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Bryce Covert | The Nation

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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

Romney’s All Wrong on Public Sector Employment


Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Friday, June 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Is the 2012 election going to hinge on voters' beliefs about the government workforce? It seems that at least this week’s news cycle will. It’s an important conversation to have. Public sector job loss is at the heart of our stagnant economy and is a big reason why the recovery can’t get real lift-off. Yet this isn’t a coincidental phenomenon or a bipartisan issue. Republican lawmakers are to blame for the bulk of these job losses, and their solutions to the problem will only add fuel to the fire.

To recap for those who don’t watch the Sunday talk shows: in a press conference on Friday, President Obama said, “The private sector is doing fine.” The full quote shows that he was talking about private sector job creation versus public sector job loss, but the pundits began a-punditing and soon his quote had become synonymous with “the economy is doing fine,” as if the private sector is all that matters.

Never one to sit on an opportunity to muddy his own message, Mitt Romney jumped in later in the day to take it further. Instead of confining his attack to Obama's (purported) suggestion that things are hunky-dory in the private sector while the economy is still clearly suffering, Romney maligned some of the most beloved public sector workers. He said of Obama: “He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers.… It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

Both soundbites are likely to get so bent out of shape by the media game of telephone that they’ll eventually end up unrecognizable. But at the heart of each statement lies a fundamental difference in how the two candidates—and the two parties—view the nature of the jobs crisis. From Obama’s point of view, we’re not being dragged down by job loss in the private sector but by losses in the public sector. Romney sees exactly the opposite: we should cut even more jobs in the government and invest more heavily in private sector job creators. (He even explicitly called for government job cuts just a week ago.) So which view is right?

Evidence backs Obama's perspective. Since the recovery officially began, the number of local government jobs has fallen by 3 percent, while the private sector has actually been able to add jobs—4.3 million, to be exact. And it’s worth comparing those numbers to what happened in recent recessions to get the full effect of just how bad, and abnormal, this trend is. Romney is at least partly right in that the private sector isn't doing as well as it could be. At this point in the recessions experienced in 1992 and 2003, it had added 5 million and 4.5 million jobs, respectively.

But the public sector looks far, far worse now than it did then. As Ben Polak and Peter K. Schott write in the New York Times today, “In the past, local government employment has been almost recession-proof. This time it’s not.” Local government employment actually grew in the past two recessions by 7.7 percent and 5.2 percent for each respective period. This time around, it's hemorrhaging jobs.

So it seems that while both candidates’ exaggerations were a bit off—Obama misspoke in suggesting that the private sector is completely shielded from pain—he gets closer to the heart of the problem than Romney. The huge fall in public sector employment really is dragging down the economy. As we wonder how to get out of this economic mess, it’s good to keep in mind another point Polak and Schott make: “If state and local governments had followed the pattern of the previous two recessions, they would have added 1.4 million to 1.9 million jobs and overall unemployment would be 7.0 to 7.3 percent instead of 8.2 percent.” That’s a huge difference.

But it’s also extremely important to remember why we’re in this situation. Polak and Schott hypothesize that it could be an electorate that is no longer willing to stomach paying for a growing government workforce. Or perhaps, they say, it’s that state and local governments have run out of ways to handle their extremely crunched budgets. But as Mike Konczal and I showed not too long ago, the massive job loss we’ve been experiencing in the public sector is no random coincidence or unfortunate side effect. It is part of an ideological battle waged by ultraconservatives who were swept into power in the 2010 elections. Republicans seized control of eleven states, and of those, five were at the top of the list for public sector job loss. Only seven states lost more than 2.5 percent of their government workforce from December 2010 to December 2011, and those five newly Republican states were among them. All others fared far better: they lost an average of .5 percent of their government employees.

This means that the eleven states that went red two years ago were responsible for 40 percent of these public sector job losses in 2011. If we add in Texas, a massive red state, we can pinpoint the source of 70 percent of those losses. And those losses were the result of deliberate decisions: even in the face of tight budget constraints, many of these states cut taxes for corporations and top earners while slimming down the public payrolls. It was part and parcel of a new agenda that came in with Tea Party–esque Republican legislators.

All of this is even more important when we switch from discussing the causes of the jobs crisis to the solutions. Romney’s plan looks very similar to those being played out in these ultraconservative states: he wants to further eviscerate the public workforce—including, apparently, policemen and teachers, who are desperately needed right now—while continuing tax breaks and creating even more for top earners and corporations.

On the other side of the aisle, Obama is still demanding—even if the demand is falling on deaf ears—that Congress pass his American Jobs Act, which would spend $35 billion in federal funds to keep those very government workers in their jobs. Guess who opposes that plan? Congressional Republicans and Mitt Romney.

