Where feminism and economics intersect.
Should you go to college? The answer used to be self-evident: college was a path to upward mobility, a ticket to middle-class adulthood. Higher education played a particularly critical role for women looking to secure independence through financial stability. But increasingly, stories about college focus on the relentless burden of student debt and efforts to channel students toward majors that will help them beat the ugly job market. In this installment of The Curve, Anna Clark, Susan Feiner, Nancy Folbre and host Kathleen Geier do the math, exploring the role that colleges play in breaking or boosting the class hierarchy in today’s economic landscape.
Anna Clark: You can’t use the word “debt” without stumbling on its double meaning. A seemingly simple term for money owed, it is steeped in morality. “Forgive us our debts” goes the Christian prayer, meaning “sins.” As David Graeber points out, our language of business depends on our language of ethics. “Reckoning,” “forgiveness,” “accountability” and “redemption” refer to both the state of our soul and our credit status. Our understanding of who owes what to whom defines our vocabulary for right and wrong. History is as much a story of lenders and borrowers as it is a story of rich and poor.
It is no coincidence, then, that most of us find it hard to talk about owing money. Americans believe that if we work hard and make smart choices, we’ll succeed, no debt required (except, perhaps, for a mortgage)—and along the way, we will be good people. When we borrow heavily to pay for college education—perhaps the most significant step we take toward good work and financial stability—guilt and shame are common feelings, to say nothing of panic and fear.
With fast-rising tuitions and stagnant wages, fewer of us are immune from borrowing to pay for our university education. And delaying or forgoing college while we save is a difficult option: according to the Center for American Progress, weekly earnings for workers with a bachelor’s degree were $1,066 in 2012, compared to $652 for workers with a high school diploma. Those without a degree are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed. For many, going to college, then, is simultaneously a rational economic choice and an economic disaster.
Count me among them. I’ve been paying off loans for my undergraduate and graduate education since 2007. I was an in-state student at the University of Michigan, and I attended the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College; I paid my own way through both of them. I’m proud of this—again, that morality and money connection—but pride doesn’t pay the bills. I took extra semesters at both schools, totaling seven years in higher education, but I also worked nonstop, had a few small scholarships and paid what I could on my tuition along the way. No unpaid internships for me: I hustled in the dorm dining hall and the hospital gift shop; I gave tours of the campus and of the natural history museum; I knocked on doors for an environmental group and made sandwiches at Potbelly’s; I went bleary-eyed with boredom as a corporate go-fer and bleary-eyed with exhaustion while weeding and watering as a campus groundskeeper. To my mother’s horror, I was frequently the paid subject of medical and psychological research experiments. These days, I’m working through a get-out-of-debt plan that is meaningfully moving me along. I refuse to believe I will be a debtor my entire life. But it’s slow: with interest, after eight years of payments, I still owe about $66,000 on my student loans.
Facing this, it’s hard to comprehend that there was once a time when a summer of work at a minimum-wage job paid for a year of tuition at a terrific in-state university, with money left over. As Greg Schoofs points out, twelve weeks of a low-wage job in 1976–77 would have earned me a full year of tuition at the University of Michigan. These days, the same job earned only 25 percent of my tuition. Over the past thirty years, reports CAP, “average tuition for a four-year college has increased more than 250 percent”—accounting for both public and private schools—while average family income increased only 16 percent. The cost of public universities is rising at about twice the rate of their private nonprofit counterparts.
Going to college can be simultaneously a rational choice and an economic disaster.
What happened? Public universities were designed to be accessible to people without wealth, but tuition and fees rose out of proportion with wages, in part because of drastic cuts from state governments. Just since the recession, universities saw a 28 percent decrease in public funding per student. Many schools work hard at increasing financial aid options, but loans are part of the typical package. That means costs carry forward into adult life for nearly 40 million of us, bringing with it insecurity, headaches and, yes, guilt.
There’s also a disturbing gender dimension: while 71 percent of college seniors graduating in 2012 had loan debt averaging $30,000, women have a larger slice of their income taken up by debt payments—you can thank the pay equity gap for that. Twenty percent of recent female graduates pay more than 15 percent of their take-home salaries on student debt. (That includes me.) Even controlling for factors like hours worked, major and occupation, there is a 7 percent gender gap in wages. “Women and men pay the same amount for their college degrees, but they often do not reap the same rewards,” the AAUW report reads. Add to this equation the fact that women typically have longer lives, with their older years supported by less money in savings, investments and retirement, and you have a proper fiasco on your hands.
