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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

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

The Poor Will Be the First Over the Fiscal Cliff

The fiscal cliff may not be a real cliff, but jumping off it could be a catastrophe for the poor. Absent action from Congress and President Obama, come January 1, 2013, the Bush tax cuts, Obama’s payroll tax cut and extended unemployment insurance expire just as spending cuts from the sequester kick in. (To recap, in order to get Congress to lift the debt ceiling last year, President Obama formed a Congressional committee that was supposed to recommend ways to cut $1.5 trillion from the deficit. If it failed, “sequestration” would kick in—$1 trillion in automatic spending cuts split evenly between defense and non-defense spending, with Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare mostly protected, coinciding perfectly with the other expirations on January 1. The committee never came through, so now we’re facing down the cuts.) It’s not a pretty picture, although some have found silver linings. My Roosevelt Institute colleague Mark Schmitt is hopeful that real tax reform waits on the other side of the big leap. Jonathan Chait argues that the impact will be gradual enough that Obama can delay or cancel out most of it. Some Democrats, including Representative Peter Welch of Vermont and Howard Dean, think it’s worth going over the cliff in order to force Congress’s hand in getting the budgetary house in order.

These are all potential upsides of going over the fiscal cliff, but the downside for the country’s poorest would likely be very harsh. First, the budget cuts from sequestration will hit the poor incredibly hard—even if they will not represent a majority of the revenue raised. The term “non-defense discretionary spending” will warm few cockles of the heart. But it’s an incredibly important portion of the budget. Ethan Pollack of the Economic Policy Institute broke it down in the graph below:

As you can see, this money represents public investment: in education, transportation, children’s health, etc. And many of these programs directly impact the poor. Housing assistance, child care and education, nutrition assistance, home heating assistance and income security for the blind, disabled and aged all together make up 17 percent of this spending—more than the largest category in that chart. This money goes to job training, Title X family planning services and Head Start, among other things. It’s anything but discretionary for those who rely on these critical programs.

And they’ll get pummeled by these automatic cuts. According to a letter from the Obama administration released in July, the cuts will mean nearly 100,000 children losing Head Start services and the elimination of child care assistance for 80,000 others, for starters. That’s a lot of pain and suffering on the other side of the cliff.

But the impact on the poor doesn’t stop there. They’ll also be hurt by the tax cuts that are set to expire at the same time. Overall, the loss of the Bush tax cuts for income, capital gains and the estate tax will hit rich people harder, as the top 20 percent would see their effective tax rate increase an average 5.8 percentage points, while the bottom 20 percent would see an increase of only 3.7 points. But the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, credits aimed at low- and moderate-income Americans, were expanded under the 2009 stimulus, with the former aimed in particular at low-income families. Those expansions will expire, too, if we tumble over the cliff.

This all means that while the richest will experience a larger increase in rates, the poor will actually feel the biggest hit to their bottom lines. The bottom 20 percent of Americans will see their taxes go up by an average of $209, reducing their after-tax income by nearly 2 percent. The top 40 percent, however, will only see their after-tax income dinged by .1 percent. That’s a lot of money to come from those already struggling to make ends meet.

There’s another group of vulnerable people who get smacked as well: the unemployed. As the recession began in June of 2008, President Bush signed into law the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which has since been reauthorized ten times. The National Employment Law Project reports that the unemployment rate is more than 40 percent higher now than when it was first enacted, and the percentage of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than six months has jumped by over 20 points. If Congress doesn’t reauthorize the EUC and the extended benefits expire along with everything else, 2 million workers currently collecting federal benefits will be cut off immediately and a million more will run out of state benefits by the end of the first quarter in 2013. That’s an actual cliff, not a gradual slope.

If a “grand bargain” is reached to avert some of this chaos that includes cuts to the social safety net, including the entitlements that are currently protected from the sequestration, poor people will of course still get hit hard. So that’s even more reason to favor solutions such as raising taxes on high income so that we can do what Katrina vanden Heuvel suggests will put us on a sustainable path: invest in our country. Revive manufacturing and lead in green jobs, invest in public education and affordable college and reign in Wall Street and CEOs’ excesses. It’s what voters want—they didn’t side with austerity to fix our problems. And it’s certainly what the poorest and most vulnerable among us need.

For more on why the fiscal cliff isn't really a cliff at all, check out "CliffsNotes for Washington."

