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Bryce Covert | The Nation

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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

The Global Domestic Workforce Is Enormous—and Very Vulnerable

The rights of domestic workers may be an important issue in the United States, but we’re far from alone in having growing ranks of workers who suffer from few labor protections and abusive working conditions. A new report out from the ILO yesterday sheds some much-needed light on what the global domestic worker workforce looks like.

Firstly, it’s huge. Just take a look at some of these figures:

The ILO report counts a conservative minimum of at least 52.6 million domestic workers across the globe as of 2010, accounting for just under four percent of all wage employment. It’s also getting bigger: that number nearly doubled since the mid-1990s, increasing by 19 million. The growth isn’t just because of a growing population, either—domestic workers’ share of total employment grew from 1.5 percent to 1.7 percent in the same time period. As the report notes, “If all domestic workers worked in one country, this country would be the tenth largest employer worldwide.” Domesticworkistan would be quite the global economic player. This is just a conservative estimate based on measurable data, however. Given the shadow market that many domestic workers operate in, that number could be as large as 100 million workers.

It may come as no surprise, too, that this workforce is mostly female. Women account for nearly 85 percent of all these workers. In fact, one in every thirteen female wage workers worldwide is a domestic worker. Domesticworkistan would also look a lot like Herland.

But just as domestic workers here at home often don’t enjoy the same labor protections as other workers and often work in low-pay, poor conditions, much of the global domestic worker workforce is left exposed to abuse and poorly remunerated:

A mere 10 percent of these workers have the same labor law protection as other workers. In fact, nearly a third work in countries where they’re completely excluded from labor laws.

It’s unsurprising, then, that these jobs offer little pay and few benefits. The report notes that these workers “typically earn around 40 percent of average wages in their country.” They often have no limit to the hours they work, are rarely entitled to rest periods, don’t make minimum wage and aren’t guaranteed maternity leave. More than half have no upper limit on the normal weekly hours that they are expected to work. Just under half aren’t entitled to any weekly rest period. Just over 40 percent are not entitled to any minimum wage. The percentage who are entitled to the same maternity leave as other workers is a bit more promising—nearly two-thirds work under such conditions. But over 35 percent have no legal entitlement to maternity leave at all, despite such a female-heavy workforce.

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Remember that these are just basic protections. This is strenuous work that is also vital to the functioning of our economy—and our lives. The report defines domestic workers broadly, as basically anyone who works in a private household. These are the child care workers, cooks, cleaners and elder care workers who allow others to go to work and know their loved ones are taken care of. It seems it would behoove all countries to pay these workers not just a minimum wage, but a living wage; to give them not only maternity leave, but paid time off; to give them more than twenty-four hours work of break time in a week.

Yet the report notes that adopting better labor practices seems to be slow-going. The organization adopted the Domestic Workers Convention and an accompanying Recommendation in the 100th session of the International Labour Conference in 2011, which are the first international labor standards devoted specifically to domestic workers. Since then, only three countries—Uruguay, the Philippines and Mauritius—have ratified the convention. Bolivia and Nicaragua’s parliaments have approved the convention, as has South Africa’s labor council, and twenty other countries have “initiated ratification procedures or are taking steps in this direction,” it notes. Over time there may be more countries, but I’d be shocked to see the United States end up on that list, given that we’ve also been holding out against the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—along with Sudan, Somalia and Iran.

For more on the war on low-income women, read Bryce Covert’s assessment of state-level gender politics.

Social Issues Are Economic Issues, Exhibit 1,463: Michigan’s Dual Agenda Slams Low-Income Women


Abortion rights advocates gather in Smith Park in Jackson, Miss. (AP)

We’re barely more than a week into 2013, but Michigan has been very busy lately. As a pre-holiday gift to workers, Governor Rick Snyder signed a “right-to-work” bill into law after the Republican-controlled state house passed it 58-51, making the payment of union dues voluntary for most unions and thus severely weakening their power. Just over two weeks later, Snyder signed another bill into law restricting abortion access for the state’s women. The bill prohibits telemedicine prescriptions for medical abortion, hampers clinics with new costly and challenging requirements and places new barriers between women and the procedure they seek through “coercion screenings.”

Two extreme measures, but ones that aren’t directly related, right? One is clearly about “economic issues,” the other about “social issues.” Yet those who are hurt by both are, as is so often the case, low-income women. Michigan has shone a spotlight on the inextricable link between economic and social issues when it comes to the right-wing agenda. And we can only expect more of this news from statehouses as the year progresses.

Michigan already holds the distinction of being one of the worst states for women’s pay equity. It ranks number seven at the bottom of the list, with women making just seventy-four cents for every dollar Michigan men earn. The right-to-work bill will only make this problem worse. The Economic Policy Institute has found that these laws lower wages for both union and nonunion workers in a state by an average of $1,500 per year. That’s a huge amount of money to lose for women who are already behind. Meanwhile, it finds no link between these laws and economic growth. In fact, if Michigan wanted to change its place at the bottom of the list for paying women equally, it would be promoting unionization. A study by Center for Economic and Policy Research found that unionization raised women’s wages by over 11 percent, or about $2 per hour, compared to non-union women. Being in a union makes a woman more likely to have health insurance or a pension than getting a four-year college degree.