There are still some remaining questions when it comes to Obama’s plan. Where’s the money to put public employees back to work after so many lost their jobs? Even more troublesome, if these job losses are due to ideologically driven decisions, will more federal spending really make a dent? Will these ultraconservative Republicans even accept the money? But it is clear that under a President Romney that money won’t even be offered and even less may be extended. Whether employed by the government or a private business, any voter should be nervous about a candidate who is threatening to further a trend that’s already holding our economy back.

How the Paycheck Fairness Act Can Help Democrats Win Elections for Years to Come

Woman working in an office
Photo by Jerry Bunkers

The latest shot across the bow in the battle for women’s hearts and votes: a push for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Senate will begin debate on the bill later today now that it’s back in session, with a vote lined up for tomorrow. The bill is expected to fail, and it looked even more doomed after the House voted not to consider it on Thursday. Yet this bill doesn’t just make policy sense for all the women earning less than their male counterparts. It makes political sense for Democrats, giving women a reason to head to the polls and, perhaps more important, more financial firepower to spend on political campaigns for years to come.

The act is undoubtedly sound policy. The gender wage gap has barely budged in recent decades, and the bill aims to help reduce it by protecting workers from retaliation if they compare wages. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found that nearly half of all workers are either forbidden or strongly discouraged from sharing that information, yet “pay secrecy makes it difficult for women and men to find out whether they are paid fairly, and undermines attempts to reduce the gender wage gap.” As Irin Carmon wrote last week, this secrecy is likely a root cause of the lack of pay discrimination cases brought against employers. It may be illegal to pay women differently for the same work, but they’ll be in the dark about what’s going on unless they can compare their pay to their coworkers’.

On top of this important fix, it also gets tougher on employers who might be discriminating against women when they hand out paychecks. It clarifies and strengthens the definition of what counts as a real justification for pay disparities and requires stronger demonstrations from businesses that claim they weren’t based on gender. It also aims to proactively deter discrimination from happening in the first place by strengthening the penalties for businesses that fail to provide equal compensation.

But it’s also good politics. Much of the battle over women voters is going to narrow in on unmarried ones. Of the 53.1 million women eligible to vote in 2008, 70 percent went for Obama, but many of them stayed home in the 2010 midterms. Since then their ranks have risen to 55 million, and they could make or break the election for whoever wins their favor. And the gender wage gap may be on the top of their minds as they make that decision. “For unmarried women, paycheck fairness is one of their top economic issues,” pollster Celinda Lake told Businessweek. “These women are feeling very economically marginalized.” Passing such a bill could be just what it takes to motivate them to get to the polls and vote Democratic.

The political benefits could go beyond mere votes, however. Fundraising is critical in all campaigns, but in recent years the amount of money needed to win has grown exponentially. It’s estimated that $540 million was spent on all US elections in 1976, but that figure ballooned to $3.9 billion in 2000. Some even speculated that Obama would need to break the ten-figure mark this time around as he seeks re-election. The good news for Obama: almost half of his donors are women, compared with less than a third of those chipping in for Mitt Romney. The bad news: women are being completely outspent by men overall. They make up about one-third of all contributions to candidates and are a mere 14 percent of Super PAC donors.

Those numbers are almost certainly depressed by the gender wage gap. Overall, women make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes, giving us far less spending power in all things, including elections. And the high-powered donors who make top dollar are almost all men. Not only does the gender wage gap follow us up the career pipeline, but we don’t get very far up: we account for less than 8 percent of the top earners in Fortune 500 companies. On top of this, women who shoot for the high-paying jobs on Wall Street and in the Silicon Valley sectors that also tend to spend a lot on Democrats experience an even larger pay gap compared to their male co-workers. Measure of America found that women working in the heart of technology earn a mere forty-nine cents for every dollar a man makes. The pay gap in finance is just barely better, ranging from fifty-five to sixty-two cents. It’s hard to bankroll campaigns when you’re making so much less than your male peers.

So while addressing the wage gap makes good policy sense, it also clearly makes good political sense for Democrats. It’ll get women fired up and ready to head to the polls. It may also boost our ability to contribute to the ever-increasing cost of running for election. That effect could last beyond the 2012 election cycle and have real power in all future campaigns.

Jobs Report Shows How Romneynomics Would Hurt the Recovery

Today’s jobs numbers don’t look good. The economy added only 69,000 jobs and the unemployment rate stands at a painful 8.2 percent, little changed from previous months. And the news for government workers continues to be grim. Another 13,000 were thrown off the payrolls in May, adding up to a total of 650,000 public sector jobs lost since the official end of the recession in June 2009.

