(WOMENSENEWS)–President Barack Obama is expected to announce a jobs-creation program tonight.
As women, we should listen closely to see if we are part of the plan. At this point our labor isn’t a trivial part of the national economy; it’s key to overall stability.
At the start of the crisis the epidemic of private sector job losses–especially in construction–wiped out millions of men’s jobs, but women’s jobs (and hence their incomes) were basically stable.
This meant that consumer spending held up a lot better than if all those men were solo breadwinners. In other words, the huge expansion in women’s employment in the decades after 1980 turned out to be a major economic boon to everyone. It’s helped keep this economic collapse from being as bad as in the 1930s, when far fewer women worked for pay outside the home.
Unemployment is so severe right now that there are 9 people who want each job that becomes available. When one lucky person is hired, 8 are left high and dry.
Over the past 23 months 2.6 million women’s jobs have disappeared, while men have seen 6.2 million jobs disappear over the past 33 months.
This is horrible for everyone: women and men, adults and children, African Americans, Latinos, skilled and unskilled, college grads and high school drop-outs.
Economic policies can counteract this. I, for one, cheer Congresswoman Jan Shakowki’s jobs’ plan to put 2.2 million back to work. But her plan–like most, including Obama’s–focuses on physical infrastructure, and frankly, is far too modest.
Make no mistake; rebuilding our highways, power grid, dams, schools and parks is critically important. By itself, however, this won’t help the millions of unemployed and underemployed women in the United States.
Feminist economists have lots of positive, workable recommendations for creating meaningful jobs. Here are some highlights:
First, let’s make sure that "green jobs" are pink; that the training and apprenticeships created to reduce our carbon footprint are equally available to women and men.
Second, let’s create a federal job guarantee to provide a job for everyone willing and able to work.
And third, let’s build social provision of child and elder care into every jobs program so everyone can work full time without risking their family’s health or safety.
Accomplishing these major economic goals will cost far more than the $300 billion Obama is expected to recommend tonight, especially since such a large chunk of this will come from tax cuts favoring businesses. Businesses don’t need the boost, workers do.
Work is the bedrock of our economy, any economy. Work creates the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and the computers we use. The specific activities of work vary enormously: tilling fields, milking cows, weaving cloth, welding steel, mining coal, balancing books, drawing blood, teaching students, baking bread, pushing paper. Women have always worked.
Once upon a time–just over 100 years or so ago–where we lived was where we worked. Homes were workshops, and workshops were homes. Families owned firms and families farmed. There was a gender division of labor–some activities were girls’, some were boys’. Some were women’s, some were men’s. But because everyone worked pretty much side-by-side, neither workers nor work were invisible.
Today, with the sputtering stall of the economy, millions of workers (29 million according to the National Jobs for All Coalition) are invisible to the hundreds of thousands of employers who’ve fired them.
Workers (a.k.a., consumers) without incomes are invisible to markets. This truth is so basic we might forget to think through its implications. If you are hungry, but have no money, there’s no point in going to the grocery store. If it’s 15 degrees out, you can’t buy a down jacket.
This type of misery is what’s meant by "weak consumer demand," and this is what’s keeping companies from hiring workers. No firm is going to hire people to make things or perform services if there is no surety that what’s produced can be sold. Firms won’t hire if there’s no buyer.
Working Different Sectors
Women and men still tend to work in different sectors of the economy. Women are concentrated in federal, state and local government jobs (the public sector) and men are concentrated in private sector jobs. This means their unemployment is caused by different factors.
Following Washington’s debt-ceiling debacle, there’s even more pressure on the public sector to scrap jobs. Women hold a disproportionate share of public sector jobs because of the age-old link between women, children and families, and because these jobs pay less.
Jobs in K-12 education, child protective services or other programs providing direct services to families don’t challenge gender ideology.
Stable public sector schedules facilitate women’s family care work. If one worker in a household is reasonably sure s/he won’t be asked to attend a meeting on another continent with four hours notice, then s/he is "free" to be what law professor Joan Williams calls "the ideal worker," an employee who can subordinate every other aspect of life to employer demands. And of course there’s the low pay.
But once tax revenues to state and local governments fell (to levels below those of 2005), cutting public payrolls or raising taxes became necessary. These governments can not legally borrow to meet current expenditures–their indebtedness is limited to borrowing for capital improvements like schools, hospitals and roads. And cut payrolls they did. U.S. News reports that since the end of the recession, 600,000 public sector jobs have been eliminated, bringing total job losses in the state/local government sector to nearly a million.
For each paycheck eliminated, purchasing power in the surrounding community declines. Unemployed teachers, caseworkers and nurses buy less. Since they spend less, fewer sales tax dollars are collected. At the same time, income taxes on all those erased jobs disappear. Making matters worse, falling home values reduce property taxes, and even more local revenue is wiped out.
As each community takes these hits, local businesses cut back employment or hours or both. This causes another round of reduced spending . . . and on and on it goes.
‘Savings’ Wiped Out
At a certain point the dollars of public spending "saved" by firing public employees is all but wiped out by reduced tax collections caused by subsequent cycles of lay offs and reduced work hours. The suffering caused by this massive contraction of economic activity is not limited to those whose jobs have disappeared.
The Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute reports that in 2009 almost 1-in-3 workers were either unemployed or underemployed. For blacks and Hispanics the shares were 36 percent and 41 percent respectively.
In consequence, nearly 38 percent of all families have seen either wages and benefits fall or reductions in hours worked.
Another 24 percent lost employer coverage of health insurance, while 18 percent are having trouble making mortgage payments or are experiencing foreclosure.
This employment disaster reaches deep into the next generation, with 13 million children (about 18 percent) experiencing a parent’s unemployment or underemployment, an amount that’s nearly double that of 2007, when the figure was 6.4 million children (about 9 percent). The situation is even more serious for black and Hispanic families, where about 25 percent of children see their parent’s go without full-time work.
There used to be a lot of talk in this country about family values. Mostly that was invoked to romanticize women’s exclusion from the labor market, so they were trapped at home tending to their family’s needs.
The expiration date on that social vision is long past. Right now, Americans–women and men–need the full time, well paid jobs essential to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
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Susan F. Feiner is professor of economics and professor of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
For more information:
"What’s Good for Women Is Good for the Nation: Jobs, Livable Wages and Equal Pay," Huffington Post:
"An Update on State Budget Cuts," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
"The Federal Budget is a Feminist Issue A Toolkit for Chapters and Activists," NOW:
"Second Anniversary of the Recovery Shows No Job Growth for Women," National Women’s Law Center: