Lady business with equal parts lady and business.
Courtesy: The Progressive Caucus
As thousands of air travelers suffered through flight delays last week, the average American got a lesson in civics: when you cut government spending, it has real life consequences. Americans are fond of saying that they want to slash government spending in the abstract, but loath to point to specific programs that they actually want to cut. With sequestration, this ambivalence has come home to roost. Because the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration affect all programs evenly, the ones that touch middle-class Americans, not just the poor, have suffered equally.
We haven’t just learned a lesson about the effects of budget cutting, though. We’ve also been able to see the priorities of Congress in stark relief. The flight delays, a result of furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration, were not the first effects of sequestration. Those were visited on the poor. Yet the FAA was the only agency that saw swift and bipartisan action. After Congress was flooded with calls from angry travelers—not to mention, as lawmakers started down flight delays for their own flights home for recess—the Senate and House each passed a bill with overwhelming support within forty-eight hours. When’s the last time you remember that happening for any other issue?
The poor have long known that a budget cut passed in Congress means hardship in real life. This dynamic was in full force as sequestration went into effect. The first to be hit by the reduction in funds, by and large, were low-income Americans. Preschoolers have been kicked out of Head Start. Food pantries have closed. Native American health services have been reduced. Thousands of cancer patients on Medicare have been turned away from clinics. Meals on Wheels is delivering to fewer elderly people. The long-term unemployed will receive severely reduced benefit checks.
While these cuts have been well covered by local media, the rest of us haven’t heard much about them. Yet when furloughs delayed flights, they dominated the media, as did the cancellation of White House tours. In mainstream cable news coverage, flights were mentioned about two and a half times more than Head Start, over twice as much as cancer patients, and six and a half times more than Meals on Wheels. White House tours were even worse: they were mentioned thirty-three times as often as the sequester’s impact on the poor.
The coverage of tours and flights was likely driven by something we don’t see very often: budget cuts that impact nearly all Americans. Targeted cuts tend to focus on programs that the poor rely on, and we rarely hear those stories. But even middle-class and well-to-do Americans were feeling what it’s like to have reduced government spending in their daily lives when they went to the airport and waited an extra hour to take off. This is surely a mere inconvenience compared to losing food or housing if you’re poor, but it’s still important: Americans of all income levels may finally be learning the importance of government spending in their lives.
As Suzanne Mettler has demonstrated, many Americans do in fact benefit from government services. But few realize it. Mettler calls this the “submerged state”: the variety of public programs that are delivered in such a way, such as through the tax code, that many don’t realize they’re getting assistance. The epitome of this contradiction is the senior who shouts, “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”
For this reason, perhaps, well-off Americans tend to be less concerned with spending on the social safety net and more interested in cutting government spending. This has huge consequences for our political system. A body of research has shown that the needs and desires of the poor rarely influence how their representatives vote. On the other hand, Congress’s priorities nearly duplicate those of the wealthy.
And here is the last lesson sequestration has taught us: just how much more Congress cares about what’s bothering upper-middle-class citizens than what’s going on at the bottom of the income scale. There are tons of different programs expecting a big impact from sequestration. None of them saw multiple bills introduced in the Senate, one of which was passed with huge support on both sides of the aisle and signed within a matter of days. Had they continued, the furloughs would have been more than an inconvenience. They could have meant sharply reduced economic output. But the same could be said of many of the cuts to other programs. The lesson is not that the flight delays should have gone unaddressed. It’s that if a budget cut doesn’t impact a wealthy constituency, Congress can’t to be bothered to fix it.
What can America learn from Australia about abortion access? Read Chloe Angyal’s take.
An unemployment line. (Credit: Reuters)
America’s social safety net, such as it is, has recently come under some scrutiny. Chana Joffe-Walt’s in-depth exploration of the increase in people getting Social Security Disability benefits at NPR got many listeners buzzing. Then in The Wall Street Journal, Damian Paletta and Caroline Porter looked at the increase in the use of food stamps, called SNAP. All three journalists look at the increasing dependence on these programs and come away puzzled: Why are so many people now getting disability and food stamp payments?
The answer is twofold. Recent trends give us the first part of the explanation. Yes, as Paletta and Porter note, the economy is recovering and the unemployment rate is falling. But, as they recognize, the poverty rate is also rising. And therein lies the rub: people are getting jobs but staying poor. The available jobs are increasingly low-wage and don’t pay enough to live off of. And the big profits in the private sector haven’t led to an increase in wages.
GDP and employment may be doing well, but that hasn’t done much for those at the bottom of the totem pole. As the WSJ article points out, 48.5 million people were living in poverty in 2011, up from 37.3 million in 2007, a 30 percent increase. This is despite an unemployment rate that’s fallen off its peak. Some of the fall in the unemployment rate has been driven by people simply giving up on looking for a job altogether. But those who do get jobs are likely trading their once middle-class employment for low-wage work. The National Employment Law Project has found that mid-wage jobs have been wiped out during the recovery in favor of low-wage work: low paying jobs grew nearly three times as fast as mid-wage or high-wage work.