This might be awkward news for Mitt Romney, who earlier this week called for even more pain for public workers. He told a group of supporters in Colorado on Tuesday that government employees should give up their jobs for those who work in the private sector. In talking about President Obama’s stimulus package, he said:

That stimulus he put in place, it didn't help private sector jobs, it helped preserve government jobs, and the one place we should have cut back was on government jobs. We have a 145,000 more government workers under this president. Let's send them home and put you back to work!

Whether or not those are accurate numbers, Romney wants to amplify the misery of more than a half million unemployed public workers by putting another 145,000 out of work.

But if Romney wants to talk job creation and getting our economy out of this rut, he may have to take another look at this line of thinking. As Mike Konczal and I reported in March, Paul Krugman has estimated that unemployment would be closer to 7 percent if the government workforce had grown instead of cratering. While other economists might quibble over the exact impact these job losses have had on the economy, many agree that it’s a big part of what’s holding us back from a robust recovery.

There’s another awkward aspect of these numbers for the Romney camp. Remember when he was running around saying that Obama had overseen huge job losses among women? He may have been right about the fact that women have disproportionately suffered during the recovery period (even if his math was a bit fuzzy), but he failed to take a look at why those job losses occurred. This month’s jobs report holds a clue: of those 13,000 public sector jobs lost, over half—7,000—were in “state government education” and “local government education.” In other words: teachers. Massive teacher layoffs, particularly elementary school teachers, are a big part of why women have lost nearly 400,000 public sector jobs in the recovery. If men were sunk by a collapsing housing market during the recession, women have been hammered by public sector layoffs.

Romney’s not the only Republican to think that slashing government payrolls will somehow stem job losses and improve the economy. Mike and I pointed out that these job losses have not only occurred almost entirely at the state level, but they were at the hands of ultraconservative legislators elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010. If any politician wants to get serious about getting the economy humming again, he or she will have to confront the drag created by public sector workers’ being out of a job.

Income Inequality Keeps Poorer Americans Away from the Polls

It’s no secret that money and politics enjoy a nasty love affair in this country. And as Ari Berman has written here, the problem has gotten even worse this cycle after the ill-fated Citizens United decision unleashed the power of Super PACs. As he reports, campaigns are increasingly reliant on that money, yet “Super PACs on both sides of the aisle are financed by the 1 percent of the 1 percent.” That means the rich have an even more outsized impact on the outcome of the election.

At the same time, it’s been hard to miss the GOP’s relentless campaign to roll back voting rights in the name of eliminating the (mostly imaginary) threat of fraud. Many of those tactics will severely affect  low-income voters and likely suppress their turnout in November, handing even more power over to the 1 percent. 

There’s something else that suppresses their vote, however, even if they are legally able to do so. And that something is income inequality, as a new report from the OECD on the Better Life Index shows. Of the thirty-four countries included in the report, the US ranks second to last in social inequality, bested only by South Korea. When it comes to income inequality we are at the extreme end of the scale, with levels similar to those of Cameroon, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Nepal and Uganda.

This has a huge impact on voter turnout. Across all OECD countries, individual income has an effect on whether citizens show up at the polls, with an average 7 percent jump for those who are in the top 20 percent versus those in the bottom 20 percent. Things are far, far worse here at home, though. Those whose income is in the top 20 percent experience a near 100 percent turnout rate, making full use of their right to vote. But the rate for those in the bottom group is less than three-quarters. That makes for a whopping 28 percent gap between the two on election day, which again seems only to be beaten by South Korea. On top of this, those with more education—also often tied to income—are more likely to vote than less educated people, likely augmenting the phenomenon.

This may be a sign that low-income voters feel disconnected from our politics. As the report notes, “Voter participation is the best existing means of measuring civic and political engagement.” In a world where mega-rich donors rule the system and at least one party is determined to make it harder to exercise this constitutional right, it makes sense that one might feel discouraged. 

But this is clearly one more way in which America’s sky-high level of income inequality is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. When a Congress elected by the wealthy debates issues that affect the poor, it should be little wonder that budget cuts that disproportionately fall on the latter are passed while programs that would help them out are not. Just take a look at news out today that Congress is prematurely pulling back on benefits for the long-term unemployed, despite the fact that over 5 million people have been jobless for longer than six months.

While the Great Recession certainly exacerbated income inequality, it was a trend thirty years in the making. The gap between the after-tax income of the richest 1 percent of Americans and the 99 percent more than tripled over the last three decades. And there’s no sign that the trend is going to do anything but continue on. As the gulf between the rich and the poor continues to expand, expect voter turnout among those who are most affected to fall into the void.

Can Suing for Equal Pay Really Close the Gender Wage Gap?

