Lady business with equal parts lady and business.
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Republicans entered the fights over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling with a list of demands. Here are some of the modest concessions they sought in return for not shutting down the government (and, now, re-opening it after they shut it down) and/or not tanking the global economy by forcing the United States to default on its debt: approving the Keystone XL pipeline, eliminating all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, or privatizing Medicaid. Democrats, for their part, have mostly just tried to pass “clean” bills on both instances, and in the case of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded, have even accepted sequestration spending levels.
Playing with either—threatening to shut (and keep shut) the government or, worse, failing to raise the debt limit and forcing the United States to default on its obligations—is irresponsible politics. But if this is going to be a negotiation, Democrats should play offense with a list of their own demands. Even better, there are plenty of things they can put forward in negotiations that would actually have the added benefit of helping boost the economy beyond just keeping lawmakers from damaging it!
1. A public option for healthcare. Many progressives pushed hard for a system that would ensure universal access to health care, often called a public option and frequently accomplished through making Medicare available to all. That got stripped from the bill that became the Affordable Care Act. If Republicans want to make the fight about healthcare, progressives can suggest tinkering with Obamacare—by instituting a public option. This wouldn’t just make sure that everyone has access to healthcare—including those currently being left out by red states that refuse to expand Medicaid—it would also help control spending on healthcare. Medicare’s administrative costs are 2 percent of its spending, compared to 14 percent in the private industry. Its spending growth increased at a rate about 1 percentage point lower than private insurance from 1970 to 2002.
2. Universal preschool. President Obama has already put forward his plan to expand preschool to all. Democrats could stake out ground by not just demanding preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds but going even further to offer free, quality childcare (that pays workers a decent wage) for all. The benefits of free access to high-quality preschool are already well known. One study found that Chicago’s program will generate $11 for every dollar spent in economic benefits over a child’s lifetime. Another found that society stands to see a $9 return for every dollar spent in increased earnings and employment and reduced crime, need for public benefits and grade repetition. Well-educated Americans help increase the labor supply, which boosts GDP. None of these studies take into account the fact that universal preschool—particularly if it extends down to infants—is a huge benefit for working parents, particularly women, who are the default caretakers.
3. Raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. Democrats have been calling for a raise in the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck as $7.25 an hour for four years. Worse, the tipped minimum wage is just $2.13, which hasn’t been raised since 1991. If the wage had kept up with inflation since its peak in the 1960s, it would be over $10 an hour. Fast food strikers have gone further, demanding a raise to $15 an hour, so as bargaining leverage Democrats can start at least that high and make sure it keeps rising as costs rise. And the good news is a raise would give the economy a much-needed boost. The Chicago Fed found that raising the wage to $9 would increase household spending by $48 billion, and even if the possibility of job losses is taken into consideration—which is pretty unlikely—spending would still go up by $28 billion, or 0.2 percent of GDP. Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would lift nearly 6 million people out of poverty. Not to mention that it would help close the gender wage gap and the racial wealth gap.
4. Free public college. It may sound far-fetched, but the cost isn’t quite so large as you might think. The Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal has found that the government already spends $22.75 billion on tax breaks and incentives for the cost of higher education. The government also spends about $104 billion on student loans. But the cost of providing free public higher education has been estimated at about $127 billion, lining up close with the figure the government already spends on subsidizing college. Konczal points to evidence that a “public option” for higher education could do a lot to control tuition costs. It would also likely expand access to higher education for many that currently see it as out of reach financially, creating a highly skilled workforce and boosting economic growth.
5. Guaranteed paid family leave, sick days and vacation. The United States falls far behind other developed countries when it comes to paid time off. We’re the only advanced country that doesn’t have a policy guaranteeing paid vacation time. We’re the only country in the top fifteen most competitive that doesn’t have a paid sick days policy. We’re one of three countries out of 178 that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, let alone paid paternity leave. Meanwhile, we rank at number fourteen in hours worked. Democrats have been pushing for paid family leave and paid sick days, but they can wrap in paid vacation time to push for more guaranteed time off of work. Paid family leave would help bring more women into the workforce, relieve the cost burden on families and close the gender wage gap. Paid sick days at the state level have been shown to spur job growth and enjoy strong business support. And taking time off of work to decompress makes workers more productive.
