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Bryce Covert | The Nation

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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

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!"

Is Motherhood the Most Important Job? It Depends on Whether You’re Poor

It can be hard to remember a mere six months ago, but that was when we were talking about the hard work mothers perform in the home and how valuable it is. A recap: Democratic surrogate Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney, who is a stay-at-home mother, has never worked a day in her life. In the blink of an eye, both sides jumped on the moment to declare their undying fealty to mothers and their awe at the hard work women perform in the home. Romney even went so far as to say that Ann’s job was “harder” and “more important” than his own, be it running the state of Massachusetts or the Olympics. (Although he never explained why he didn’t simply trade places with her.)

Someone watching this debate couldn’t be blamed for coming away with the impression that this country has put motherhood on a gold-plated pedestal. But it turns out that pedestal is contingent on certain factors—class being chief among them. A Pennsylvania House bill proposed last week sought to limit the amount of TANF assistance—formally known as welfare support—that low-income women receive based on how many children they give birth to while covered. In other words: the more children a woman on welfare has, the fewer benefits she receives.

The good news is that three sponsors of the bill have since backed away from it, claiming to not have read it closely enough. The bad news is that Pennsylvania was simply following a trend. At my request, Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law Center calculated that as of July 2010, seventeen states had “family cap” policies that limit the amount of TANF assistance available to mothers who have children while receiving benefits. When Ann Romney stays at home to raise her five boys, financed by her family’s wealth and income, we revere her as the pinnacle of womanhood and a hardworking American. When a poor mother has five boys, we punish her by denying her the benefits she needs to keep them healthy and happy.

Unfortunately the horror doesn’t stop there. What about a woman who is raped and then bears her rapist’s child while on TANF? Should she have her benefits decreased? Pennsylvania, in its magnanimity, granted that this woman shouldn’t be docked. She just has to give the state a signed statement that she was a victim of rape or incest and that she reported the crime and the identity of her offender to law enforcement. (Never mind that over half of all rapes are never reported given the stigma and ordeal victims are put though.) She also has to sign a statement affirming that she understands that “false reports to law enforcement authorities are punishable by law” and that lets her know the state will report “evidence of false statements or fraud” to the correct department. As summarized by Jake Blumgart: “State Reps to Poor Women: Prove You Were Raped or Lose TANF Assistance.”

Once again, Pennsylvania is sadly not alone. Many states require parents to cooperate with child support enforcement to receive childcare assistance, often to establish paternity and provide accurate information. Last month, the Children, Youth and Families Department of New Mexico decided to pull a Todd Aiken and considered an amendment to this policy that would exempt victims of “forcible rape” from having to file child support claims against the absent parent. And even worse, a bunch of states already use this language. According to Entmacher, at least four states list forcible rape as one potential reason for an exemption: Colorado, Idaho, Maryland and Rhode Island, with varying levels of detail about how a woman should go about proving that her rape is “legitimate.”

In the motherhood hierarchy, then, women who don’t need welfare support rank highest, followed by mothers who can “prove” that their rape is rape rape. Tough luck for low-income women who were date raped, raped when drugged or simply had a wanted child. Our message to them is that they’re not really mothers. They’re just moochers.

For more news and analysis on inequality in the US, check out Greg Kaufmann's blog, This Week in Poverty.

The Inescapable Gender Wage Gap

A new meme has cropped up lately: yeah, sure, maybe there’s a gender wage gap, but it’s really just because ladies make different choices. (See it appear on the left and the right.) The wage gap does, in fact, balloon over a woman’s career, particularly post-children. But don’t those women make less because they decided to leave work early to take the kids to soccer practice? Didn’t they decide to hop on the mommy track and take a less ambitious job so they could focus more energy on family?

Despite the inherent sexism behind these scenarios—why do women feel an intense pressure to mommy track that men avoid?—they imply that women who don’t have such worries shouldn’t experience the wage gap. Under this logic, women who have just graduated college and who don’t yet have a husband or children should be making the same “choices” as their male peers and earn as much as they do. This would also bolster the argument that women’s dominance in getting higher degrees foretells, if not the end of men, at least the beginning of the end of women being at the bottom of the economic ladder.

So some researchers at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) put that theory to the test. In a study released today, Christianne Corbett and Catherine Hill looked at data from the Department of Education, in which it interviewed about 15,000 people, to compare the earnings of men and women a year out of college. As the report puts it, this is a perfect group to study:

Analyzing the gender pay gap among college graduates at the beginning of their careers provides valuable insight. Most are young (23 years old, on average), are relatively inexperienced in the workplace, have never been married, and are not raising children. The broad similarities in the lives of men and women at this time set the stage for a solid comparison.

Yet, sadly, the gender wage gap didn’t disappear—but not for lack of trying on the researchers’ part. They looked at a variety of factors that might account for it. Where grads went to school? Nope, the gap “exists within nearly every category of institution and level of selectivity.” The grades they earned? Women actually earned slightly higher grades on average. Number of hours worked at the new job? While women reported lower hours overall, the gap reared its ugly head among men and women working the same number of hours.

Two areas have some bearing on earnings: choice of major and choice of occupation. Women may have stormed the university halls, but they’ve mostly left segregation by field of study untouched. That can hurt earnings. Graduates with degrees in female-dominated majors tend to make less than those with male-dominated majors. Yet among those who choose the same major, men and women don’t make the same money. Among business majors, for example, women earned just over $38,000, while men earned just over $45,000. The same is true for occupational segregation. Men and women tend to hold very different types of jobs, yet within those jobs women make less. Female teachers earned 89 percent of what their male peers did. Female managers earned 86 percent. Female salespeople earned 77 percent. And on.