Senator Barbara Milkulski is holding a press conference later today to press the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which she recently introduced. But didn’t President Obama already kill the gender wage gap? Not quite. While Obama has long been touting the first bill he signed once in office, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, it only provides a woman more time to file a claim of discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act would go further by ensuring employees can discuss their salaries with each other—since it’s hard to root out pay discrimination if you don’t know how you stack up against everyone else.

Lilly Ledbetter certainly helps women who want to bring lawsuits against their employers by giving them more time to do so. In that way, Obama’s first act did recognize the problem of pay discrimination. But it’s a baby step forward in the march toward equal pay.

The numbers since its signing bear that out. According to Bloomberg, the number of pay discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission actually fell from 2,268 when Obama signed the Act in 2009 to 2,191 last year. Meanwhile, the pay gap has widened from 77.8 in 2007 to 77.4 percent in 2010.

So what will it take to make the wage gap disappear? Why wouldn’t clearing the way for lawsuits get us there? Part of the answer is that Ledbetter only nibbled at the edges of an enormous, systemic problem. As I’ve previously written, the causes of the gap range from a too low minimum wage to decreased unionization levels. These kinds of issues won’t budge on a large scale even if women are emboldened to sue for equal pay.

But can lawsuits make way for a big cultural shift on how we view and deal with discrimination? Perhaps it’s worth looking at another workplace issue that got a lot of legal attention not too long ago: sexual harassment. It’s far from a thing of the past: over 11,000 charges were filed with the EEOC and local Fair Employment Practices agencies last year. That’s down substantially from the late ’90s, however, which saw numbers in the 15,000s. And we’re a long way from the Mad Men era, when sexual harassment in the workplace was par for the course. “The women who brought some of the original lawsuits lived in war zones. Sometimes their lives were destroyed before they got out,” E.J. Graff, contributing editor at The American Prospect, senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and collaborator on Evelyn Murphy's book Getting Even: Why Women Still Don't Get Paid Like Men—And What To Do About It, told me. “I was just shocked by what I learned when I interviewed them and read the testimony.” It’s hard to deny that we’ve seen a huge cultural change in how we view that kind of discrimination.

How did that come about? Lawsuits certainly played a big part. While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act stipulated that an employer can’t discriminate on the basis of sex, it wasn’t until cases like Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that it was established that sexual harassment falls under such protection. Even after that, though, the Supreme Court then had to lay out the framework for making such claims. That didn’t happen until the ’90s—meaning that sexual harassment cases have been having a significant impact for only two decades.

And it may not have been an individual woman’s ability to file claims of discrimination per se that brought about the change but the effect of large, headline-grabbing suits on the culture at large. An individual woman may not even benefit. “A sexual harassment lawsuit itself doesn't really help the person who brings it. She may end up with some money, but the process can ruin her life,” said Graff. “But does it change the climate for the next woman? Does it alert employers and prompt them to change their policies? Sometimes.”

One of the big turning points, according to Michelle Caiola, a senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum and former senior trial attorney at the EEOC, was the EEOC v. Mitsubishi suit of 1998. That case had an impact because it was so large—300–400 class members, a $34 million settlement and rampant, egregious harassment. Those aspects made headlines, which made all the difference. “Whenever a sexual harassment lawsuit gets a lot of media attention, I think that’s what starts the cultural shift,” she told me. “The media attention informs the employees of what is acceptable or what is not acceptable or what their legal rights are. I also think it brought home to employers that this was a very serious issue they could suffer both in reputation and having to pay out monetarily.”

Then, of course, came Anita Hill’s testimony of sexual harassment at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, which played a huge part. After her 1991 testimony, the EEOC reported that sexual harassment cases more than doubled over the next five years, from 6,127 to 15,342, and awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled from $7.7 million to $27.8 million. It took a media frenzy to get case numbers up significantly, not just the ability to file them.

Can the gender pay gap get the same kind of media attention if cases move forward? Would things like the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which help women bring those cases, have an impact if they allow for those kinds of suits? Potentially, although there is a crucial difference. “The one thing that sexual harassment has going for it that it’s about sex,” Caiola said. She added bluntly, “Pay equity is not as sexy.” It may be a harder task to get the media circus hyped up about equal pay than about a suit over the coercion of sexual favors.

And those cases aren’t having a lot of success lately. The most recent high-profile case was the one brought against Wal-Mart by cashier Betty Dukes, which alleged a widespread culture of gender discrimination there. The suit was on behalf of 1.5 million women—certainly making for a high-impact case that could have shifted cultural views on wage discrimination. But the Supreme Court threw out the case last summer, arguing that the women didn’t qualify as a single class.

So the answer is mixed. The ability for women to bring suits is certainly important, and we need steps forward like Ledbetter—as opposed to steps backward, as seen recently in Wisconsin—to keep up that momentum. But it may not be until some high-profile cases hit the headlines that we experience significant cultural change.