But there’s a deeper explanation that goes beyond the current economic picture. Aren’t there other programs for the increasing ranks of people living in poverty to turn to? Unfortunately, we’ve worked hard to weaken key parts of the safety net by changing how programs operate and then cutting back on their funds. Consequently, the number of people who are reached by programs for the poor has shrunk. But when you take away someone’s lifeline, they don’t stop needing it. So they either suffer hardship or find support elsewhere. What disability insurance and SNAP have in common is that they are fully funded by the federal government, which also can set the eligibility requirements. While states narrow eligibility requirements for TANF or unemployment insurance, the federal government can leave them (relatively) more open for SNAP and disability. That leaves them absorbing those who we’ve thrown off the rolls of other programs.
Unemployment benefits are where people turn when they lose a job and need income before getting back to work. But due to financial and other requirements, not everyone gets them. These rules vary state by state because states are in almost complete control of the program. They set their own eligibility criteria and benefit levels and are also on the hook for most of the funding for the benefits. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, “the federal government pays only the administrative costs.”
Unlike the federal government, states have constrained budgets and most have to balance them every year. These budgets get even tighter in a downturn when people lose jobs and don’t pay as many taxes. On top of this, states have come under pressure from business groups during good times to reduce the contributions they use to fund the reserves that pay out benefits when things get tough. So many states have cut back on eligibility or benefit amounts in light of squeezed budgets. Given all of these constraints on benefits, only about a third of all children whose parents were unemployed at some point in 2011 actually saw any unemployment insurance benefits. They were far more likely to get food stamps, a federally funded program that has been much more flexible.
This story of a program financed by states that hasn’t been able to keep up with demand is the same for another huge part of the social safety net: welfare, or as we know it now, TANF. TANF does even worse than unemployment: it reaches just 10 percent of the children living with unemployment parents and just 30 percent of those living in poverty. The program used to do much better: in 1996, it reached 70 percent of poor families with children living in poverty. But then there was welfare reform, which turned it from a cost-sharing model to a block grant. Rather than the federal government sharing the costs with the states, the government now doles out lumps of cash and mostly lets states handle the rest. That lump doesn’t change even if the economy gets worse and more people live in poverty—and hasn’t even kept up with inflation.
While welfare reformers initially claimed victory as rolls fell during a booming 90s economy, the numbers have continued to fall even as jobs have disappeared. The poverty rate among families is back up to 1996 levels, but TANF’s caseload has fallen by 60 percent since then.
These families aren’t magically de-impoverished when they’re kicked off of government support programs. So they either go hungry or find other means of support. Enter SNAP and disability. SNAP has grown by 45 percent to meet increased need in the poor economy. The federal government was able to increase funding and waive some barriers to entering the program.
The CBPP reports that the growth in the use of disability insurance, on the other hand, is in large part due to demographic factors—an aging population and women’s increased entrance into the workforce—which accounts for half its growth since 1990. The elderly are far more likely to be disabled than younger workers, and more women workers means more workers who might become disabled. Other factors that contributed to its growth include the economic downturn. Joffe-Walt reports on how disability has dovetailed with welfare pruning its rolls. As she shows in two graphs, the number of low-income people on disability rose just as the number of families on welfare declined. Disability receipts also rise as unemployment rises. To qualify for disability, an applicant must have, as CBPP puts it, “little or no income and few assets”—which means that if unemployment and poverty rise, more people will fit this description. As Harold Pollack points out, “If you have a bad back, and the only jobs available are manual labor, that’s a real limitation. You’re unable to work. So it very much matters that we’re in a deep recession and a lot of the opportunities people faced are limited.”
Other than elderly disabled workers, those who sign up for disability are those who can’t even dream of finding a job that doesn’t require physical exertion and have no other income—thus leaving them with no where to turn but disability. After all, unemployment only lasts so long and TANF now comes with strict work requirements. Disability steps in when those with low education levels who live in communities based around industry—hard manual labor—lose their jobs and fall into poverty.
This is what happens when you burn enormous holes in the fabric of the social safety net: people either fall through or cling to the remaining parts. We can certainly debate whether we want food stamps and disability to carry so much of the burden of supporting the poor and vulnerable. In fact, this all seems to point to the simplest answer, which is to just hand money to those in poverty rather than funnel it through these different programs that may or may not actually meet people’s needs. But what we shouldn’t do is assume that food stamps and disability are bloated programs because so many people rely on them and then jump to cutting them back. Poor people don’t disappear just because we slash the programs they rely on. They still struggle to get by. That’s the lesson we should have learned over the past two decades.
Chicago is planning to shut down 54 schools this year—mostly affecting students of color. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report on mass resistance to the closings.
Maria Fernandez, an employee of United Home Care Services. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
It’s pretty well known that while women dominate the fast-growing fields of domestic work and home health work, this is only a partial victory. After all, not only are these jobs low-paid, they come rife with abuse. But women also dominate other quickly growing healthcare jobs such as nursing, making up over 90 percent of that workforce, which are far better paid. Where a home health aide can expect to make just over $20,000 a year at the median, a registered nurse looks forward to nearly $65,000. This should be a great sign. Yet a new report shows that the abuse that plagues those who work in the home follows women even when they work in a hospital.