The low-income women who will bring in less in the wake of the right-to-work law will also now likely have to shell out more money should they have an unwanted pregnancy. They already likely struggle to pay for abortion, as the state prohibits public funding for the procedure to women who are enrolled in state medical assistance program except if the pregnancy threatens her life or is the result of rape or incest. But the new bill will go further. The new regulations that abortion clinics will have to meet could be so costly that clinics could be forced to close their doors. That would mean women who seek abortions would have to travel farther away—an expense in itself, on top of the cost of taking any time off work. By also reducing access to telemedicine, even more women would be cut off from services. Low-income and rural women who don’t have doctors nearby are able to access safe and necessary abortion services remotely through telemedicine—but that’s now prohibited.

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This should already make you infuriated. But the worst part may be that Michigan is far from unique. Many other states pushed anti-union measures last year. Indiana also became a right-to-work state. New Hampshire and Minnesota pushed to join that group. Few can forget Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on collective bargaining rights. Arizona and South Dakota tried the same thing. Meanwhile, state capitols were also busy restricting women’s right to choose. According to the Guttmacher Institute, last year saw the second-highest number of abortion restrictions ever—ever in the country’s history—only bested by 2011, which still holds the record. Over half of those laws happened in just a handful of states, including some of the ones pushing anti-union measures like Arizona, Wisconsin and South Dakota.

Don’t expect 2013 to go any better. Half of all state legislatures now have veto-proof majorities, able to ram through their agendas without hindrance, up from thirteen only four years ago. All but three states, Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire, have one-party control. This means that Democrats run some states, but Republicans now have supermajority control in fifteen states, a lot more than the nine that Dems hold. See the map below:

The GOP has total control over the North Carolina legislature for the first time in over a century, won a two-thirds majority in Missouri and set a 147-year record for representation in Tennessee. It gained or expanded supermajorities in Indiana, Oklahoma and Georgia.

The groups behind Michigan’s right-to-work bill are vowing to push for the same measure in other states. The crushing tide of bills that attack reproductive rights is likely to roll on—four states already have plans to move ahead with such efforts. And low-income women will continue to be the primary victims of both efforts. That’s no coincidence—but it should embolden the opposition to work together in combating the right-wing state-level agenda.

For more on state-level poverty politics, check out Melissa Harris-Perry's panel segment from this weekend.

The Poor Still Can't Breathe Easy Post–Fiscal Cliff

We may not have avoided going over the fiscal cliff, but Congress did act to make a deal to undo some of the damage. For a good overview of what it did and did not include, read my Nation colleague George Zornick. Overall, it’s basically a mixed bag. Long before the deal was reached and passed, I had warned that the components of the fiscal cliff deal would hit the poor hardest. So how did they make out in the end? It’s a mixed bag for them too, but things are likely to get worse before they get better.

First, the good news. The biggest takeaway, perhaps, was for the unemployed: they saw a one-year extension in federal unemployment benefits. This will help keep many families out of poverty. In 2011 alone, unemployment insurance lifted 2.3 million people out of poverty. Unemployment remains painfully high, making these benefits still incredibly important to millions.

Another very important piece of the deal was a five-year extension of crucial tax breaks: the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The first two alone mean that 13 million families—and their 26 million children—will avoid paying an average of $843 extra a year in taxes. Specifically, 8.9 million families will avert a hike of $854 through the Child Tax Credit and 6.5 million will avoid a raise of $530 under the EITC. That’s not chump change when you struggle to put food on the table.

But one crucial tax break didn’t make it: The payroll tax holiday was allowed to expire. Unlike most income tax rates, which rise as income rises, the payroll tax is a fixed percentage. Letting it lapse means that nearly every worker will see taxes go up, but the pain will be felt most at the bottom. Two-thirds of those in the bottom twenty percent of income will be affected by it. For example, a worker earning less than $20,000 a year will pay about $100 more a year in payroll taxes—the equivalent of a family‘s groceries for a week. A bit further up the ladder, someone making $50,000 a year, about the national median, will pay $1,000 more, canceling out the $1,000 break she would get from other parts of the deal.

And one mustn’t forget that a big component of the fiscal cliff were the sequestration spending cuts, which have now simply been pushed back by two months. This was the across-the-board package of spending cuts totaling $1 trillion, equally divided between defense and non-defense discretionary spending. These are cuts that no one wants to see go through—they were meant purely as incentive to make Congress act on reducing the deficit. As Zornick writes, “the Democrats haven’t given anything away until they have,” but by simply by pushing these back, “Obama has set up another spending fight (in addition to the one over funding the government in March when the current continuing resolutions run out)—and one in which he doesn’t have the leverage of the expiring Bush tax cut rates.” The double whammy of trying to get Congress to raise the debt ceiling while also trying to keep it from torching the social safety net does not bode well for the poor.