The Outlook Is Still Grim for Women in the Job Market

Mothers may have had something extra to celebrate on Sunday as they were brought breakfast in bed: getting a job. They were probably expecting bad news. Since the beginning of the recovery, women have gained only 16 percent of the almost 2.5 million jobs added, which is part of why their unemployment rate has dipped only 0.2 percentage points while men’s has been reduced by 2.4 points. Yet along with the flowers and hand-drawn cards, last month’s jobs report came as a gift to some women. Could it be a sign that they are finally going to participate in the economic recovery?

April’s jobs report had more positive signs for women’s job growth than any over the past few years. According to the National Women’s Law Center’s analysis, they gained almost three-quarters of the jobs added last month. As the report notes, that’s “the largest share of monthly job gains for women since the start of the recovery.” Remember that just last August, they were steadily losing jobs. Even more surprising is that while women have suffered two-thirds of the public sector layoffs since 2009, last month the tables were turned. The public sector shed 15,000 jobs, but it was men who felt that pain; women actually gained 4,000 jobs.

The recovery does look like it’s becoming kinder to women. This year has so far been much better for women’s unemployment picture than the past three. But it may not be time to get comfortable yet. As Joan Entmacher, vice president of NWLC, told me, because the overall number of jobs added last month was so small, it didn’t take much for women to come out on top. After all, 73 percent of only 115,000 jobs won’t make a huge dent in a high unemployment rate.

And it’s no time to get optimistic about public-sector jobs. Last month’s new trend of women’s gaining those jobs “could change when you hit June, July and August, when teachers start getting layoff notices,” Entmacher pointed out. Women hold the vast majority of those jobs, and they’ve been completely hammered in the recovery period. As of March we had lost 236,500 jobs in local education, a k a public school teachers. Don’t forget that GOP legislatures at the state level have been driving those cuts, and news that Philadelphia, under conservative Governor Corbett, is on the verge of shuttering sixty-four schools should comfort no one. Nor should the fact that thirty states still face budget shortfalls totaling $49 billion. The recovery’s story overall is still pretty disheartening. “When you look over the course of recovery,” Katherine Gallagher Robbins of the NWLC told me, “for every two jobs women gained in the private sector they’ve lost a public sector job.”

Could there be a silver lining, however, in the private sector? That’s where the really good news was last month: women grabbed over 60 percent of those jobs in April. Some of those were in professional and business services industries such as education and health, which are predicted to have strong growth over the next decade. They even got jobs in blue-collar manufacturing.  They also gained jobs in leisure and hospitality—think waitresses in restaurants and maids in hotels—and temporary health services. But even those higher-paying professional and business service jobs were likely to be temporary: about half of the jobs women got in those sectors weren’t permanent, compared with 27 percent for men.

It will certainly be welcome news if women start picking up private-sector jobs in large numbers. But as I recently wrote about the economy overall, we also have to ask what kind of jobs those will be. Temporary jobs in particular pay more poorly than their full-time counterparts and offer little stability and few benefits. Yet they accounted for over a quarter of new private sector jobs created in 2010. Women already tend to hold unstable, low-benefit service sector jobs, so the last thing we need is for the trend to be amplified as the economy emerges from disaster. As this graph of the number of education jobs versus the number of food services jobs shows (h/t Matt Yglesias), we may be trading our teachers—decent-paying, stable work—in for low-pay waitresses:

The Great Recession Is Pushing Women Out of the Workforce

Friday’s jobs report seemed to grab headlines for one aspect in particular: the labor force participation rate, i.e., the number of people either working or looking for a job, fell to 63.8 percent, the lowest level since 1981. That means more and more people are dropping out—retiring, turning to something else like grad school or just giving up on the prospect of a job altogether. But there was a debate about how much of a bad sign this is. Is it because the recession has made people lose hope of finding gainful employment? Or is it just because baby boomers are hitting prime retirement age and moving to Miami?

It’s likely a combination of factors. But there seems to be a big difference in what’s driving men and women to leave the labor force.

What do the numbers look like for both genders? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Current Population Survey, men’s participation rate—the ratio of men working or looking for work versus those who have dropped out—has fallen 3.1 percentage points since the beginning of the recession, and women’s has fallen 1.8 points. The dip looks more troubling for men than for women. The last time women’s labor force participation rate was this low “was in June 1995,” Joan Entmacher of the National Women's Law Center told me. But her colleague Katherine Gallagher Robbins noted that this year has been pretty steady for women’s rate, while men are starting to experience a real decline.