At the very least, Democrats should be resisting the Republican push to keep sequestration spending levels in a “clean” CR funding bill. But they should think about playing offense and pushing for some policies that could do a lot for the economy.
What would you include in the list of things Democrats should demand? Leave a suggestion in the comments or with the hashtag #DemDemands!
John Nichols on the federal workers bearing the brunt of the shutdown politics.
Larry Summers. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
On Sunday, Larry Summers sent President Obama a letter withdrawing his name from consideration to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, and progressives did rejoice. The news came after a protracted and heated debate, particularly for a role that doesn’t tend to get a lot of hearts racing, over who should take over when Ben Bernanke leaves in January. The contest was reportedly between Summers and Janet Yellen, who currently serves as vice-chair for the Fed.
The argument in Yellen’s favor was twofold. She would be the first woman to ever lead the central bank, breaking a glass ceiling in economics, a world with many such ceilings. President Obama has long voiced a commitment to diversity, and here was an opportunity to bring some to a place that hasn’t seen much in its leadership (even though nearly half of the Fed’s employees are women). But she is also an easy appointment: she is eminently qualified, with more than a decade of experience at the Fed, an impeccable track record on predictions, and a mind to continue the current policies that many economists say are helping the slow economic recovery along. Summers, on the other hand, is cozy with Wall Street, which could throw a wrench into meaningful financial reform as Dodd-Frank is rolled out, and doesn’t have a great track record on predictions, particularly about the crisis.
There’s also the problem that Summers got in hot water for implying that women are less inherently able to excel at science, making his appointment instead of a historic first female nominee even more of a slap in the face.
Yet President Obama apparently resisted calls for Yellen, backing his man Larry, until it became clear that the fight to confirm Summers would be one he would lose. In his letter, Summers explains that the confirmation would be “acrimonious.” This became clear when at least five Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee said they would vote against even bringing his nomination to the floor, a coalition of progressive groups spearheaded by the National Organization for Women and Ultraviolent pushed hard against Summers’s nomination, and more than 450 economists signed onto a letter to support Yellen’s candidacy. All this to get him to drop a less qualified man for a more qualified woman.
If Yellen was such an obvious choice, then why did Obama support Summers? The argument in his favor, from the Obama camp anyway, was that he is Team Obama, through and through. He’s a familiar person, having been director of the National Economic Council in the administration and acting as a close adviser during the crisis. He’s also been in the elite world of Democratic economic policymakers for a while, having been around for the Clinton administration as well as deputy Treasury secretary. The Obama administration does not like new blood.
Obama seemed less comfortable with a newcomer. The argument against Yellen has been made mostly through whispers by advisers and others that she lacks “gravitas.” Or perhaps it’s that she is too independent of a thinker, pushing her colleagues toward better policies, or is too well prepared. Basically, she appeared to be twice as good but still fall short.
This is why the fight over whether the Fed chairmanship—which Yellen may still not get if the Obama administration wants to prove it can’t be pushed around—became more than the sum of its parts. It is a perfect parable about the enormous gulf between a stated commitment to increasing diversity and actually diversifying. President Obama has touted his record on diversity, pointing to appointments such as Hillary Clinton as secretary of state or Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of health and human services, as well as his strong track record of getting female judges confirmed to the courts. And when some pointed out that his second-term cabinet was shaping up to be just as male as the first, he asked that we “wait until they’ve seen all my appointments…before they rush to judgment.” He told us, “We’re not going backwards” on diversity, “we’re going forward.”
We waited, and now it’s time to judge. As Annie Lowrey reported for the Times in August, Obama is barely keeping up with Bill Clinton’s record. Women hold about 35 percent of cabinet-level posts in Obama’s administration, compared to 41 for Clinton. As of June 2012, 43 percent of his appointees were women, about the same as under Clinton. Male appointees outnumbered women at eleven of fifteen federal departments, and in some, such as the Departments of Justice, Defense, Veterans Affairs and Energy, they outnumbered them by about two to one.
Obama has also missed some previous opportunities to make important female appointments. Many had hoped he would replace Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner with a woman such as current Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs Lael Brainard, former adviser Christina Romer, or even Yellen, but instead he picked Jack Lew. There was hope he would also name Michèle Flournoy to head the Pentagon (instead we got Chuck Hagel) or Alyssa Mastromonaco or Nancy-Ann M. DeParle to be chief of staff (instead we got Denis McDonough).