If the cuts are implemented on non-defense discretionary spending, it will be devastating. These programs have already taken a beating, as $1.5 trillion in cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending over the next decade was already put into law last year. Three-fifths of that reduction will hit the non-defense side. Any further cuts will come on top of all of this to vital programs that are already suffering from a lack of funding. The poor will feel the biggest hit from reducing them further. A quarter of all non-defense discretionary spending goes to programs they rely on, from home energy assistance to Section 8 housing vouchers to the WIC nutrition and healthcare program for mothers and children.

Meanwhile, if there’s a “grand bargain” in two months that includes entitlement cuts, the poor should also be afraid. One proposal floating around during fiscal cliff negotiations was using a chained CPI to calculate Social Security benefits. As I wrote before, doing this would slam poor elderly women, reducing their benefits by $56 a month by age 80, what a woman at that age would spend on a week’s worth of groceries. By age 95, benefits will be reduced by what she would spend on two week’s worth of food. Yet these benefits represent basically the only source of income for nearly 40 percent of women over age 80 (and almost 30 percent of men).

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Another proposal that was floated was raising the Medicare eligibility age. Doing this would mean leaving as many as 270,000 elderly uninsured in 2021. The hope would be that of that number, those who live below the poverty line could sign up for Medicaid after it’s expanded by the Affordable Care Act. But given that many states are refusing to expand the program, over 164,000 could be stranded, unable to sign up for Medicaid or Medicare. Where will they turn when they inevitably experience the health problems older Americans face?

This was indeed a manufactured crisis, and the next one will be as well. So while Congress wrings its hands and gnashes its teeth, remember that they created this mess, particularly when the inevitable solution is to inflict more pain on the vulnerable.

Check out D.C. correspondent George Zornick’s breakdown of “The Good and Bad of the Fiscal Cliff Deal.”

Sandy Hook Must Push Us Toward the Collective and Away from Individualism

Americans understandably had a variety of reactions to the horrifying news of yet another mass shooting, this time at a school, on Friday. My own was at first complete horror—but, as for many of us, it slowly solidified into a resolve to do something concrete to stop the rising tide of mass shootings. What’s to be done to shield our children (and ourselves) from random violence such as this? Some have argued that arming teachers—indeed, arming as many individual citizens as possible—will make us safe. Others reacted by advocating that parents homeschool their children.

I can understand the motivation behind both reactions. This sort of violence is inherently random. The best protection often seems to be to do whatever you can to make yourself, and your children, as safe as possible. If that means owning a gun (or many), in the theory that you can stop any violence heading your way, so be it. If that means taking your children out of schools, which have become targets of violence, so be it.

But this is not the time for going further down the individualist path, for cutting ourselves off from the community we live in. This is exactly the time when we need to reinvest in what we can only do collectively, as a community. We need to come together in ways that can begin to respond to the horror visited upon Sandy Hook.

Accounts may eventually change, but as it stands now it seems appropriate to call many of the Sandy Hook teachers heroes, both those who survived and those who lost their lives. The body of Anne Marie Murphy was found covering those of her students in a final act to try to save them. Current reports say that the principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach ran into the hallway toward a hail of gunfire. Victoria Soto hid her students and then reportedly told the attacker that they were in the gym. Other teachers ushered their students into hiding places and kept them as quiet and calm as possible while the chaos was unfolding outside their doors.

These are the public school teachers who we so often vilify as lazy, overpaid and entitled. Yet these enormous acts of bravery reflect the smaller acts of everyday selflessness that comes with the job. They are not trained to run toward gunfire like police officers, but some of them did so on instinct anyway. I wasn’t surprised. Having taught first grade myself, I know that it’s hard to start, let alone stay, in that job without an overwhelming passion for serving the next generation. Teachers educate and shape our children, but we show our value of this service by paying elementary school teachers just $51,000 a year at the median, even though most positions require a Master’s degree.

In the wake of this stark reminder of not only how much trust we put in teachers to protect and develop our children, but how well so many of them respond to that call, we can better value them by remembering how much they sacrifice in efforts to reform our education system. We can better value these public servants with more respect and, yes, more pay.

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t react by taking our children out of the system altogether. As Dana Goldstein has written, the urge to homeschool “is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families.” It takes a certain lifestyle to be able to homeschool; removing all the children from the schools whose parents can afford to do so leaves everyone else to soldier on. It may even harm the educational performance of those left behind, as Goldstein points to evidence that low-income children’s test scores rise when they go to school with middle-class kids.

But it is also rooted in a dog-eat-dog mentality. Pulling your children out of the education system may keep them out of schools that could become the target for violence and may provide the exact education you want for them. But it leaves that system in neglect. It withers away the promise of an equal education for each and every child that our government is meant to make to its citizens.