There are people trying to intervene. This summer, President Obama extended a cap on student loan payments to about 5 million people. And Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed a bill, supported by the president, that allows people to refinance student loans with both banks and the federal government at today’s lower interest rates—potentially a huge relief for me and thousands of others who, in seeing most of our payments eaten up by interest, feel that we are spinning our wheels. Warren’s bill would also cap interest rates for undergraduate loans at less than 4 percent—a smart plan, because student loans, unlike any other loan, cannot be forgiven. (Again, note that word: “forgiven.”) You can’t escape through bankruptcy, or even death.
Warren’s bill was filibustered by Republicans in June, and in September the GOP blocked another attempt to bring it for a vote. Warren said she’ll keep pushing it. I hope so. Because debt forces brutal choices.
The minimum payment on my student loans is $7,224 a year—that’s no small change for a single and self-employed freelancer. I try hard to pay more than that, in hopes of becoming free of it. Fantasizing about what I could do with this money if I weren’t shoveling it off to Citibank and Discover—save for retirement? cease being a renter? pay for dental insurance? consider having a child someday? help out my siblings and friends?—upsets me. But at the same time, I know I’d be worse off without my degrees, even with the debt that came with them, like heavy barnacles attached to a ship. There seems to be no choice but to keep blinders on, stick to a payment plan that is as ambitious as I can afford, and hustle. It’s the only good thing I can do.
Susan Feiner: Despite the a huge literature on US higher education, we know very little about the 265 public comprehensive universities (PCUs) that serve nearly 40 percent of students enrolled in four-year public post-secondary colleges and universities. Most of the PCUs are essentially open admission, requiring neither high grades nor strong standardized test scores. These are the institutions that, by making admission less selective and attendance more affordable, extended the opportunity for higher education to masses of middle-class, working-class and minority students. The PCUs offer a wide range of undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts and sciences and the professions, with masters-level programs most often in applied areas like business, nursing, social work, teaching and engineering. These are not glittery research palaces; they’re not home to nationally competitive sports teams; and they’re not selective, ivy-covered campuses.
Students at PCUs are frequently working adults who can’t cross the state—much less the country—to go to college, or first-generation college-goers who need to live at home while attending school. Thus the PCUs provide higher education opportunities to millions who lack the academic achievements needed to gain admission to selective state research universities. In the aggregate, the PCUs are majority minority. Of undergraduates at PCUs, 70 percent are female, black, Hispanic, Asian-American, Pacific Islander or Native American. It’s even more dramatic at the graduate level: 80 percent of graduate students at PCUs fall into the categories listed above.
State funding decisions threaten the access and opportunity the afforded by PCUs. Since the recession, the “great cost shift”—which moves the burden of paying for higher ed from governments to individuals—in public higher education has intensified. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents the state-by-state impact. Forty-eight of the fifty states (all but Alaska and North Dakota) are spending less per student, with the average state spending $2,026 (23 percent) less per than before the recession. Since the 2007–08 school year, the annual published tuition at four-year public universities has risen 28 percent. But the increases in tuition only offset part of the revenue lost due to reduced state funding. Public colleges and universities have cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut computer labs and reduced library services.
Declining state aid affects all of the 6.8 million students enrolled in four-year public higher education. But the impact of the budget cuts fall disproportionately on women, people of color and first-generation college students, because states do not distribute aid to post-secondary education at anything like parity across the campuses. Once a state makes its allocation for public higher education, the state’s higher-education authority (chancellor, Board of Trustees, State Council on Higher Education) divvies up that money across its campuses.
Between the 2006–07 and 2011–12 academic years, the 265 PCUs lost $1 billion in state funding. In 2006–07, the states allocated $11.6 billion to these schools; in 2011–12 they received $10.6 billion. At the same time, enrollment at the PCUs rose by 209,526 students.
This is the pattern across the states. The PCUs, accessible institutions by design, enroll more female and minority students. These schools—which serve students who need more support—started out with bare-bones faculty, facilities and support staff, and now they receive even less state funding. Students and their families suffer.
The average state is paying 23 percent less per public university student than before the recession.
Declining state aid to public higher education, with its unequal impact on the poorer schools, is compounded by other financial decisions made by state higher education officials. One would think that as state aid for public higher education declines, the imperative would be to preserve the institutions’ operating revenue. But that’s not what’s happening. Let’s take a brief detour through some accounting terminology to understand it.
At for-profit institutions, the difference between assets and liabilities is net worth. The analogous accounting category for public institutions is “net assets.” Net assets can be restricted, in which case they must be spent on specific projects: a donor’s gift specifies “spend this $50K beefing up the library reading room,” or school officials sign a contract to replace a dorm boiler.