The report from the Lucian Leape Institute, “Through the Eyes of the Workforce,” reviewed the research and convened roundtables and focus groups to look at the working conditions in the healthcare industry. What it found is widespread abuse. The rate of physical harm for the healthcare workforce, particularly for nurses, is thirty times higher than other industries. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the injury and illness rate for full-time healthcare workers is 56 percent, compared to 42 percent for all private industries—and remember that this includes dangerous jobs like police officers, construction workers and firefighters. More than three-quarters of nurses surveyed by the American Nurses Association said that unsafe working conditions were interfering with delivering quality care. A third of nurses in a nationwide sample reported back or musculoskeletal injuries in the past year, and 13 percent reported unprotected contact with blood-borne pathogens.
The abuse isn’t just physical, though. The report notes, “Health care has a long history of toleration of disrespectful behavior by physicians, and to some degree by nurses, and evidence indicates that this toleration continues.” Overt abuse such as bullying, sexual harassment and even threats of physical assault are often seen as acceptable, as are other less overt ways of judging and mocking workers. Higher-ups also often assign extended hours and dole out unexpected shift changes, not just degrading the workers but impacting their ability to balance their jobs and their families.
This should all sound pretty familiar to those who work inside the home. The National Domestic Workers Alliance surveyed the in-home workforce and found disturbingly high levels of abuse. Thirty-eight percent reported suffering from wrist, shoulder, elbow or hip pain, and another 31 percent reported soreness and pain from their jobs. Over 20 percent of nannies and caregivers reported back injuries. A quarter of caregivers and 36 percent of nannies reported contracting an illness while at work. They also endure emotional harm—nearly one in five reported being threatened, insulted or verbally abused.
Remember the “end of men” meme? One of the big data points that supposedly showed women on the brink of winning the economy is that they dominate jobs in industries that are growing the fastest. What this narrative never took into account is what these jobs are actually like. Even a “good” job like nursing may not constitute a win for women.
In Brooklyn, domestic workers often get contracted as day laborers. Read E. Tammy Kim’s story in the April 1 edition of The Nation.
Thomas Perez announces a federal lawsuit against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio over racial profiling. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Word is out that President Obama will nominate Thomas Perez to head the Department of Labor today, the current assistant attorney general for civil rights. Perez has some bona fide progressive credentials, having cracked down on voting restrictions, police brutality, harassment against LGBT students and other issues at the Department of Justice, plus bringing a history of promoting immigration reform and labor rights. But one part of his history should give domestic workers heart and may take on even more meaning if he assumes this new role.
In the early 2000s, Perez ran for Maryland’s Montgomery County Council and won, becoming the second person of color to ever be elected to that body. While there, one issue he pushed was a domestic workers bill of rights. While it didn’t pass until after he had left the council, the bill now requires those who employ domestic workers to care for their children to give workers a written contract that spells out wages and benefits and to obtain a written statement if a worker declines this offer, to provide live-in help with a separate room that has a lock to sleep in and to ensure “reasonable access” to a bathroom, the kitchen and laundry. The original bill had included a minimum wage of $10.50 an hour and mandatory paid vacation and health insurance, but these provisions were ultimately stripped from the bill.
While in theory the country’s domestic workers are entitled to minimum wage and overtime, most don’t know of these rights and few can access them. State-level bills therefore help codify these rights while guaranteeing others, crucially important in an industry that is not able to organize the way others can. New York’s bill has been on the books for more than two years and other states have introduced similar legislation, with a bill that California Governor Jerry Brown shot down last year just recently reintroduced. The movement to achieve better labor protection for this industry has some serious momentum, but it is still happening in a patchwork way at the state level.
Meanwhile, home health aides are on the brink of getting good news from the Department of Labor that they will finally be protected by national labor laws. They’ve been excluded from minimum wage and overtime laws, but a department rule change could finally grant them these protections enjoyed by almost all other workers.
This is a crucial place to shine a labor protection spotlight. Domestic workers and home health aides work in rapidly growing industries—home health aide is the fastest-growing job in America. Yet they fall outside of many labor protection regulations and often suffer abuse and poor working conditions, not to mention incredibly low pay and few, if any, benefits. Even with the federal rule change and state-level bills, there is a long way to go before we can ensure that these workers are valued and rewarded for the crucial work that they perform.
These workers could use a friend at the Department of Labor when they bring lawsuits or put forward legislation. Dare we hope that we might see even more federal protections extended to them, like a $10 minimum wage? Perez’s history of supporting domestic workers’ rights, not to mention immigration reform that could benefit the industry’s huge population of immigrants, could bring attention and action to the movement at a crucial time.
Hospital workers in Olympa, Washington, are on strike for affordable healthcare. Read Greg Kaufmann’s report.