Thank You, Republican Misogynists, for Handing Democrats Crucial Victories Last Night

Liberals had a lot to celebrate last night. President Obama was handed a second term while Democrats held the Senate—both feats that seemed far from certain earlier this year. When we look for people to thank for these victories, we have to give blatant Republican misogyny a big round of applause.

Two Senate seats that were at one time safe bets for the GOP rested in Democratic hands at the end of the night thanks in large part to Republicans trying to define rape. Claire McCaskill defeated her challenger Todd Akin—women voters had a way of shutting that whole thing down after he made some outrageous comments about birth from rape. Richard Mourdock, who also brought up rape in a bizarre fashion, had to concede last night, another race the GOP expected to win. While Joe Donnelly, who defeated Mourdock, is no pro-choice treasure—he signed on to the GOP House bill that made reference to “forcible” rape, for instance—women at least sent Mourdock packing.

These two races have much in common. As Celinda Lake, Democratic pollster and president of Lake Research Partners, put it to me, “It was very much women who won those races and women reacting to the comments made by the Republican candidates about redefining rape.” In fact, exit polling showed McCaskilll carrying more of the female vote than she did in 2006, overwhelmingly winning votes from women ages 18–44. Polling for the Donnelly/Mourdock showed the same phenomenon: 52 percent of women voters picked Donnelly versus 42 who went for his opponent, while the candidates were deadlocked with male voters.

These dynamics showed up in some other races. Bob Casey remains Pennsylvania’s senator, defeating Republican Tom Smith, who compared pregnancy from rape to having a child out of wedlock, with 58 percent of women’s votes. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat running for Senate in North Dakota, has a slight lead over Republican Rick Berg, who only supports abortion exceptions for the life of the mother and not for rape victims, although the race is still too close to call.

And it may have been Akin’s headline-worthy comments that began to turn the tide in the Democrats’ favor. His remarks were made on August 19, and as you can see in the chart below (via Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo), that’s when the GOP’s chances of taking the Senate began to disappear:

This difference of opinion between male and female voters also made a big appearance, of course, in the presidential race. Women turned out at the same rate as 2008—they made up 53 percent of the electorate. CNN’s exit polling showed a ten-point gender gap, with 54 percent of women going for Obama and just 44 percent voting Romney. According to Lake, the two issues that account for this gap were a strong feeling among women that Obama, and Democrats in general, have economic solutions that are “more in touch with their lives,” and that female voters were paying attention to women’s issues, particularly the GOP threat to defund Planned Parenthood. That last issue “remained one of the most vivid things to women, one of the pieces in advertising that had the highest recall,” Lake told me. It looks like having candidates at the top of the ticket who want to overturn Roe v. Wade, undo the ACA's provision giving women co-pay free access to contraception on "day one," and defund Planned Parenthood doesn't play well with one of the country's largest voting blocs.

And while the economy remained at the front of women’s minds as they headed to the polls—six in ten voters said that was the top issue—abortion and contraception are inextricably intertwined with that concern. “Reproductive health issues, whether funding for Planned Parenthood or insurance covering birth control, is an economic issue as well as a women’s health issue, particularly in this economy,” Lake said. Women were thinking, “Why are we even discussing this? It’s not like there’s a shortage of other issues.” Sky-high unemployment and stagnating wages might deserve some attention, for instance.

So thank you, Republican misogynists, for handing the Democrats crucial victories last night. The comments about women this cycle were not an abrupt departure from the party’s ideology but rather moments of clarity about what they’ve felt deep in their hearts for years now, as pro-choice women have long been warning. But the GOP overreached in exposing its sexism and misogyny this year. Whether it was a strategy to rally up the ultraconservative base or merely moments of accidental truth-telling, it backfired in a major way. Score one for women’s rights, zero for attempts to control their bodies.

John Nichols: Obama won big last night. Now is the time for him to do something with it.

On Election Eve, Women Voters Break Strongly for Obama

The voting gender gap that’s been with us for three decades is on track to rear its head yet again on Tuesday—and it could be even more potent this year. As Nate Silver put it on October 21, “If only women voted, President Obama would be on track for a landslide re-election.” Surveying ten of what he defines as high-quality polls, Silver found an average eighteen-point gender gap, with Obama up nine points with women and down nine with men. One poll found the gap was as wide as thirty-three points.