We also don’t value teachers by handing them each a Glock. Mother Jones has concluded that more guns merely means more violence. Not to mention that none of the mass shootings the country has witnessed over the past thirty years were stopped by an armed hero standing up to the attacker.

The urge to confront mass killings by telling every American to purchase his or her own personal arsenal—a call many heed, as gun sales usually shoot up after a massacre—is a step toward individualism and away from a civilized society. Individually, in the face of unpredictable violence it can make sense to want to arm oneself to respond to what may come. But that means a lack of trust in our common goal of safety for all.

Agreeing to ignore the instinct to pick up more guns means trusting that the police will show up to answer your call, that you’ll be treated fairly by our criminal justice system, that our laws will be enforced in a way that truly prevents violence. Our system fails at many of these goals. But the alternative is each citizen being a private army of one, on the defense against all others around him.

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Just as with homeschooling, by giving up on our public safety systems we often starve them of the resources they need to adequately protect us. As I wrote in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, our deep distrust in government, and by extension the police force, doesn’t just lead us to pick up a gun. It leads us to slash police force budgets. In a follow-up post I acknowledged the many ways in which the police are rightly distrusted by many groups, particularly young black men. But part of the point of having a collective entity police the streets, rather than armed citizens, is that we are all responsible for it—and it, at least in theory, answers to us. We can reform these systems. We must reform these systems. There’s no accountability for an army of George Zimmermans.

And the evidence is becoming clearer: if we really want to hold the tide of mass violence at bay, we have to enact stricter gun control laws. That will mean that some citizens will have to lay down their arms or be stopped from purchasing more. An individual safeguard will have to be sacrificed so that we can protect our society overall.

President Obama acknowledged the need for coming together in his speech in Newtown. He spoke of how

this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

To paraphrase something I saw on Twitter in the frenzy of sharing that followed news of the tragedy, if our government can’t keep children from being homeless, hungry and in danger, what is it for? This is what coming together is for. It’s for educating our children together. It’s for ensuring that they’re safe, together. That’s the clearest lesson I can take from the painful tragedy last Friday.

In her latest post, Jessica Valenti writes that the well-being of all children is our collective responsibility.

In Fiscal Cliff Deal, Don’t Chain Grandma to Smaller Social Security Checks

News is out today that a deal to avert the fiscal cliff is nigh. The New York Times is reporting that President Obama’s latest offer, which is close to Speaker Boehner’s dreams and desires, will permanently extend the Bush tax cuts on income below $400,000 and raise them above that bracket. In return, there will be spending cuts. One big component of those cuts is a change in how Social Security benefits are calculated, shifting to using the chained CPI. What sounds like a complex accounting measure will mean a serious benefit reduction for those who are elderly and impoverished. And guess who will get hit hardest? If your guess rhymes with schwomen, you’re correct.

First, what is chained CPI? Currently Social Security benefits are adjusted to account for inflation, but there are many different measures of inflation. If the fiscal cliff deal includes a switch to a chained CPI, it will mean using a measure that tries to take into account human behavior in reaction to price increases—specifically, the substitution for something cheaper if the price of what you normally buy goes up. If provolone costs a fortune, perhaps I’ll switch to Swiss. Unfortunately for the elderly, they buy products that don’t behave much like provolone. As Dean Baker explains, the elderly spend more of their money on health care, which has seen costs far outpace the costs of cheese, and are also generally less likely to be able to make substitutions on what they buy.

A Brad DeLong put it yesterday, “’Chained-CPI’ is code for ‘let's really impoverish some women in their 90s!’” This change would end up reducing benefits by about .3 percent each year and will hammer elderly women. The National Women’s Law Center calculates that the typical single elderly woman would see her monthly benefits reduced by $56 at age 80. It reports that this is “an amount equal to the cost of one week’s worth of food each month.” Perhaps they’ll start substituting cat food for provolone. But these cuts get even worse over time as the reduction adds up. By age 95, the NWLC reports that her benefits will be down by over nine percent, the equivalent of nearly two weeks of food. Even with a “bump up” in later years, the graph below from the NWLC shows how quickly benefits will erode with the chained CPI:

This hurts women more than men because they are more likely to live longer and to be poor while they do so. The NWLC reports that a woman is twice as likely as a man to get to age 95, scrounging for ways to pay for two weeks of food. Their poverty rate is similarly high: single female beneficiaries age 80 and over have a rate of 16.2 percent, compared to just 9.4 percent for their male counterparts. Mike Konczal shows in the graph below that those with lower incomes rely on Social Security far more than their well-off peers:

It should come as no surprise, then, that Social Security represents virtually the only source of income for nearly 40 percent of women over 80, compared to just 28 percent of men. If these women see their monthly checks slashed, where do they turn when they can’t afford food at the end of the month?

This is not the only part of the impending deal that spells trouble for poor women. The Times also reports that it will include $100 billion in cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, or in other words, many vital domestic programs. But these programs have already been cut by $900 billion from laws enacted last year. As I’ve previously written, this spending may sound abstract but represents lifelines for many low-income Americans. Women disproportionately rely on these programs, particularly those such as the Women, Infants and Children program, Head Start and child care assistance.