Paul Ryan speaks on the federal budget, Capitol Hill, 2011. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The latest iteration of Paul Ryan’s budget is out today, and while you might expect it to look very different than the one proposed before he was part of a losing presidential ticket, he seems to have dug in his heels on some of his most extreme proposals, like block granting vital programs, voucherizing Medicare and drastically slashing spending. As with the first rounds of Ryan budgeting, this one would be bad for nearly everyone (except perhaps the wealthy), but it would especially take an enormous toll on the country’s women.
Women depend heavily on Medicaid. They make up 70 percent of its beneficiaries, which means 19 million low-income women have access to health care.
Last time around, Paul Ryan wanted to block grant Medicaid. This time is no different. In its current form, Medicaid is a program in which states and the federal government jointly finance health care for low-income people. Because the federal government shares the cost with states, it also requires them to adhere to some guidelines on benefits and eligibility. In a block grant system, however, the federal government sends a lump of cash off to the states with no strings attached. Even if actual spending on the program isn’t reduced (which, given the huge cuts to government spending included in this program, those who are wonkier than I may find it will be), simply changing the structure of the program this way is a very bad plan.
We’ve tried this experiment before: we block granted welfare, now called TANF, and it’s done a terrible job of helping low-income Americans, particularly as demand skyrocketed during the recession. In 2010, only twenty-seven of every hundred families living in poverty received TANF benefits. Some states could decide to increase benefits and eligibility, but given the tight budget constraints they face it’s much more likely that people will be dropped. In fact, somewhere between 14 million and 27 million could lose Medicaid coverage by 2021 under a block grant system. That will have a huge impact on the women who rely on it.
But the picture gets even worse when you consider what else he wants to do.
Ryan also promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act. While he doesn’t want to repeal cuts to Medicare spending included in the act, he does promise to repeal the benefits, perhaps the biggest of which is the Medicaid expansion. Women would reap huge benefits from the expansion of Medicaid, given that 13.5 million were expected to get health coverage that way by 2016.
Other provisions that women have been benefitting from in the ACA: the end to gender rating, which was costing women an extra $1 billion a year; access to preventive care without a co-pay, netting a woman around $11,000 now that she doesn’t have to pay a co-pay for contraception, among other things; getting rid of “pre-existing conditions” like pregnancy and domestic violence; and many other great benefits. All out the window if Ryan gets his way.
As with Medicaid, the majority of Medicare beneficiaries are women. Women live longer than men, but they also are far more likely to live in poverty in their old age, with twice as many women over age 65 in poverty compared to men.
Ryan still wants to voucherize Medicare, even though the electoral trouncing he and Romney took last year seemed at least in part a rejection of messing with this program. Currently, taxpayers are on the hook for any increase in healthcare costs or premiums that are higher than expected. But with the voucher program, seniors get a coupon of sorts to buy insurance coverage—in its current form, Ryan’s budget allows for them to buy private insurance or Medicare insurance—and will have to make up the difference if the coupon doesn’t go far enough. Meanwhile, Medicare currently guarantees what services will be covered, but in Ryan’s program seniors will be responsible for determining what services they need depending on which insurers they pick. That’s a pretty difficult job in such an opaque market.
On top of this, last time around the coupons increased so slowly that spending on the average 67-year-old would have dropped by 35 to 42 percent by 2050. Elderly women would see less and less support for buying the insurance they need.
Women rely on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. They are more than 60 percent of adult SNAP (the food stamp program) recipients and over 65 percent of elderly recipients. More than half of the households that rely on SNAP benefits are headed by a single adult, nearly all women.
Ryan’s plan would block grant SNAP the same as Medicaid. Currently, eligibility for the program has few restrictions, allowing it to serve a wide swath of needy people—47 million participants. On top of this, it’s extremely flexible, allowing it to be one of the most effective cushions for the rising misery during the recession. That would all change under a block grant. Eligibility would vary by state. Meanwhile, while SNAP reaches 75 percent of those who are eligible, we can look at the low rates of TANF participation to see what would happen if it were block granted.
Ryan’s tax reforms would lead to the federal government losing out on $7 trillion in revenue, mostly with tax breaks aimed at the rich and corporations. But at the same time, he promises to balance the budget in ten years. To get there, he’ll cut spending by $5.7 trillion compared to the current baseline (which, lets remember, is already so low that it’s cutting into vital programs). These cuts won’t fall evenly on defense and non-defense spending—he actually increases defense spending compared to current law by $500 billion over the same time period.
Yet discretionary spending will be cut by more than $200 billion. Ryan would extend the Budget Control Act caps, which is already set to cut $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending. Women benefit enormously from the programs funded by this spending. Over 80 percent of the households that receive Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance are headed by women. The Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, helps 9 million low-income mothers and children with supplemental nutrition and health care referrals. Programs like childcare assistance and Head Start are also funded through this money. All would stand to see huge cuts.
There are likely lots of other ways this budget will harm women—we’ll find out as budget wonks continue to analyze it. But it’s clear either way that Paul Ryan took his defeat and decided to double down on the policies he set forth. Women voters roundly rejected him and his running mate in 2012. This budget does nothing to address their needs and works against the most vulnerable among them.
Who actually does support Paul Ryan’s budget? John Nichols answers.