Yet interestingly, a recent paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City (hat tip to Mike Konczal) finds that the forces behind those numbers are very different. For men, 60 percent of the drop from 2007 to 2011 has been due to a decline in “trend participation,” meaning things that were on course to happen whether we were in an economic crisis or not. That’s because the rate for men “has been falling steadily for 60 years,” in part due to things like increased access to Social Security benefits and an aging population that make retirement look like a pretty good option. In contrast, the paper “attributes essentially all of [women’s] decline to the cyclical downturn of the labor market”—in other words, the fact that we hit the Great Recession.

Why would a recession drive women out of the labor force so much more strongly than men? Because when the labor market looks shoddy, the Kansas City Fed paper says, “nonmarket work can become relatively more productive for many women.” That’s a fancy way of saying that domestic work—and very likely childcare in particular—becomes more valuable. “The difference between the benefits of working or not working may often be fairly small” for women, it says, while “the human capital of men is often more specialized toward market activities,” in other words, jobs outside the home.

When parents are trying to cut back on costs, it’s unsurprising that childcare could top the list. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, the average annual cost of putting a 4-year-old in full-time care can be as much as $14,050 a year. No wonder that nearly 40 percent of parents worry that their income won’t be enough to cover it. And most parents evaluate that cost against a woman’s salary. Many mothers are deciding that it’s more cost-effective to stay home and focus on domestic work than to go out and try to get a job in a terrible economy.

This is even truer for low-income women. Stay-at-home mothers are more likely these days to be young Hispanic women with low levels of education who may be unable to get jobs that will pay enough to outweigh the cost of childcare. The economy has made that decision even harder in another way: state budgets that were all but decimated by the recession led thirty-seven states to pull back on childcare support.

Women who leave the labor force for care duties may be hard to categorize, however. “For women it’s a little tricky because those who are out for family-related reasons may not call themselves discouraged workers,” Entmacher said. While more men are counted in the category of workers who have given up entirely on looking for a job—a troubling group —women who can’t find jobs that work with their care-giving responsibilities may be just as discouraged but not counted as such.

On the brighter side, it’s also possible that women’s higher inclination to get a college degree is playing a role. As Catherine Rampell reported at the end of last year, the high number of young women dropping out may not be doing so indefinitely, but instead are leaving to get more education. While demographic trends may be leading older people to drop out of the labor force and into retirement, there are a lot of young people leaving as well. Evan Soltas calculates that of the millions of “missing” people who should be in the workforce if we hadn’t entered a recession, the young are seven times more over-represented. That could mean that rather than giving up altogether, young women are going back to school in the hopes of upgrading their prospects once the job market really rebounds.

I hope more women are dropping out for the latter reason instead of the former, because taking a break from the labor force to care for children can have a huge impact on women’s earning capacity. As a report from Rutgers notes, women who take maternity leave often “pay a penalty for leave-taking in wages and earnings long after [their] child’s birth,” a portion of which is likely due to salary increases that would have happened had they stayed in their jobs. Similar penalties will apply to women who are being squeezed out of the labor force and into the home by the recession.

The Recovery Is Really Good at Creating Bad Jobs

Indicators of the economic recovery weren’t stellar this quarter: consumer and business spending seem to have slowed down, making analysts nervous. Not to mention news out of Europe that the UK and Spain have slid back into recession. Yet it was just last month that a rosy jobs report from the Labor Department touting the addition of 227,000 jobs made some optimistic that we were finally about to experience a real recovery.

But that glow of returning job security isn’t necessarily going to shine on everyone, even if the recovery really does take hold. A report out on Monday from the International Labor Organization took a look at not just how many jobs are being created but perhaps an even more crucial question: What kinds of jobs are being created in the aftermath of the recession? And the answer isn’t heartening.

We’d hope that as the economy starts to pick up the pieces and dust itself off, it would do so by creating stable jobs that pay decently, putting workers on solid footing as we move out of the mess. Yet that’s not what’s going on. The ILO reports, “Since the onset of the global crisis, part-time employment has increased in two-thirds of the advanced countries [in the report], and temporary employment has increased in one-half of the countries.” This comes on the heels of a general increase in this kind of work over the past two decades. What it means is that the jobs our economic recovery is best at producing aren’t full-time—or even permanent. We may be putting people back to work, but it’s in jobs that offer little financial security.

The picture is as bleak in the United States as it is around the globe generally. Part-time employment grew from just under 10 percent in 2007 to just over that figure in 2010. But even worse is the fact that the percentage of the workers in those jobs who would rather be working full-time doubled, from around 7 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2010. That’s a lot of people who aren’t working as many hours as they need to. The recovery period has also steadily created more temporary jobs than stable, lasting ones. The Richmond Fed reports that these jobs accounted for over a quarter of all new private sector jobs created here in 2010—even though they were only about 7 percent of the jobs created after the 2001 recession. Although these jobs dropped severely during the crisis, they’ve now climbed higher than they were in 2006.