The thing is, increasing diversity isn’t easy, and it’s not just because the pipeline of talented women pushing for the top sometimes runs dry. It’s because men have dominated the upper echelons of society, be it policymaking or otherwise, for centuries, and therefore bringing in more women means reaching outside the close at hand, the people you already know, those who you might already be friends with.
Obama has a boys’ club problem. Larry Summers was reportedly playing golf with the president while the debate raged about who would get the pick. We can be sure that Yellen didn’t get such access—of the sixteen people who most frequently play golf with the president, not a single one is a woman. Every journalist has given off-the-record access to is a man. And then there’s the famous photo of a nearly all-male group of senior advisers briefing the president, except for the leg of Valerie Jarrett. In some ways it’s understandable that most of the people who surround the president are men. Many of the already powerful and successful in this country are. But a commitment to diversity has to be proactive, going beyond the boundaries of the in club to find those who haven’t been invited yet.
Yellen, in many ways, isn’t even the best example of that. After all, she is a nearly perfect candidate. She’s been in influential roles for at least a decade and was in the mix of the Clinton administration. Many supported her just on the merits, not even because she would break down a barrier for women. Often the choice isn’t so clear. Sometimes a consideration for diversity, for bringing in outside voices to lead our institutions, tips more balanced scales in the favor of the woman or the person of color instead of the white man. President Obama tells us that he’s committed to diversity. But he, and others who say they want more women involved, has take the opportunities that arise to follow through. We just saw how that that still can be.
John Nichols applauds the populist rebellion that derailed Larry Summers.
Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Hanna Rosin, declarer of the end of men, has now declared the end of the patriarchy. In an article on Slate that is adapted from a new epilogue to her book about the demise of the male gender, she reflects on the fact that “elite feminists…cling to the dreaded patriarchy” and have an “irrational attachment to the concept of unfair,” unable to admit that women have won and society’s sexist barriers are obliterated.
The problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem like Rosin has a solid working concept of what feminists mean when they talk about the patriarchy. In her own piece she brings up examples of the patriarchy but declares them to be something else.
Patriarchy is a lack of options for working parents. Rosin should know this herself. She recounts her own struggle to balance work and family. “[A]fter the birth of my first child, I decided to work four days a week, a capitulation that sank me into a terrible depression,” she writes.
I suppose the patriarchy was lurking somewhere in my subconscious, tricking me into believing that it was more my duty to stay home with our new baby than my husband’s. But I didn’t see it as a “duty.” I wanted to stay home with her, and I also wanted to work like a fiend. It was complicated and confusing, a combination of my personal choices, the realities of a deadline-driven newsroom, and the lack of a broader infrastructure to support working parents—certainly too complicated to pin on a single enemy.
There really is an identifiable enemy here. The reason the workplace, and our policies that impact the workplace, don’t accommodate parents is because they are still structured around a time when women’s domain was the home and men went off to work with children taken care of by someone else. (This is true even despite the fact that many women, particularly low-income women and women of color, have always worked.) That structure has led to “our appalling lack of paid maternity leave,” as Rosin puts it, because workers are thought to be male and not need time to recuperate from labor or care for an infant. Patriarchy has always said that public space and all that comes with it—money, influence, power—belongs to men. Women may make up nearly half of the workforce, but if you looked at our workplace policies you wouldn’t know it.
And yes, it is in fact the patriarchy that makes you think that it’s more your duty than your husband’s to care for your children. It’s natural for a parent to want to spend time with a child. But there’s a difference between that longing and the disproportionate burden women face to be the ones to make it work. Men are rarely asked to change their career paths to factor in the work of raising a child—to their detriment as well as women’s!—because, again, patriarchy says men are workers and women are caretakers.
Patriarchy is also the devaluing of the work that women do. Rosin refuses to see gender segregation in the workforce as a choice imposed on women but instead “women as agents making intelligent decisions about what jobs are available in this economy.” Accepting that premise for a moment, it’s still true that while women dominate some growing industries, the jobs they hold pay pitiful wages. A lot of them are in low-wage positions such as home health aides. They make up 95 percent of these jobs that pay about $10 an hour at the median. Home health aides aren’t even protected by federal labor laws, because the work has been deemed to consist merely of “companionship services,” not to be a job at all. They also tend to be nurses, not doctors—two of the top five jobs women hold are in nursing—making under $65,000 a year compared to more than $166,400 for physicians and surgeons. Women’s work is still thought to be done out of the goodness of their nurturing hearts and therefore not something to be paid well. Why would rational actors choose to be paid poorly if they had better options available?