Since that time, this trend has continued. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found Obama outdoing Romney among women by eleven points on October 25. And just yesterday Pew’s national poll found Obama edging ahead of Romney thanks in part to increasing support from women, who favor him by a thirteen-point margin, up from six points but a week ago. (Don’t believe the post-first debate media hype that Romney had erased the gap.)

But what makes this year different are the forces driving the trend. Despite the conventional wisdom, women don’t tend to vote based on their own unique set of issues, social or otherwise. Historically, what’s driven the gap is social spending, not what we typically describe as “women’s issues.” Women are far more likely than men to support generous social spending on the safety net, while men tend to be primarily concerned with the deficit.

Yet in this campaign cycle, when Gallup asked female registered voters in twelve swing states, “What do you consider the most important issue for women in this election?” what many see as the quintessential social issue, abortion, was by far the most common answer, with 39 percent of women bringing it up. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, abortion didn’t rank at all for men when asked the same question about their gender. (Dear gentlemen: don’t forget that it takes two to tango—and end up with an unwanted pregnancy.) Women are also far more likely to trust Obama on another issue considered primarily their concern, that being access to birth control: 57 percent of them think Obama will ensure better government policies on contraception, versus 34 percent who trust Romney. Gallup reports that these results reflect women’s views nationally.

This is echoed in a poll conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies of 1,000 likely voters in October at the request of the Rad Campaign. The pollsters asked respondents by phone if they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Lawmakers in Washington have been engaging in a War on Women, by taking away women’s rights to contraception, denying equal pay for equal work, and curbing a woman’s right to choose.” Big numbers of women across the political spectrum agreed: 68 percent of liberal women, 63 of Democrats and 54 percent of independents. Even about a third of Republican women agreed.

As Celinda Lake, president of polling firm Lake Research Partners, previously explained to me, these so-called social issues have “really galvanized women” in this election cycle. It would take living under a seriously large rock to ignore the fact that women’s reproductive rights—from transvaginal ultrasounds to debating access to contraception to trying to nail down a definition of rape rape—have been top on Republicans’ minds. This got their attention. Unmarried and younger women weren’t paying much attention at first, but then their interest in the election jumped about twenty points with all of these headlines, Lake said.

Yet it’s also important to remember that the ability to access contraception and make choices over one’s body has a huge economic impact on women’s lives. In a 2004 survey of over 1,200 abortion patients, the Guttmacher Institute found that women’s most frequently cited reasons for seeking abortion were that having a child would interfere with education, work or the ability to care for dependents or that she couldn’t afford a baby. Guttmacher recently found that women use contraception for similar reasons: the majority reported it allowed them to better care for themselves or their families, support their families financially, complete their education or keep or get a job. Little wonder when the costs of having a child are so high: raising a 1-year-old in a middle-class, two-parent household comes to over $15,000 a year. When women tell pollsters that abortion and government policies relating to contraception are high on their minds in this economy, those concerns can’t easily be divorced from “traditional” economic issues.

Yet now that politicians have gotten women’s attention by debating what they can and should do with their bodies, they’ll still have to answer to those traditional economic concerns. The next three issues on women’s list when Gallup asked were jobs, healthcare and the economy. Meanwhile, women don’t mention the deficit but do make heavy reference to the social safety net, bringing up Medicare, Social Security and education. These are the “compassion issues” women voters tend to support over men when they rally around spending on the social safety net, according to a research paper studying the gender gap over time.

While jobs and the economy are men’s first two priorities, the federal budget deficit/having a balanced budget is number three. Men tend to be preoccupied with federal spending. Women don’t even rank that issue—they care about putting people back to work and caring for our vulnerable. As the researchers put it, “A policy change that might be seen as too liberal for the average man might seem like the correct amount of spending to the average woman.” In this cycle, this phenomenon is likely informed by the sluggish job growth women have seen in the recovery and the overall knowledge that caring for the elderly, sick and vulnerable inevitably falls to their shoulders.

We can only look into crystal balls and wait for voters to actually show up to their polling places tomorrow to really know how women will vote this year. But all signs point to a strong gender gap in Obama’s favor, one that could push him over the line.

For more on what's at stake for women in this election, check out Katha Pollitt's latest, "Ladies, Don't Fall For Moderate Mitt!"

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