Beyond giving workers little stability in their lives, temporary jobs pay poorly compared to their full-time counterparts. The ILO’s analysis of nine countries showed that temporary workers are paid about 40 percent less than permanent workers, and that holds true even when controlling for individual characteristics. It may be unsurprising, then, that the report finds that around the world, “the majority of new jobs are remunerated at a rate below average wages.” Are workers who are lucky enough to be re-employed even making what they need to get by?

The United States in particular has intimate knowledge of this phenomenon: we lead developed nations in the share of low-wage workers. Analysis by the CEPR shows that while more than 10 percent of the workforce in most rich OECD countries is in low-wage jobs—defined as making less than two-thirds of the national median hourly wage—about one-fourth of US workers find themselves in that category. That percentage has been on the rise for at least three decades, and the trend is on track to worsen given the kinds of jobs the economy is producing.

It’s obviously important that those who are out of work find their way back into employment. Having a job is better than none at all. But we’re not putting workers—and therefore our economy—on solid footing if most of them are forced into unstable situations. We’re creating a labor force composed of precarious and low-pay jobs. That means more and more families aren’t earning enough to make ends meet or are working in jobs without a predictable future. No matter the pace of recovery, if it continues to produce this kind of work, we still won’t have an economy built on a solid foundation.

How to Close the Gender Wage Gap in Just Seven Easy* Steps


(AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Congrats, ladies! By today you’ve earned the same as men did in 2011. That gap means that the typical woman working full-time, year round, makes about seventy-seven cents for every dollar a typical man does, and those missing twenty-three cents can really add up. In a year a woman loses $10,784 to a man—enough to buy about 2,700 gallons of gas. It can add up to a loss of $431,000 in pay for the typical woman over a forty-year career. No small chunk of pocket change.

This issue hasn’t gone unnoticed. The first thing President Obama did after settling into the West Wing was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, which expanded the statute of limitations on lawsuits over equal pay. Yet Ledbetter did little to actually change the gap: it stood at seventy-seven cents when the bill was passed at 2009, where it stands today.

But this high holiday of gender inequality is not the day to get dragged down in pessimism! After all, it can’t be totally out of reach to change this thing that’s barely budged in fifty years, amiright? In the spirit of moving forward and focusing on real solutions, here are some quick steps we can all take to make the gap disappear:

1. End salary secrecy. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, about half of all workers are either prohibited or strongly discouraged from talking about how much they make with their colleagues. And it’s pretty hard to sue an employer for pay discrimination without first figuring out what everyone else rakes in. So, easy task: just force all employers, public and private, to let anyone talk freely about how much they make. Americans should quickly get over their queasiness about discussing money, and employers shouldn’t care if their lower paid employees start salivating over six-figure salaries.

2. Raise the minimum wage. While we’re making companies do things they have no interest in doing, we should also raise the minimum wage. According to the National Women’s Law Center, about two-thirds of all workers making the minimum wage are women, and they’re also about two-thirds of those in tipped occupations that often pay a base rate far below that. Making the federal floor of $7.25 an hour nets a woman just $14,500 working full-time for a year, which adds up to more than $3,000 less than the poverty line for a family of three. Raising that wage could mean a raise for 28 million workers. Congress has only raised that wage three times in the past thirty years—so what could go wrong?

3. Fix the broken career pipeline. One more thing that companies need to change: they need to move women into higher-paying positions and stop dumping them in lower ones off the bat. Research from Catalyst has shown that even after taking into account geography, industry and men and women’s levels of experience, women are more likely than men to graduate business school and end up in a lower-level job. Their wages suffer from a similar problem: on average those women are paid $4,600 less in their first job than men. That difference had nothing to do with parenting, experience or aspiration. It just happens. And from there the gap keeps widening as women struggle to catch up with men over their careers. Those same men were twice as likely to end up in the C-suite than the women, so it’s little wonder that their wage growth outpaced women’s.

4. Pass family leave policies. Nearly three-quarters of children have both parents or their only parent in the workforce. How do those parents do it? No, really, how do they? Because our family leave policies compare pretty poorly to other developed countries. This isn’t just an inconvenience, however. It has real financial impacts on working women. As a recent Rutgers study bluntly puts it, “Paid family leave increases wages for women with children.” In fact, a woman who gets thirty or more days paid family leave is over 50 percent more likely than those who get nothing at all to see her wages increases the year after her child’s birth. Easy solution there: just get Congress to pass some solid family leave bills. Next!