Patriarchy is the fact that when men enter jobs crowded with women, they can command higher wages. In the twenty jobs most commonly held by women, men earn more in all but two. Women are more than 80 percent of the country’s elementary and middle school teachers, for example, but make just $933 a week at the median, while a male teacher will make $1,022. Women also hold a majority of the growing low-wage service sector jobs in retail and fast food that offer little pay, few benefits, and erratic schedules. Yet even so men make more as cashiers or waiters.
And patriarchy is the lack of women in positions of power. Even if women were funneling themselves into a select few industries out of a spidey sense for growing industries, we should still expect them to at least be able to rise in those industries. Yet they make up 15.5 percent of executive officers in food services, 15.8 percent in healthcare and 17.9 percent in retail. Women’s representation among the highest-ranking jobs, in fact, hasn’t been on an upward trajectory, as Rosin implies. Last year was the seventh in a row that didn’t see the numbers budge for women on corporate boards—they hold just 16.6 percent of seats at Fortune 500 companies—and the third year of stagnation in which women were just fourteen of the top CEOs. It’s no secret that women still hold less than a quarter of all the political offices across the country even though we’ve had the vote for ninety-three years.
Patriarchy greedily holds onto power and only bestows it on (almost always white) men. It hoards the most respected and best-paid jobs for men. It pays men more—even when they do “women’s work.” It refuses to change the structures of our workplace and our society to accommodate the fact that women are no longer kept at home to tend hearth and home. Women have made remarkable progress over the past half-century and feminists have celebrated some important victories. But that can’t diminish from the incredible load of unfinished work to truly change the patriarchal system we live in.
Maria, a former domestic worker, talks about her experiences in San Francisco, Monday, May 5, 2008. Maria came to San Francisco to be a caregiver for a family from her hometown in southern Mexico. The family paid her way here, then kept her in a house for a year, where she cared for a 78-year-old wheelchair-bound woman. They paid her $300 a month but sent her check directly to her family, so she never had any money. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Fifty years ago on August 28, thousands of protesters descended on Washington, DC. The protest is colloquially known as the March on Washington, but it’s worth remembering its full name: “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In fact, the economic repression people of color experienced played a central role in galvanizing the march and in the demands the marchers made.
The protesters laid out ten concrete demands, half of which had economic implications: legislation barring discrimination in public housing, a federal jobs training and employment program, an increase in the minimum wage, an act barring discrimination by governments and contractors, and an expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) “to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.”
Progress on these economic demands has been slow and bumpy. But that last bullet-point is a very concrete dream that has been denied. While the FLSA has been expanded since then, a whole category of workers—who are also disproportionately people of color—are still left out.
The Fair Labor Standards Act created a floor for wages and a ceiling on hours with overtime pay for extra work. But when it was crafted in the 1930s, certain workers were deliberately edged out of its protections. As Suzanne Mettler writes in Dividing Citizens, it was the first such bill to be written in gender-neutral terms, but it still defined which occupations fell under its purview in such a way that “the majority of low-paid women workers and non-white men, those who could have benefited most from national labor standards, were exempted from coverage.” Women’s retail and service jobs were mostly left out, as were agricultural jobs often held by people of color. Excluding the latter meant that “50 percent of southern African American employees, men and women,” were omitted. “The combined exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers also omitted near majorities of ‘Mexican American and American Indian women and men, as well as substantial numbers of Filipino-Americans and other Asian Americans’ from coverage,” Mettler writes.
These exclusions were driven by political considerations—Southern Democrats were staunchly against regulating agriculture—and constitutional considerations about the reach of the government’s ability to regulate commerce and the assumption that much of women’s domestic work was a different category altogether. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself stated, “No law ever suggested intended a minimum wages and hours bill to apply to domestic help.” They weren’t considered to be workers but simply “help.”