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The deal isn’t all bad news: Obama is still insisting on stimulus money and the extension of unemployment benefits, a recognition that we’re still grappling with a severe economic disaster. But poor women make for a pretty pathetic bargaining chip after an election in which women helped usher Obama to victory.

Congress's deficit obsession is ignoring the real problem: unemployment. Check out William Greider's take here

Progress for Women Continues Flatlining at the Top Ranks of the Private Sector

After the election, word was that we had just lived through another Year of the Woman. After all, a record twenty women will now be serving in the US Senate next term, representing a fifth of all seats. We had previously failed to breach the 18 percent mark in that legislative body.

But women’s progress has stalled out somewhere else: the top of the private sector. The research organization Catalyst released its 2012 Census today, which tracks the number of women in executive officer and board director positions. Women held just over 14 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies this year and 16.6 percent of board seats at the same. Adding insult to injury, an even smaller percent of those female executive officers are counted among the highest earners—less than 8 percent of the top earner positions were held by women. Meanwhile, a full quarter of these companies simply had no women executive officers at all and one-tenth had no women directors on their boards.

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But as in the Senate, progress may be slow and even small percentages can be victories. Did this year represent a step forward? Not even close. Women’s share of these positions went up by a mere half of a percentage point or less last year. Even worse, 2012 was the seventh consecutive year in which we haven’t seen any growth in board seats and the third year of stagnation in the C-suite. Meanwhile, women may hold the majority of the jobs in growing sectors such as retail, healthcare and food service, but of the executive officers in those industries they represent less than 18 percent, under 16 percent and just 15.5 percent, respectively.

If this is the sign of the end of men or the richer sex, I fail to see how. Reversing these numbers may take time. But we’re not even on a steady uptick—we’re stuck on a plateau. Fortune tellers who tell us women are on track to dominate the economy need to explain how that can be if we aren’t seeing any movement in these top indicators. Representing half the workforce can still mean inequality if we aren’t breaking through to the top jobs.

Another problem facing women in power is our cultural obsession with "likability." Check out Jessica Valenti's take here. And sign up for Feminist Roundup, our weekly Nation newsletter. 

Dear Conservatives: Your Opposition to Family Planning Comes with a Huge Price Tag

Conservatives have long painted themselves as the guardians of fiscal sanity. But they have also fashioned themselves as the guardians of the innocent babies being preyed upon at Planned Parenthood. Even though abortions make up just 3 percent of the services Planned Parenthood provides—and many clinics don’t provide them at all because of restrictions placed on the funding they receive—conservatives have long held a legislative grudge against the organization and have even broadened their contempt to other family planning clinics.

That deep-held distaste for women’s health providers led Texas lawmakers last year to slash $73 million from all of its family planning services and shift the money to other areas of the budget. This blunt instrument hit all of the state’s women’s health providers, but was meant to target Planned Parenthood and deny it taxpayer dollars—even though the clinics that received state subsidies for care never performed abortions.

This may be in line with their staunch opposition to what they see as a baby-killer, but that ideology comes with quite the price tag. News has surfaced that for the two-year period between 2014 and 2015, poor women are expected to deliver nearly 24,000 babies that they wouldn’t otherwise have had if they had access to state-subsidized birth control. Those extra births will cost taxpayers as much as $273 million, with between $103 million to $108 million of that hitting the state’s general revenue budget alone. Much of the cost comes from caring for those infants through Medicaid.

Lawmakers may not care about what this means for the lives of the low-income women who are now bearing and raising children whose births they would have otherwise prevented had they had access to contraception. But conservatives, the fiscally responsible party, are now thinking twice about the budgetary implications. The New York Times reported last week that “a bipartisan coalition is considering ways to restore some or all of those family planning dollars, as a cost-saving initiative if nothing else.” It’s not like the budget hit should come as a surprise, however. When the cuts were initially debated, an estimate was circulated that they would lead to an extra 284,000 births at a cost of $239 million. Yet the cuts passed, “a price that socially conservative legislators were willing to pay in their referendum on Planned Parenthood,” as the Times reports.

And unfortunately, the ideological battle against Planned Parenthood will not be brought to a complete cease-fire, even in the face of these stark numbers. Planned Parenthood will almost certainly be excluded from any reinstated family planning funding because of an existing ban against taxpayer money going to providers who are “affiliated” with clinics that perform abortions, even if they don’t do so themselves. While there are other women’s health providers in the state, RH Reality Check’s Andrea Grimes set out to find out whether the hundreds of listings on Texas’s website actually provide the services women need. She found that “many of them don’t provide any kind of contraceptive care, don’t take Medicaid Women’s Health Program clients, or are simply misleading duplicate listings.”