It was only a few weeks ago that President Obama surprised nearly everyone by announcing a push for universal preschool in his State of the Union address and then traveling to Georgia, home of a successful preschool system, to talk it up. The announcement kicked off a debate: Is the cost of universal preschool worth it? Does it really help children learn better later in life?
Mostly missing from that conversation, though, was the other half of the equation: working parents, specifically mothers, given that women still spend the most time caring for children. The benefits for children seem pretty clear, but we have to add in the benefits that women will see if they have a quality and affordable place to send their kids every day when they head to work.
The peace of mind that comes with that may not be quantifiable, but the impact on women’s lives certainly is.
Today’s families look nothing like the 1960s ideal where a woman stays home to bake, do laundry and care for young kids. Just one in five families is modeled after that gauzy image. The rest have to find somewhere for their kids to go before they’re old enough to go to school. In the United States that often means 5 years, as that’s the age at which we guarantee at least part-time public education for children. It’s also generally available to everyone for children ages 3 to 5 in thirteen of our developed peers throughout the rest of the world. But here at home less than 45 percent of 4-year-olds and only one in five 3-year-olds are enrolled in public kindergarten or nursery school.
So what are working parents supposed to do? Some low-income families can enroll in Head Start and Early Head Start, although only about 40 percent of eligible children living in poverty are served by the former and a mere 4 percent are served by the latter, and those slots could be cut by 70,000 by the sequester. Others turn to childcare centers, but the cost of that care is incredibly expensive and subsidies are failing to reach many needy people. Others are lucky enough to rely on family members. Those who manage to figure it out see a huge boost to their careers and therefore their finances: one study found that mothers who had a regular care arrangement for their children were twice as likely to stay in their jobs than those without.
But some simply can’t make it work. Working parents miss an average of nine days a year due to an inability to get care for their kids. Many other mothers decide to cut back on their work hours or leave the labor force altogether to make the whole thing work.
Enter universal preschool. With somewhere affordable and high quality to send their children, parents have a far easier time getting to work. In fact, a study found that fully funding early childhood education through the government would increase employment among mothers by up to 10 percent – an extra woman in the workforce for every ten. That’s hugely important when you consider that we’re falling behind our peers when it comes to the share of women in our workforce. But it will also have an important benefit for women who are better able to invest in their careers and earn higher wages without so many interruptions.
Read more from Bryce Covert on how the floor of the economy has dropped for everyone in “We’re All Women Workers Now.”
Housekeepers at the Westin Hotel. (Flickr/Douglas Muth)
Our workforce, once dominated by men, is now pretty much equally split between the genders. But a funny thing has happened since women entered it in droves: rather than all workers enjoying the stable, unionized, blue collar jobs men typically held until the latter part of the twentieth century, the jobs held by all workers look more and more like stereotypical “women’s work.” These jobs expect workers not just to make a product, but to do it with a warm attitude. They are less likely to be full-time, but instead modeled after part-time work for “pin money.” And an increasing number of jobs are low-pay, low-benefit work in the service sector, once the purview of women workers. We’re all women workers now, and we’re all suffering for it.
A couple of weeks ago, a number of bloggers took notice of a growing trend: the increasing demand for “affective labor” or “emotional labor” in service sector jobs. This was exemplified in a London Review of Books article about how workers at Pret A Manger are not just expected to show up at work, make sandwiches and ring customers up, but to do it with a happy attitude. Enumerated “Pret Behaviours” (since deleted from the company’s website) expect that the company’s workers “create a sense of fun” and are “genuinely friendly” and warn against those who are “moody or bad-tempered,” “annoys people” or “is just here for the money.” Heaven forbid that a low-pay, unstable service sector job be about earning income to cover one’s expenses.
This sort of requirement is not unique to Pret; in fact, it seems to be an increasingly common expectation. (This is why the cashiers at Trader Joe’s always seem eager to share an off-topic personal anecdote while they bag my Joe’s Os.) Researcher Arlie Hochschild estimated that about a third of all jobs entailed emotional labor in 1983 when she first wrote about the subject in her book The Managed Heart, but today, reports Timothy Noah, Hochschild estimates it’s closer to half.
In response, Sarah Jaffe rightly pointed out that this trend isn’t exactly new for one segment of the population: female workers. Women have long been expected to put on a smile and flirt at work, from nurses to domestic workers to waitresses to sex workers. In fact, the obligation to be happy and comforting was a big part of the few career paths offered to women in the 1960s as the transition from the homemaker model began to slowly give way to working outside the home.
