economists and other scholars who call themselves WEAVE–Women’s Equality Adds Value to the Economy–mirrored the report from Japan.

They urged Obama to avoid the mistakes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

"For all our admiration of FDR’s reform efforts," the authors wrote in the letter, "in the 1930s Congress directed most of the New Deal jobs to skilled male and mainly white workers. This was a mistake then and it would be a far greater mistake in the 21st century economy, when so many families depend on women’s wages and when our nation is even more racially diverse."

The more than 1,000 signatories of the letter agreed that the nation’s social infrastructure was in just as bad shape as the physical infrastructure.

They called on the government to stimulate jobs in education, health care, child and elder care. They noted that green and sustainable energy policy requires educators as well as construction workers.

With all this and other common-sense advice there is every good reason for Congress to end the highly embarrassing–and very dangerous–political bickering.

This means giving the nation and the world the right economic jolt even it if tampers with gender norms which, in any event, are already giving way to changing economic realities.

Mimi Abramovitz, the Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor at Hunter College School of Social work, is the author of "Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy From Colonial Times to the Present;" the award-winning "Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the U.S.;" and co-author of "Taxes are a Women’s Issue: Reframing the Debate." She is currently writing "Gender Obligations: The History of Low-Income Women’s Activism since 1900."

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