And the ones that do offer the right services likely won’t be able to meet the huge increase in demand. Grimes cites a study that found that Planned Parenthood accounted for half of the state’s women’s healthcare, serving nearly 52,000 clients. The remaining providers mostly serve ten or fewer patients. That’s just not going to cut it for all of the women who now need to find care.

Continuing to deny funding to Planned Parenthood will keep costing the state, even if other clinics see their funding reinstated. To the tune of an estimated $5.5 million to $6.6 million as a result of paying for the entire women’s health program on its own, rather than receiving the 90 percent federal matching funds, as well as paying for a higher number of births that will have to be covered by Medicaid funds.

Texas is a huge state, so its case sticks out like a sore thumb. But it’s not the only one to go after family planning services and Planned Parenthood. As the Guttmacher Institute reports, last year some states felt compelled by the federal push to ban federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood to look at whether providers in their states that use private funding for abortion should be barred from receiving state funding or, in some cases, federal Medicaid reimbursements. Currently, six states prohibit some providers from receiving family planning funds and in three the restrictions apply to those that provide abortion or are affiliated with agencies that do.

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So conservative lawmakers across the country will now be faced with a choice: save the babies or save the budget. Because it’s clear that you can’t do both. Organizations that provide contraception—and, it must be said, abortions—not only do great service to the women who need to control their fertility and their lives. They do great service to taxpayers. By giving women access to contraception, publicly funded family planning organizations save us $3.74 for every dollar we spend in avoided Medicaid costs associated with unplanned births. Their services saved federal and state governments $5.1 billion in 2008.

As Texas has just found out, those aren’t imaginary numbers. They are very real. Whoever says that contraception and abortion aren’t economic issues should take a second look. They have a huge impact on women’s financial situations. But, perhaps higher on conservatives’ checklist, they have an enormous impact on the budget.

For more on the economics of reproductive rights, check out Bryce Covert on the Conservative birth rate panic. And sign up for Feminist Roundup, our weekly newsletter, here

Conservative Birthrate Panic: Our Hope for Better Work/Family Policies?

The ladies aren’t having enough babies and conservatives are sad. That was basically the gist of Ross Douthat’s column this weekend, which riffed off of new birthrate numbers from Pew showing that we’re at a record low. Douthat’s primary concern seems to be the false notion that demography is destiny—that our “demographic edge” means we can pwn all fellow nations and without it, a more fruitful nation is eating our lunch. (If this were true, Niger, which has the world’s highest birthrate, would have enslaved us all. We clock in at a meager 124.) But there is good reason for conservatives and progressives alike to be concerned about a falling birthrate. Many of our public policies, most notably the social safety net, are designed to have one generation support the older one—but that gets mighty top heavy with a declining number of people doing the supporting. As Douthat puts it, “Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs.” That’s real. Nancy Folbre even calculates that a parent who raises a child contributes $200,000 more to net taxes than a nonparent, given what that child will pay when it grows up.

So what can we do about bringing that rate up? Douthat goes off the rails when attributing the decline in births to a cultural “decadence” in which women can’t get beyond themselves to think about the future. But what’s exciting about Douthat’s column is that parts of it expose a place of common interest between liberals and conservatives that could further the feminist project of implementing real work/family policies in America.

After all, Douthat admits: “America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment.” While it feels like quite the understatement, he’s absolutely right. In a previous column he even recognized that “our policies and our institutions are increasingly out of date: they’re built for a world in which two-parent, single-breadwinner families were a near-universal norm, and they don’t take enough account of the mass entrance of women into the work force, or the mounting economic pressures on the American family.”

So now that we’re all in agreement that some government intervention is needed, where can we look for guidance? Douthat himself points across the pond, naming Sweden and France as places that have had success in bringing up their birthrates through public policy. But he can’t quite bring himself to spell out what that policy actually looks like.

Let’s take a close look at France’s example. Claire Lundberg, currently living in that country, wrote a dispatch for Slate outlining the entirety of France’s childcare policies. She explains, “In brief, the French government provides: 1) inexpensive municipal daycare, 2) tax breaks for families employing in-home child care workers, and 3) universal free preschool beginning at age 3.” It’s really a remarkable system. First, parents can enroll their children in a crèche, a government-run day care center that takes children starting at three months, is open during the entire work day and adheres to high standards set by the government in which at least half of the workers are required to have a specialized diploma. The cost is rock bottom: it’s on a sliding scale based on income, costing just .26 euros an hour for the poorest families.

But what about the families who don’t want to use a center? For them, the French government has a system of tax breaks for parents who hire a licensed nanny overseen by the government or another childcare worker. The rebates “often amount to about one-third of the total cost of care,” Lundberg reports.

Once the kids reach age 3, they are guaranteed a place in the country’s universal preschool system, which is open from 8:30-4:30 but often also offers daycare service afterward. While it’s not mandatory, the high quality and low cost mean that over 95 percent of eligible children attend.