One of the few jobs women could get was flight attendant. As Gail Collins wrote in her book, When Everything Changed, most flights were full of male passengers and some even barred women from flying. But women, while kept from flying the planes, were sought after to be stewardesses. “[T]he airlines were looking for attractive, unmarried young women,” Collins writes, and even fired women who had husbands. There were limits on weight that were strictly policed to ensure that the women remained attractive. “The airline industry [argued] with a straight face that businessmen would be discouraged from flying if the women handing them their coffee and checking their seat belts were not young and attractive,” she wrote. The industry took things pretty far:
In 1971 National Airlines began its “Fly Me” campaign, in which lovely young women in flight attendants’ uniforms purred, “Hi, I’m Cheryl/Donna/Diane. Fly me.” Continental announced, “We really move our tails for you,” and Southwest introduced itself as the “love” airline, where passengers would be served “love bites” and “love potions,” otherwise known as snacks and drinks. Meanwhile the women who were dispensing the love bites, moving their tails, and (later) promising to “fly you like you’ve never been flown before” were being dressed in miniskirts, vinyl, hot pants, and—in the case of TWA—paper clothes, such as togas, cocktail dresses, and “penthouse pajamas,” that were supposed to match the entrées.
One can only imagine the attitude and smiling requirements that went with such jobs. A flight attendant couldn’t just show up and serve drinks to passengers; she had to act out the part of a happy, flirty hostess.
Now these practices, once reserved for young, attractive women, have spread throughout the economy and apply to both genders. Yet we still undervalue these emotionally demanding jobs. As Andrew O’Connell writes, men get a nearly 9 percent wage boost when they move to jobs that require increased cognitive labor, yet they take a nearly 6 percent cut in pay if they move to jobs that demand higher emotional labor. Women don’t get a penalty for moving into emotional labor, but they certainly don’t see a wage boost, as their pay stays flat. Perhaps this is because we still think of this as women’s domain, even though men are increasingly expected to do it too.
Meanwhile, women were the guinea pigs in another disturbing trend: the rise of the temp worker. As Erin Hatton wrote in The New York Times recently, the temp industry has added more jobs in the United States than any other over the last three years. The recovery period has undoubtedly seen the replacement of full-time jobs with part-time and temporary ones. Part-time employment grew from just under 10 percent in 2007 to over that in 2010, even though the percentage of workers in those jobs who would rather full-time work doubled. Temp jobs look even worse: they accounted for over a quarter of all new private sector jobs created in 2010, even though they were only about 7 percent of the jobs created in the wake of the 2001 recession. Hatton notes that employers could have chosen to invest in workers and their products. Instead, they took the low road.
Hatton writes that the temp industry sprung up near the height of unions’ power with the ability to skirt labor protections by “casting temp work as ‘women’s work,’ and advertising thousands of images of young, white, middle-class women doing a variety of short-term office jobs.” This strategy “exploited the era’s cultural ambivalence about white, middle-class women working outside the home. Instead of seeking to replace ‘breadwinning’ union jobs with low-wage temp work, temp agencies went the culturally safer route: selling temp work for housewives who were (allegedly) only working for pin money.” They were thus able to create an entire industry of low-pay, unstable work without running into battles with unions or having to offer the employees workplace protections like health benefits, organizing rights and anti-discrimination laws.
But the “Kelly Girl” model of women working for fun eventually became a broader argument about the nature of wage work. The industry “began to argue that all employees, not just secretaries, should be replaced by temps,” Hatton writes. “And rather than simply selling temps, they sold a bigger product: a lean and mean approach to business that considered workers to be burdensome costs that should be minimized.” Workers were depicted as a burden to be dropped in the name of being lean and agile. This new model became more attractive during the recessions of the 1970s, and temps went from 185,000 a day to over 400,000 in 1980. That last number was the total number of temps employed per year in 1963. But then this became a way to structure the workforce even when times were good: as the economy boomed in the ’90s, the number of workers grew to nearly 3 million by 2000.
Even full-time employment looks increasingly like the service sector jobs that were once thought to provide women “pin money,” not the sole source of income for a family. A report from the National Employment Law Project found that mid-wage jobs have been all but replaced by low-wage jobs in the recovery period. Retail has led the pack in creating jobs—about a third of the people who got a job in November, for example, got it in retail. The sector added over 140,000 jobs between September and November. Food service and other service sector jobs also lead the pack. These have traditionally been dominated by women, but now if you want a job, both genders have to take a look at working jobs that offer little pay, few benefits and barely any stability.
None of this is the fault of women who decided to enter the labor force. As they made their way into a booming, middle-class workforce in the 1970s, companies could have responded by offering them the same stable, well-paid jobs that men had enjoyed. Instead, they lowered the bar. And now the bar is being lowered for everyone. The economy has been feminized as the floor keeps dropping beneath all workers’ feet.
Check out The Nation’s series on how labor can respond to the changing composition of employment.
Ai-Jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. (Flickr/Institute for Policy Studies)
It’s likely that President Obama will bring up immigration reform in tonight’s State of the Union address. He might reiterate his support for a path to legal citizenship for all immigrants who “get in the back of the line,” with separate paths for high-skilled STEM workers, DREAMers and agricultural workers. Workers in STEM fields and agricultural workers are, doubtless, vital to the stability of our economy. But there’s another group of workers we depend on but apparently don’t value as highly. As I noted previously, the Senate Gang of Eight proposal made specific mention of agricultural workers yet left domestic workers out of its provision for fast-track citizenship—even though a large percentage of these workers are undocumented, yet perform work that is vital to our economy at low wages.