Forty years later, Congress expanded the FLSA to cover domestic workers. But a carve-out was again included that still left many out. Those who provide “care and fellowship” to the elderly and disabled were omitted. This has since been dubbed the companionship exemption. While in theory this should only exclude those who simply provide some company to the homebound, it has been so widely interpreted that homecare workers who bathe, feed and intensively care for the elderly and disabled find themselves without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2007, the Supreme Court told Evelyn Coke, a black homecare worker, that her employer was acting legally when it refused to pay her overtime despite her long hours.
Coke is the typical face of a homecare worker: women of color predominantly hold these jobs. More than 90 percent are female and half are people of color. And while they are a rapidly growing part of the workforce—nearly 2.5 million people are homecare workers, making up one of the largest occupations, and the number of jobs is expected to grow by 70 percent over the next decade—and the work can be incredibly physical and happen at any hour, they make just $9.70 per hour at the median, or $20,170 a year. Nearly 40 percent make so little that they have to rely on public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid to survive. Many report working extremely long hours yet being denied any overtime pay—and thanks to the companionship exemption, they have no legal recourse.
The marchers who commemorated the 1963 event this past Saturday have some reason to feel optimistic about progress on this one aspect of the ten original demands: President Obama promised in December 2011 that the Department of Labor would undo this loophole, and he introduced a new rule that would extend the FLSA to homecare workers. Yet action is still stalled. The DOL extended the public comment period twice despite the fact that 80 percent of the comments received were in favor. A report from the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards notes that the change “remains stuck down the regulatory ‘rabbit hole’ with no certainty of when it may emerge.”
Ai-Jen Poo, the head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance who has been working tirelessly on changing this rule, recently told The Nation’s Josh Eidelson that she hopes to see the change come through by the end of this month. Homecare workers can’t wait any longer. They provide a vital service that will increasingly be in demand as the baby-boom generation ages and needs care. Including them in labor protections is one small part of following through on the demands for racial justice made a half-century ago.
(Courtesy of Flickr.)
Judith Warner published a fantastic, long look in The New York Times yesterday following up on the so-called “Opt-Out Generation”: the women who got prestigious degrees and high-powered jobs and then left it all behind to be stay-at-home mothers. This meme gripped the country ten years ago with the idea that feminism had really just opened the door for women to choose home life. Warner finds that today they often have regrets, try to re-enter the workplace yet struggle to do so and do not have rosy family lives.
But perhaps the most interesting part of her article is the men. Many tweeted about how terrible the husbands seem. While in the end all three women ended up with husbands who just want them to be home, do the laundry and be happy about it, they didn’t start out that way. It seems that opting out changed their relationships, mostly for the worse.
Warner follows three women and all three found this to be true. Kuae Kelch Mattox had an “egalitarian” marriage in which both partners moved wherever one got a good job offer and both shared household chores and caring for the kids. But after Mattox decided to stay home with their children, her husband started wanting her to “try putting some more time into their home,” Warner writes. He tells Warner he wishes his wife would take on picking up around the house, doing laundry and cleaning. Carrie Chimerine Irvin at first felt she had struck an “unstated bargain” that her husband would earn and she would care for children, but found that he also seemed to think that “the couple’s mutual mess was now seen as her concern.” Even after she reduced her work schedule, Sheilah O’Donnel found herself in nasty fights with her husband over laundry and childcare, and her husband told her, “All this would be easier if you didn’t work.” She dropped out to care for kids, but when she decided to get a job with a nonprofit to boost her self-esteem, it was the final straw in their marriage. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things—family, and ultimately, her marriage,” her husband said.
This anecdata is confirmed by larger surveys. Pamela Stone interviewed these opt-outers and found that “the women’s husbands…were often changed by their wives’ years at home,” Warner writes. In the early 2000s, the women reported that their husbands were “studiedly neutral” about whether they should maintain a career or stay at home—nearly every single one. But a decade later, most of the women Sylvia Ann Hewlett interviewed said their husbands landed firmly in the pro-stay-at-home camp. Stone says in her recent interviews, “I’m hearing more, ‘My husband really prefers that I be home.’ ” The women report finding themselves suddenly living in a traditional household.
Warner herself interviewed opt-out women and found creeping traditionalism among their relationships as well. “Once they gave up work,” she says, they went from “being their husbands’ intellectual equals into the one member of their partnership uniquely endowed with gifts for laundry or cooking and cleaning.”