After looking at all of these factors, the researchers still found a stubborn 7 percent gap between what women were making and what men were making. That left them with few ways to explain the gap. They offered two possible explanations: one is that women are just bad at negotiating better pay. Yet studies have shown that women do ask for more—they just aren’t rewarded. The only other option is straight-up gender discrimination.

This discrimination clearly starts at an early age—the second women nab their first job. But it follows them no matter where they go or what they do. Not only do grads with newly minted BAs make less, but they keep making less than men with each subsequent degree, and the gap actually widens as they progress. They make less than men no matter what industry or occupation they enter.

And new data also shows that the gap follows them around no matter where they live:

In no state in our nation do women breach the 90 percent mark. Some are definitely worse than others: the gap in Utah, Louisiana and Wyoming doesn’t break 60 percent. But even the best place for women to live, Washington, DC, clocks in at 87 percent.

We can differ on how to address the gap. Romney’s plan seems to be crossing his fingers that the private sector will decide to pay women more on its own. Others have pushed for tougher legislation to crack down on companies that discriminate against their female employees. But any woman anywhere can tell you: we earn less than men no matter what we “choose” to do.

For more on the gender gap in this election, check out Ben Adler on “What Obama Should Have Said in the Debate About Pay Equity.” And sign up for the weekly Feminist Roundup e-mail newsletter for the latest from Bryce Covert and other Nation writers. 

What Does Mitt Romney Really Want for Women?

Women watching the debate last night let out a collective “hallelujah”: issues of direct importance to our lives finally merited a mention. We got equal pay, contraception, Planned Parenthood, poverty and bizarre discussions of single mothers.

Mitt Romney tried hard to pretend he’ll come down on women’s side in these issues. But as is classic Mitt, his positions send mixed messages. What does Mitt Romney really want for women? What would he do to improve their economic outlook? It depends on which talking point you listen to.

Romney took a few opportunities last night to discuss the ways in which he wants more women in the workforce. When asked a direct question about equal pay, he sidestepped to talk about how few women tend to be represented in top political posts, bringing out his now infamous “binders full of women” story to describe how he asked aides to find qualified women to fill his cabinet as governor. He also talked about wanting women to have more flexible work hours and brought up the fact that women have lost a huge number of jobs in the recovery. All signs point to: Mitt wants to help women get to work.

But does he? First, there’s the debunk now being widely circulated claiming that the binders Mitt asked for were actually put together before he even asked for them—not to mention that a study found the percentage of senior-level positions he appointed to women actually declined during his administration. But these statements clash heavily with some other comments he’s made. When discussing early childhood education recently, he commented, “It’s an advantage to have two parents, but to have one parent to stay closely connected and at home during those early years of education can be very, very important.” Which gender tends to be that “parent” who stay out of the workforce to be home? It is overwhelmingly mothers.

There’s also a big question as to how much he really wants to help unemployed women get back to work. He may cite the statistic that 580,000 women lost their jobs in the last four years, but he rarely makes mention of why. I’ll fill in that blank: mostly because of public sector layoffs. Women have lost 383,000 government jobs since the beginning of the recovery, wiping out more than a third of their private sector job gains. Yet Romney has repeatedly said he wants to see fewer workers on the government payrolls, including teachers, who are overwhelmingly women. He’s yet to explain how those two viewpoints can coexist.

Mitt would also have you believe he wants fewer women living in poverty. When talking about rising poverty rates, he rightly pointed out that the majority are women. “There are three and a half million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office,” he said. “We don’t have to live like this.”

It’s true, Mitt, we don’t. Because we could be doing far more to support people who fall below the poverty line, particularly women, by shoring up programs that are failing them such as TANF (formally known as welfare) and child care assistance. Yet that’s not what he would do once in office. His running mate’s budget, which Romney has said he’d sign if it made it to his desk, would focus 62 percent of its spending cuts on programs that support the poor, such as food stamps, Medicaid and Pell Grants. There’s reason to believe Romney would go even further: he’s calling for about $2 trillion more spending on defense over the next decade that Ryan is, which would mean drastic cuts—about 40 percent across the board—in all other programs.

And then there are his feelings about single mothers. When asked a question about gun control, he inexplicably ended up talking about single mothers and how they are apparently at fault for gun violence. (Never mind studies that show no correlation between the two.) In his wandering response, he said, “We need moms and dads helping raise kids. Wherever possible, the—the benefit of having two parents in the home—and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone—that’s a great idea because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically.” (Emphasis mine.) That sounds quite a lot like family planning to me. How does one plan a family? By using contraception to control fertility and have children when and with whom one wants.

And contraception did come up. Romney decided that last night to be on the pro side, stating unequivocally, “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.” Unfortunately that’s not always his position. First, there are those around him who don’t share this view. The GOP platform, for example, calls for a personhood amendment, which would endanger some forms of contraception. Then there’s Paul Ryan’s statement that he and Romney would do away with co-pay-free birth control access as provided by the Affordable Care Act on “day one.” And, oh yeah, Romney has previously condemned that very provision himself, even supporting Senator Roy Blunt’s bizarre proposal to allow employers to refuse birth control coverage in their insurance policies if they feel icky about it.

For his part, President Obama pointed out that contraception is an economic issue for the women who need and want access to it. He also made a case for the Lilly Ledbetter Act, a bill that takes a step toward closing the gender wage gap (even though there is much more that needs to be done) while Romney offered up no policy solutions. Obama has previously proposed spending money to hire back some of the teachers who have been laid off in the crisis. He would expand Medicaid to cover more people living in poverty and has expanded Pell Grants and job training programs to help those living in poverty. Clearly there are ways Obama can be pushed to do more for women. But it’s not even clear which side Romney is on.

For more rundown on Romney’s gender issue flip-flops, check out Ben Adler on Obama’s missed opportunity to skewer Romney on pay equity.

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