Why were domestic workers left out? One big reason is that agricultural employers are just more organized. As Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told me, big business lobbies for agriculture and STEM jobs—in science, technology, engineering and math—“have been very engaged in pushing for immigration reform because of the critical role immigrant workers play in their industries.” Both groups also have a lot of resources at their fingertips. Domestic workers, on the other hand, don’t have similar forces at work for them. “The employer interest in the care workforce is much less organized, and therefore much less resourced,” she pointed out. After all, a lot of the employers are simply private families.
Yet the need for these workers is very similar. Domestic workers are just as vital to our economy as agricultural workers. They make it possible for millions of people to go to work and know that their loved ones are cared for. Another argument for a fast track for agricultural workers is that, as Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, put it, “Crops are rotting in the fields.” There just aren’t enough native-born agricultural workers to meet the demand and ensure the stability of our food supply, and without access to citizenship, employers are stuck between illegal hiring practices and finding the workers they need. Yet the same problem is facing the care workforce. As a report released yesterday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in collaboration with Caring Across Generations states, “Currently, native-born workers in the United States are not meeting the demands for long-term care, a situation that is unlikely to change as the demand for such care continues to grow.” In 2008, about 3.2 million people worked as direct caregivers, a number that’s expected to grow by over a million jobs by 2018. Where will we find all those workers?
Some could come from current citizens, particularly if this profession is better protected, paid and respected. But many will likely continue to be immigrants. Immigrant women already make up a fourth of the workforce, and it’s estimated that one in five are undocumented. Leaving these vital workers without a clear pathway to citizenship exposes them to abuse, as a recent survey the NDWA conducted of domestic workers found. They’re more likely than native-born workers to be asked to do work outside their job descriptions, to do strenuous work or to work while sick, injured or in pain. Some families may take advantage of undocumented workers and use that status to pay them less and demand more. But Poo has a different take on it. “A road to citizenship for domestic workers also means peace of mind for all of those families” who employ them, she said. “They will no longer have to worry that at any moment, their nanny, housekeeper or caregiver could be picked up and deported.” Just as the agricultural industry and STEM field are interested in filling their worker shortfalls with documented workers, so too are the families who employ domestic workers.
Immigration reform that acknowledges our dependence on undocumented domestic workers is necessary, but it must be carefully tailored to this workforce’s needs and circumstances. The proof of steady employment requirement in the Senate proposal would “prove devastating for domestic workers and millions of others,” says Poo, as it would likely exclude those who work in cash economies and may not be able to show a record of employment. The IWPR report also notes that some immigrants may lack the financial literacy needed to keep careful employment records. “As a result,” Poo noted, “we will be insisting that the proof of steady employment not be included in the final legislation.”
As the report also points out, given that women usually bear the brunt of child care responsibilities, they may find it more difficult to attend English classes, thus making it harder for them to meet language standard that might become a requirement for citizenship. They may also need to take time out of employment for care duties, endangering their continuous employment records. Given that domestic workers are 95 percent female, these concerns will hit them square on.
Salas also argues that telling undocumented immigrants they have to go to the “back of the line” isn’t a good reform either. “There was never a line for them to get into…All have given their labor and lives to this country and most have waited 10, 15, 20, 25 years without a chance at legal status,” she says.
There are plenty of ideas for lawmakers to draw from if they want to fully include domestic workers, however. The IWPR report outlines specific immigration reforms that would reach them. It notes that the current array of temporary visas almost totally exclude domestic workers with the given requirements, and there are so few employment-based permanent visas available for “low-skill” work that there’s a huge backlog for domestic workers seeking to immigrate.
The report proposes four potential fixes: a two-step legalization process for undocumented care workers currently living in the country, new temporary special visas aimed at domestic workers, provisional visas open to workers of all skill levels and a point-based system that would allow states to assess their labor shortages and need for immigrants, including care workers. The first option would give workers temporary legal status and work authorization if they can prove they are residing in the United States at the time the legislation is passed and that they are working as a direct care giver. They could then gain legal permanent residence if they complete job-training requirements and continue their work for a certain period of time. Given the frequency of employer abuse, however, there would be a way for workers to certify their employment without relying on employer validation or if they had to leave a bad situation. The second option, temporary special visas specifically for domestic workers, would also allow them to transition to a permanent visa after a certain period of time and after meeting certain requirements. The third option of creating provisional visas, on the other hand, wouldn’t be restricted to domestic workers, but would be open to those with employer sponsors for a three-year period with the chance for portability after a year. They would also have a similar path to legal status as the special visas. Lastly, the state-based model would not rely on employers choosing specific immigrants to fill jobs, but instead allow governments to assess the need and assign those who meet the skills and requirements. States would share this authority with the federal government, which would give each state a number of visas based on demographic and business data.
None of these proposed reforms have to work in isolation: all four of them could be adopted together to address the care work shortfall and the vulnerability of our care workforce. But it’s clear that immigration reform, which is so vital to these workers, will fall short if it doesn’t include careful attention to how domestic workers can find a path to citizenship. Our entire economy depends on it. There are some good places for lawmakers to start.