It seems, then, that the actual circumstance of having a wife stay home changes men from being egalitarian to being far more traditional in their expectations of what they should get from their wives. Chimerne Irvin comments, “I think a big issue is that we both want to be taken care of at the end of the day, and neither of us has any energy to take care of the other. It’s the proverbial ‘meet me at the door with a martini and slippers.’ Don’t we all want that?” In fact, we do all want that—and men may get overly used to it when they get it.
This is not the first example of family arrangements heavily influencing men’s views of women. A recent study found that men who have stay-at-home wives also bring a different outlook to the office. Researchers found that compared to men in more equal arrangements, these husbands “are more likely to exhibit attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that are harmful to women in the workplace.” In other words, it makes their views toward female colleagues take a turn for the sexist. They more frequently deny promotions to qualified women, view women in the workplace unfavorably, think that more female workers make things run less smoothly and find organizations with women in charge less attractive.
Another recent study goes back even further, to childhood. Researchers found that boys who grow up just with sisters are 15 percent more likely to be conservative in their views of women’s roles. Why? They speculate that these boys grow up watching their sisters be assigned more housework, thus learning that chores are women’s work. Boys who just grow up with brothers share the load. Family structure when these boys are young informs how they view women later in life.
We like to endlessly discuss the impact that women’s choices about how they solve the work/family equation has on children, the workplace and even the feminist movement. But rarely do we discuss the way choices at home also mold men. It’s clear that the personal becomes political for men as well. When a couple makes a decision to adopt a traditional model for their family, it changes their expectations of each other. And then it ripples outward. It’s not just that women who opt out of the workforce change the way we think of female employees and women’s choices. The structure of men’s relationships changes the way they treat the women around them and the perameters of those choices. We might want to pay more attention to that, too.
Can Chris Christie change the gun control debate?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. gestures during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Those of us who have been pushing for better work/family policies know the story of how we almost had universal childcare all too well. In 1971, Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act on a bipartisan vote. It would have meant the first step toward a universal childcare system, offering all parents a free, high-quality place to send their kids while they worked. As Nancy L. Cohen reports, Congress authorized five times what it currently spends on Head Start to finance the program.
Then, before President Nixon signed the bill, the evangelical right staged an intense backlash as part of the brand new culture wars, which wormed its way into Nixon’s ear through special assistant Pat Buchanan. Nixon ultimately vetoed the bill, saying it would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Thus the “family values” crowd was born and the bipartisan idea that the government should support working women by taking some of the parenting burden off their shoulders died.
That idea, though, is now seeing some surprising signs of life. First, President Obama took many by surprise in announcing a push for universal preschool in his most recent State of the Union address. His plan looks somewhat similar to the one proposed by Walter Mondale more than four decades ago in that it establishes a national system of childcare and preschools that would eventually be affordable to all families, covering kids from zero to when they enter kindergarten. Obama has been mostly promoting this on the solid research showing how beneficial this would be to the country’s children—and therefore society and the economy at large—but the impact on working parents is unmistakably a huge piece of this puzzle.
The ball kept rolling in a surprising way a few months later when Republicans decided to get in on the work/family game. They introduced and passed the Working Families Flexibility Act in the House. True, the bill did nothing that the name might promise. Rather than guaranteeing today’s workers more paid time off, it would simply allow employers the option of providing workers with “comp time” instead of overtime pay when they work more than forty hours a week. It came with few checks on employers’ ability to push their workers into this option and then decide that they can’t actually take requested time off. And true, it’s not an old idea—Republicans have surfaced this plan, which would essentially weaken overtime labor laws, in 1996, 1997 and 2003. But it’s telling to watch the opposition to workers’ rights and staunch defenders of the traditional family scramble to find a way to be relevant in the heating debate over work/family issues.
The most blatant effort in this growing political movement, however, was House Leader Pelosi’s new women’s agenda announced late last week. While the “Economic Agenda for Women and Families” being put forward by Pelosi, Representative Rosa DeLauro and a host of other House Democratic women strings together many bills that they have already introduced—the Paycheck Fairness Act, a minimum wage hike, paid sick leave and paid family leave among them—it does so under the guise of seeking to fix the broken work/family equation for women. This is an issue that had been deemed too politically dangerous for some time. President Obama tabled a bill guaranteeing paid sick leave in his first term, and while Michelle Obama was rumored to be interested in taking on these issues, she was steered toward less controversial issues.