What’s promising about such policies is that they have the effects desired by both the left and the right. The right, concerned about declining population (reasonable from a policy standpoint, unreasonable from a racial fear standpoint) sees births rise. Douthat notes that France is having more babies than we are right now. In fact, as Michelle Goldberg has pointed out, birthrates are basically doing just fine in countries like France that have these policies in place. “The societies where birthrates have plunged to dangerous levels—Russia, Catholic countries like Poland, Spain and Italy, as well as Japan and Singapore—are all places that make it very difficult for women to combine work and family,” she writes.

And that combination of work and family isn’t just good for babies. It’s really good for moms. Lundberg notes that France initially just paid women to stay home with their children, but in 2004 it shifted policy with the understanding that mothers wanted to go to work. These policies have made that an extremely viable option. Over 80 percent of mothers with one child are in the workforce, and even half of those with three or more children are able to get to the office.

This bipartisan spirit may not have gripped our lawmakers yet, but there’s more good news on that front: they have some serious support from the electorate, including Republicans. A new poll, out this week from Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group for the National Partnership for Women & Families, found that over 85 percent of voters think it’s important for lawmakers to consider taking action on family friendly policies, such as paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance, “to help keep families financially secure.” Almost two-thirds say it’s very important. This cuts across party lines. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans felt this way, as did 87 percent of independents and 96 percent of Democrats.

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It’s not surprising that average Americans are in favor of these policies. Nothing could hit closer to home. The same poll found that about three-quarters of voters have experienced work/family challenges.

If we’re going to finally see movement on policies that change the childcare care/work equation from a private struggle to a public concern, it’s going to take support from both progressives and conservatives. But it really shouldn’t be hard to bring the two together to push for policies that reflect the realities of our family structures and workforce makeup. We exist with two truths: Women want to work and families want to have children. If we don’t have policies that make it viable to do both, we present our citizens with an impossible choice. The outcome of that choice might make conservatives very nervous.

For more feminist takes on the economy, check out Bryce Covert’s coverage of domestic workers’ silent struggle. And sign up for Feminist Roundup, The Nation’s weekly newsletter, here.

When Domestic Workers Suffer, Our Economy Suffers


Reuters/Luke MacGregor

What kind of economy do we want in this country? This abstract question has been put to the test in concrete ways, most recently with the protests against Walmart. (To catch yourself up, read the fantastic coverage from fellow Nation writer Josh Eidelson.) As the nation’s—and the world’s—largest private employer, it has a huge impact on the economy. But perhaps more importantly, low-wage, low-benefit, unstable service sector jobs like those in Wally World are our economic destiny. So more than just the job quality for striking Walmart workers is at stake; the quality of one of the fastest growing job categories is also being decided.

There’s another area where this couldn’t be truer: domestic work. The nannies, elder caregivers and housecleaners of today inhabit a rapidly growing occupation. As the baby boom generation ages and women continue to seek work outside the home, these jobs will become even more critical—and in demand. No wonder that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that home care aide jobs will grow by 70 percent, far faster than most occupations, over the next decade. While harder to track, domestic workers’ jobs are also on course for that rate of growth.

So what do these jobs look like? Unlike the conditions at Walmart, which while not the most transparent company is still under the watch of federal labor regulators, domestic work is performed in the home, exempt from many labor laws and mostly made invisible.

Until now. The National Domestic Workers Alliance released a groundbreaking survey this week of over 2,000 nannies, caregivers and housecleaners in fourteen cities across the country (and in nine languages no less) to find out what they were paid, what benefits they were given, how they were treated and what recourse they had to report the abuse that continually crops up against such a vulnerable workforce.

The results paint an incredibly ugly picture. Nearly three-quarters of the workforce is paid less than $13 an hour. The median hourly wage is $10 an hour, with live-in nannies making just $6.76 an hour at the median. (For those following along at home, that last wage comes to just about $14,000 a year.) It’s no wonder, then, that they report enormous struggles to make ends meet. Sixty percent of these workers spend more than half of their income on housing. One in five reported experiencing times in the previous month when there was no food to eat in their households because they didn’t have the money to buy any. Nearly a quarter weren’t able to put away any money for savings.

The lack of benefits is just as stark. Sixty-five percent don’t have any health insurance, and a mere 4 percent—one out of every hundred workers—had insurance that was provided by their employers. Yet far from being the easy babysitting jobs Congress imagined these to be when they were excluded from labor laws in the 1930s, this is hard, physical work. Nearly 40 percent had suffered from work-related wrist, shoulder, elbow or hip pain in the last year. About a third of housecleaners had suffered from skin irritation, a third of nannies had gotten sick on the job and a third of caregivers had suffered a back injury. With no insurance, these injuries will either go untreated or mean astronomical medical bills.

While service sector workers suffer from unpredictable schedules that mean they can rarely plan their lives around their hours and often can’t get enough hours to make the money they need, working inside the home is a whole different ballgame. Given that few have contracts, the workload can balloon out of control. About a quarter of the workers were told to do work beyond their job descriptions in the previous week. Of these, nearly 70 percent weren’t given any extra pay for the increased time they spent working. And three-quarters didn’t think they were able to refuse the extra work—without labor protections and in such close quarters, they often fear retaliation and job loss. This is the Great Speedup on steroids.