Read more about the struggle of domestic workers in last week's issue of The Nation.
Twenty years ago today, the US passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, finally codifying into law the right for most employees to take time off from work for the birth of a baby or to care for a seriously ill family member. Since then, workers have used it 100 million times to care for themselves and their families.
But this milestone, and all the good it’s done since, hasn’t been enough. We’ve fallen behind our industrialized peers on many key indicators since then. Only about 60 percent of workers have access to paid leave, putting a huge financial burden on new parents and those with sick family members. Our failure hits working families square on. But it’s a problem we all bear, because it’s also threatening our economic edge.
The US holds a dubious distinction: single parents in this country are the worst off compared to 16 other high-income countries, despite the fact that we have the highest rates of single parenthood. There are a variety of factors that go into getting that award—failing to ensure adequate health insurance coverage, long waits for early childhood education to begin, low rates of child support receipt—but an important factor is family leave. We’re the only one without paid leave, and we also fall behind in how much leave we guarantee. As the report notes, “The duration of the job-protected leave entitlement ranges from a low of 12 weeks in the U.S. to a high of 162 weeks in France and Germany.” Here’s how it looks for single mothers in various countries:
Yet even unpaid leave isn’t going far enough. About forty percent of workers aren’t eligible for FMLA leave. The Department of Labor just released new numbers on the FMLA, finding that nearly five percent of all workers needed to take leave and couldn’t, and over six percent had an unmet need for leave in the past 18 months. Those numbers have gotten worse since the 1990s: in 1995 just half that number needed leave but couldn’t take it in the previous 18 months. It’s worst for low-income workers: 8.2 percent of those who make less than $35,000 a year versus 3.4 percent of those who make over $75,000.
Of those who couldn’t take leave, nearly half said it was because they couldn’t afford it. No wonder, when half of all leave takers are either paid only part of their normal wages or nothing at all. Those numbers are again greater for low-income families. We also know that those who do take unpaid or partially paid leave struggle to make ends meet. The DOL reports that 30 percent borrowed money to get by during leave, more than 35 percent dipped into savings meant for something else, the same number put off paying bills, 85 percent had to limit spending and, most disturbing, almost 15 percent went on public assistance. That last figure has almost doubled over the past ten years.
These problems have had a huge effect on our economy, specifically on women’s share of the workforce. After growing rapidly since the 1970s, women’s participation rate in the labor force started to flat line in the '90s. It was 74 percent in 1990 and has only grown to 75.2 since then. Turns out, though, that this makes us an outlier. In that same time period, other developed countries kept growing their share of women in the workforce. Twenty-one others shot up from an average of 67 percent to nearly 80. That means that while we used to rank at number six, we’ve sunk to number 17.
Paid family leave figures prominently when you look at the causes of these declining numbers. We enacted unpaid leave in the ‘90s, but since then other countries have mandated paid leave that’s longer than 12 weeks and have kept expanding it. If the US had kept up with the times and mandated paid leave, while adding in other policies like protections for part-time work and increased spending on child care, women’s share of the labor force would be at 82 percent, bumping us up to number 11. The lack of these policies accounts for nearly 30 percent in the deterioration of women’s participation rates. Before you think this is only problematic for a certain group of workers, remember that women’s entrance into the workforce since the 1970s accounts for a quarter of our GDP. Think about how much higher that would be if they’d kept making gains.
We are among just three countries out of 178 that don’t guarantee paid maternity leave. Being a mother and a worker shouldn’t be such a contradiction. The FMLA was vitally important, as the hundreds of millions of families who have used it can attest. But it’s clear that we’ve allowed ourselves to get left behind since then. Twenty years later, it’s time to update our policies so they look like we live in the 21st century.
For more on the plight of America's least well-off, check out Greg Kaufmann's blog.
Last year I wrote an article that looked at whether new parents are taking on debt to get by when they have to take leave at less than their normal pay—or none at all. After all, the Family and Medical Leave Act only mandates unpaid leave for the birth of a child or to care for a sick family member. There’s no law in this country saying you have to be paid anything while you’re taking the time off. The most recent data was from 2000, showing that a quarter of families had to borrow money to make ends meet. But it was unclear what had happened since then.
We now know things have gotten worse. The Department of Labor just released new data on the FMLA ahead of its twentieth anniversary tomorrow. The DOL reports that among those who received only partial or no pay during their leave, 30 percent borrowed money to get by. More than 35 percent dipped into savings that had been meant for something else, and the same percentage put off paying bills. Nearly all those figures have steadily risen since 2000. There were particularly disturbing jumps in other numbers, though. Nearly 85 percent had to limit their spending, while just 70 percent had to do so in 2000. Worse, almost 15 percent had to go on public assistance, up from a bit over 8 percent a decade ago. That’s an incredibly disturbing rise.
This means that a growing number of families are experiencing severe financial hardships just to take time off for the birth of a child or to care for their families. More and more are falling through the cracks of our inadequate policies. As one woman told me last year, “I’m a victim of FMLA because it didn’t help my family.”
Read Bryce Covert’s take on the economic implications of abortion access.