None of this means anything is going to pass anytime soon. Universal childcare and preschool will cost significant sums of government money, even if they will more than pay for themselves in the future—anathema to many in Congress, and not just Republicans. As paid sick leave bills inch forward at the city and state level, so too do pre-emption bills that block local governments from enacting that legislation. We now have three states with paid family leave programs—welcome to the fold, Rhode Island!—but that pace has been more than glacial.
What it does mean is that this is an issue we can no longer ignore. Women have for too long been told that their guilt, stress and sometimes failure at trying to be a super mom and a model worker is a personal issue that has to be worked out among families. But now lawmakers are acknowledging that we all have a responsibility to make the workplace adapt to the reality that women make up half the workforce. Our families and our workplaces look different today than they did a half-century ago. Politicians have finally woken up to that fact. Significant action may not be very far behind.
The struggle of balancing work with family is not just a women’s issue—men also want better balance between the two.
Women don’t all yearn for the boardroom; some are instead focused on the rec room, Catherine Rampell reported in a front-page and much-discussed New York Times article yesterday. She paints a picture of harried women dying to get a little extra time away from the office to spend with their kids, focusing mostly on the story of Sara Uttech, a working mother in Fall River, Wisconsin. In Rampell’s piece, Uttech’s husband, and all husbands, appear just off frame. As Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote, “They are but a parenthetical, maybe an em dash.” Quite literally—men are mentioned as an aside, background noise in their children’s lives. When Uttech’s husband’s caregiving duties are mentioned, it is to say that the working mother “gets a lot of help: from her husband, Michael,” among other family members who pitch in. Fathers might as well be hired hands.
Rampell is not alone in assuming that mothers parent and dads baby-sit. The Census Bureau has made the same assumptions, calling mothers “designated parents” and counting the time fathers care for their kids as merely stepping in for said designated parent.
Our expectations for men and women once they have kids directly informs workplace policy. Take paid family leave. Asymmetrical assumptions about men and women play out on the global stage: while 175 other countries offer paid maternity leave (the United States not among them), only sixty-six of those offer fathers paid time off. Here at home, parents are only guaranteed twelve weeks of unpaid leave for the arrival of a new child. But while thirty-two states go above the federal floor to offer more help, just fourteen of them extend leave to fathers.
Little wonder, then, that American fathers rarely take time off. In a survey of nearly 1,000 working fathers with at least one young child, the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that over 15 percent didn’t take any time off when their child arrived. Only one in twenty took more than two weeks off, and a mere one in 100 took more than four weeks.
Does that mean fathers don’t want to take time off? No. If paid family leave policies include men, men use them. California’s paid family leave program, which includes dads, has significantly increased the amount of time fathers take off, from 35 percent before the law to 76 percent after. Among fathers in low-income jobs, the average length of leave has nearly tripled.
The effects go beyond welcoming a new child into a home. One longitudinal study found that fathers who took two or more weeks after their children were born were more involved in the direct care of those kids nine months later.
But so long as workplace policies are designed for mothers to spend more time with their children and assume fathers don’t have such needs, dads will continue to take less time off, pushing women to be the ones to constantly adjust their work schedules to accommodate a family. That in turn leads to the assumption that it’s mothers who need flex time, part-time, family leave, sick leave, that they will escape from the traditional slog to spend time at home and that fathers will show up to work sixty hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Our policies have to break this cycle. And they can.
But we have to go even further than offering paid paternity leave. We have to make sure men are equally interrupting their jobs to care for kids. In Sweden, fathers can take up to 240 days of paid leave, but they must take at least two months off for the family to get any benefits at all. As a result, 85 percent of fathers take leave. This can transform the way employers see men and women and decrease the motherhood penalty women face. Once men are expected to take leave, these policies stop being women’s issues and just start being issues.
Men have a thirst for this shift as much as women do. Rampell notes that less than half of workers of either gender are actually striving for a job with more responsibilities. The fathers interviewed by Boston College placed a high importance on flexible work arrangements, valuing it over good advancement opportunities and high income. One study reported that fathers in two-earner couples feel significantly greater work-life conflict than mothers, a trend that has been rising rapidly. Half of the working fathers Pew recently polled said that it is difficult for them to balance their jobs and their families. It found “no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers.”