5. Increase childcare support. Research from the UC Berkeley Labor Center on California’s childcare support system showed that a lack of access or ability to afford childcare can be one of the most significant barriers to getting a job and staying in it. In fact, workers’ careers—mostly women’s—are often disrupted by a failure to get childcare, but a continuous work history is correlated with higher pay and better benefits. One study estimated that if the government fully funded childcare programs, mother’s overall employment would jump 10 percent. Get to it, John Boehner.

6. Encourage unionization. Cries of impinging on job creators’ freedom aside, increased unionization rates are correlated with a much smaller wage gap. The gap stands at 79.9 percent among employees who aren’t represented by a union, but it’s a much better 87.8 percent for those who are. This may tie back in part to wage secrecy: IWPR reports that the percentage of workers who are discouraged or prohibited from talking about their wages was doubled for non-union workers as compared to union workers. Increased unionization rates: that should go over well in the halls of Congress, right?

7. End occupational segregation. Remember the mancession? Men saw a huge decline in their employment because they are overwhelmingly employed in construction and manufacturing, and women have been seeing job declines during the recovery because they’re much more likely to be employed in the public sector. This is classic occupational segregation: women have yet to really break into the ranks of blue collar manufacturing jobs and are still clumped in service sector jobs. Our progress in getting more women into male-heavy jobs has slowed in recent years, and this has a big impact on the wage gap. Those manufacturing jobs? They tend to pay pretty well. Service jobs, not so much. At the low end of skill level, male-dominated fields—those that are 25 percent or less female—pay $553 a week, while female-dominated ones make $408. That’s a difference of nearly $150 a week. Things are even worse at the high-skill level: men’s fields pay $1,424 a week, but women’s pay a whopping $471 less at $953. But no sweat: getting women to brave discrimination and socialization to take these jobs, and getting these employers to reach out to women, and getting more men into low-pay service jobs, and getting women the training and education they need for male-heavy jobs should all be a pretty easy to accomplish.

So ladies, turn that wage inequality frown upside down! We can’t be that far from closing the gap if this is all it takes.  

*These steps may require cooperation from a stalemated Congress and a reluctant private sector.

The Fast Pace of Change for Women Workers Can’t Distract From the Work Left to Do

Editor's Note: Please join us for a livechat with Bryce Covert, along with Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and Joan Entmacher and Kate Gallagher Robbins from the National Women's Law Center, on Tuesday, March 27th, at 1pm EST, here in the comments section! The discussion will center on the obstacles that women face in the current economy and the ways in which women can achieve economic equality. To join the chat, please use the comments box at the top of the conversation thread, rather than the “reply” function.

“You’ve come a long way, baby.” That was Virginia Slims’ opening salvo to the professional woman when it launched a brand aimed solely at her less than a half century ago. That half-century has seen radical changes in the American workforce, women’s roles and the shape of our families.

In that time the birth control pill became widely available, helping to triple the number of working women from the 50s to the aughts. The latest generation of women workers has the most positive outlook on their careers and the labor force than any in history. Almost 40 percent of today’s working wives outearn their husbands. And women who have children are much more likely to stay in the workforce when their kids are young than they were in the past.

Yet for all these steps forward, there are some steps we’ve yet to take—and ones that have taken us backward. Women still make only eighty-one cents for every dollar men earn, which ends up costing them $431,000 in pay over a forty-year career. That’s on top of all of the other expenses they have to shell out money for that men don’t have to worry about. That wage gap also leads some women to drop out of the labor force later in life when they see their husbands making so much more money, and while the youngest generation of women are optimistic about their career prospects, they still feel more slowed down by parenting than men. And we may have made up ground in the office, but we are still faltering on Capitol Hill: women make up half of the country’s population but only 16 percent of Congressional seats.

The latest economic catastrophe hasn’t been kind to women either. The initial crash was called a “mancession” because men had a much higher unemployment rate than women, but now men and women have the same exact unemployment level—and women’s rate is actually higher than at the beginning of the recovery, while men’s has dropped. Meanwhile, during the recovery women have mostly been losing jobs while men have made some gains, and they only got about a third of the 200,000 of the jobs added in January and February.

They’ve also been left out of the rebound in manufacturing that’s been making economists feel optimistic. Between 2010 and 2011, men gained 230,000 jobs in the sector, but women lost 25,000.

This is by no means a complete list of our gains and our roadblocks in the American economy. But it’s clear that while there’s much to celebrate, this is no time to sit back and declare victory. In fact, doing so risks letting these gains slide backward under the steady barrage of attacks from the right and under a system that still needs changes at its core. Supporters of women’s equality have a tricky task ahead of us: being able to recognize the incredibly fast pace of change over past decades while keeping our eyes trained on all of the ways that women still struggle for economic equality.

The questions remain: How much progress have women made? At the same time, what obstacles still stand in the way of full economic equality with men? How can we keep working to overcome them?   

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