These are the jobs that form the bedrock of our economy in more ways that one. At an event to mark the release of the data at the Ford Foundation yesterday, Linda Burnham, the research director for NDWA, pointed out, “Domestic work frees up the time of millions of others” to go into the workforce. But they are of course also a growing and in-demand service that can’t be outsourced. “This is the new work,” said David Roff of the SEIU. “This is the new normal.” Yet that new normal looks pretty dismal. The report is “a catalogue of many things that are wrong with our society in many ways,” said Ana Avendaño of the AFL-CIO, such as the lack of respect and dignity for all workers.

Releasing the study might seem like a small step when so many abuses have to be addressed. But it’s a vital one to take toward improving these jobs. As Avendaño put it, “Without it we can’t do the public policy work we need to do.” The first step is knowing exactly what’s happening in this workforce so that it can be addressed.

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The report could also been a boon to organizers. I spoke with Barbara Young of the NDWA, who herself has been a nanny for over seventeen years and has been working hard to organize her fellow domestic workers. She told me the report will be useful in that fight “because when we give it to our membership, each and every one of them should see themselves in it” and they can then be prodded to take a stand. She thinks the workers will be surprised to see how pervasive the conditions are, but it will help them know “they’re not alone.”

The report includes concrete steps to start addressing the horrors that it exposes, such as ending the labor law exclusions for these workers, educating employers and holding them accountable, better support for the families who need these caregiving services and creating “a more equitable economic environment for all low-wage workers.” Because low-wage work is the fastest growing post-recession category. If these jobs don’t pay enough to keep people out of poverty, we’re all in big trouble. That economic bedrock will look more like quicksand.

For more on the fight for a living wage, check out Josh Eidelson’s coverage of the Walmart worker strikes.

Americans Want to Raise the Minimum Wage

Voters didn’t just send President Obama back to the White House on Election Day. They also voted to raise the minimum wage in three different cities. Albuquerque, NM raised its minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.50 per hour, and it will automatically adjust to keep pace with the cost of living in future years. San Jose, California, raised its minimum wage from $8 per hour to $10, and it will also adjust automatically. Long Beach, California, went even further, not only giving hotel workers a living wage adjustment to $13 an hour, but also guaranteeing them five paid sick days per year. The first two raises alone will impact an estimated 109,000 workers.

Yet action to raise the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is completely stalled at the federal level. It’s been stuck for over three years and it still isn’t indexed to inflation. That wage adds up to a pitiful $14,500 a year, not enough to make rent in any state. It’s over $3,000 below the poverty line for a parent with two kids. Its purchasing power is 13 percent lower than in 1979. Yet the average minimum-wage worker earns about half of his or her family income.

Voters’ decision to up the pay for minimum wage workers couldn’t have come at a better time. A report released today from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows income inequality has spread like a rash across all fifty states, with the average income of the top 5 percent of households now 13.3 times the income at the bottom fifth. The biggest cause of this gulf identified in the report is the growth in wage inequality. “Wages at the bottom and middle of the wage scale have been stagnant or have grown only modestly for much of the last three decades,” the report notes. “The wages of the very highest-paid employees, in contrast, have grown.” This phenomenon is thanks to a variety of causes, but a big one is a failure to raise the minimum wage. The report’s first recommendation for fixing this mess? Raising and indexing the minimum wage.

It would make a huge impact in the lives of the millions of minimum wage workers. The CBPP calculates that a mere twenty-five-cent increase in the minimum wage would mean an extra $520 a year for a full-time worker. If one plan to gradually raise the floor to $9.80 by July 1, 2014 were enacted, 28 million workers would get a raise of nearly $40 billion in additional wages.

And it will have an impact on more and more workers in our new post-recession economy. A recent report from the National Employment Law Project found that mid-wage occupations lost the most jobs during the recession, but during the recovery low-wage jobs have grown the fastest—nearly three times as fast as mid- and high-wage jobs. We’re swapping out middle class work for minimum wage jobs. That makes a raise in the minimum wage even more urgent.

The electorate writ large would agree. Election Day wasn’t the first time voters have approved a raise. As NELP reports, “When ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage reach the voters, they have in almost all cases been approved by substantial majorities.” All three of Tuesday’s referendums passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote or more. And raising the minimum wage isn’t just supported by a majority of voters in select cities. In post-election polling, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that a huge plurality of voters are for it. Nearly 70 percent of respondents support a raise, with 47 percent strongly in favor. A mere quarter stood against it.

Our economic times demand a raise in the minimum wage. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that it could increase GDP by about $25 billion and create approximately 100,000 net new jobs. Perhaps even more importantly for lawmakers, though, is that American voters also demand it. What’s the excuse for failing to give workers enough money to live on?

As Walmart workers demand higher wages, the superstore is cracking down. Check out Josh Eidelson's coverage here

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