Ms. Uttech’s husband, the Times article reports, has seen his construction business “battered” by the housing crash, putting more importance on her earnings. Why, then, wouldn’t he step up the work to be done at home? Because no one expects, let alone encourages, him to.
It’s time that we take the gender out of parenting. That will take a lot of weight off of all parents.
Last night, sixty-four people were arrested for protesting a bill that will limit abortion access at one of North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” rallies.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Americans pay far more for maternity care and delivery than our peers in the developed world, as described in a lengthy article The New York Times published yesterday. But while the stories of the women in the piece end with delivered babies and enormous bills, the costs of having a child in this country continue after the hospital. All along the way, this country has made the cost of having children nearly prohibitive.
The costs of pregnancy have spiraled out of control in the United States. Charges for delivery have nearly tripled since 1996. Out-of-pocket costs have risen fourfold. The total price tag for a pregnancy and newborn care with a vaginal delivery is about $30,000, while it comes to $50,000 for a C-section. Women with insurance pay an average of $3,400 out of pocket, a large sum as it is. Yet over 60 percent of women with private plans that aren’t through their employers lack maternity coverage. Not to mention that nearly one in five women between the ages of 18 and 64 are uninsured. As one woman paying for private insurance told the Times, “I know that a C-section could ruin us financially.”
Two decades ago, the article points out, women didn’t usually pay anything except a small fee if they wanted extras like a private room or television. That’s more in line with what women in developed countries across the pond pay. Ireland guarantees free maternity care at public hospitals with the option to pay a fee for private deliveries. The average price for a vaginal delivery comes to about $4,000 in Switzerland, France and the Netherlands, but mothers are on the hook for little of that. Yet American women and European women have access to about the same care. One of the bigger contrasts? That more babies die in the United States in their first day of life than in sixty-eight other countries. The US ranks at number fifty in the world for maternal mortality.
The real difference driving costs is our healthcare system. Here at home, we pay for each individual test, procedure and medication, including a $20 splash of disinfectant on the umbilical cord, a bottle of which goes for $2.59 at Walgreens. In most other developed countries, by contrast, hospitals and doctors receive a flat fee for caring for a pregnant woman.
Unfortunately, the sky-high costs of giving birth to a new child don’t end when a woman leaves the hospital and pays the bill. As I reported last year, the lack of paid maternity leave in this country means dire financial straits for many new mothers. Workers are guaranteed only twelve weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act to take time off for a new child or to care for a sick family member, and while some get paid leave through their employers, more than 40 percent of new mothers only have access to unpaid leave. Even worse, less than half of private sector workers are even covered by the FMLA because of restrictions in the law.
The financial choices are very challenging for those who take unpaid leave. The Department of Labor came out with a new report on the FMLA and found that among those who received partial pay or no pay at all, 30 percent had to borrow money to get by, 35 percent dipped into savings meant for something else, the same percentage put off paying bills and nearly 85 percent had to limit their spending. 15 percent had to go on public assistance, and in fact, a quarter of all “poverty spells”—when someone falls into poverty for two months or more at a time—begin with the birth of a child. This struggle can also lead to bankruptcy: a 2006 study found that 7 percent of those filing cited the birth of a child as the cause.
Of course, the costs don’t even end there. Thanks to our lack of universal preschool and the little help we extend to parents who struggle to pay for childcare, finding a quality, affordable place to leave children when parents go off to work is nearly impossible for many families. And the cost of childcare here is pretty outrageous: full-time center care for an infant can reach as much as $15,000 a year. The cost for an infant and a 4-year-old is more than annual median rent in all fifty states.
Our developed peers again best us when it comes to paid leave and childcare. The United States is actually an extreme outlier when it comes to paid maternity leave: we are one of just three countries out of a total 178 that doesn’t guarantee paid time off. Fifty countries offer paid paternity leave. Meanwhile, twenty-one other countries increased spending on childcare faster than the US over the past two decades, from .35 percent of GDP on average to .47 percent, while we’ve fallen far behind, just spending .11 percent today.
The rest of the developed world has figured out how to make having a child a reasonable expense. They control medical costs and have nationalized healthcare. They guarantee paid family leave. And they find ways to make quality childcare within reach for most families. By failing on all of these fronts, the US is putting an enormous financial burden on new families.
Should Texas State Senator Wendy Davis run for governor?
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.