Unrestricted net assets are different because they are not tied to any specific activity. Unrestricted net assets represent readily accessed funds that are completely discretionary—there are no donor restrictions associated with them.
Between 2006 and 2012, unrestricted net assets at PCUs increased by $470 million, bringing those accounts to just over $1 billion (from $624 million in 2006). So even while the PCUs lost a billion in state funding (which caused them to cut their budgets), they piled up another half-billion in unrestricted net assets by spending less on faculty, support staff, libraries, labs and other aspects of instruction.
Administrators often claim that “these funds are spoken for,” but that’s not accurate. Even if the governing board has earmarked portions of the unrestricted net assets for future projects, the fact that the external auditing firm put the funds into the unrestricted category means there are no binding contracts for those projects.
Since public comprehensive universities rarely have large donors, they increase their unrestricted net assets by reducing spending on core academic functions. The decision to do this compounds the depressing effect on educational spending created by declining state aid.
The situation at the University of Maine is illustrative: unrestricted net assets have climbed to $183 million over the past six years. In every single one of those years, the governing body and administrators on each campus insisted that there was no money, that budgets had to be cut, that no alternative to laying off faculty, shuttering programs or firing staff existed. But every year unrestricted net assets grew. Even now, the administration is calling for another round of massive cuts. But will the auditor’s report show that unrestricted net assets grew again in the last fiscal year? We don’t know, because the system has said it will not release the auditor’s report until after the cuts have been announced and implemented.
The value of post-secondary education varies substantially by race and gender—on average, women with bachelor’s degrees earn $990 per week while men with bachelor’s degree earn $1199 per week; a black woman with a bachelor’s degree earns $886 per week. But if they didn’t go to college, they’d be stuck in really horrible jobs paying poverty wages—$550 per week on average. Public higher education offers life-changing experiences and opens doors that were previously closed. That’s why the higher education institutions that serve women, people of color and lower-income people are being destroyed from above.
Nancy Folbre: Once upon a time, a college degree provided a ticket to ride a comfortable, if not luxurious, ferry boat to economic security. Not any longer. The ticket is still valuable, but largely because it purchases a life preserver that can help you stay afloat, while those without one tread water to avoid drowning.
During much of the twentieth century, college-educated workers were a scarce commodity. Most people with access to higher education could expect a reliable rate of return on investments in their own skills. In the golden age of human capital, the labor market richly rewarded educational credentials.
In their well-received 2008 book, The Race Between Education and Technology, Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz asserted that the big problem was increasing the supply of educated workers sufficiently to meet the labor market’s demand for them.
How times have changed.
The more recent Race Against the Machine, by MIT management professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, tells a very different story. They argue that even educated individuals are racing to cope with their own potential obsolescence. The digital revolution is offering bigger rewards for specialized skills such as software design—but lower rewards for the general skills in problem-solving and critical thinking that a college education provides. As the demand for these general skills declines, increased immigration and outsourcing have made it easier to businesses to draw upon a larger global supply of college graduates. In a process that economist Richard Freeman terms “human capital leapfrogging,” developing countries have invested heavily in public higher education. In 1970, despite representing only about 6 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounted for 29 percent of the world’s college students. By 2005–06, the US share had dropped to 12 percent. Almost 75 percent of global enrollments in tertiary education were in developing countries, including China, India and Mexico.
In the golden age of human capital, the labor market richly rewarded educational credentials. Not anymore.
As a result, the same economic pressures that hurt blue-collar workers in the manufacturing sector in previous decades are now hammering young professionals and managers. As recent research by the Progressive Policy Institute shows, the absolute earnings of college graduates ages 25–34 working full-time remain about 86 percent what they were in 2000.
Evidence of mismatch between educational credentials and job requirements became apparent even before the Great Recession of 2007. In 1970, only 1 in 100 taxi drivers and chauffeurs in the United States had a college degree, compared to about fifteen in 100 today; a similar trend is evident in other occupations such as bartending and firefighting. Andrew Sum and Paul Harrington of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University estimate that in 2010, fewer than half of all BA holders ages 25 and below held a job requiring a college degree.
This trend validates what is termed a “queueing” theory of the labor market, in which those with more education go to the head of the employment line, whether their skills are actually needed or not. College graduates are not necessarily any better at pulling espressos than high-school dropouts, but they are more likely to get hired anyway.
This helps explain why the relative gains to a college degree remain high.
The promise that a college degree will pay off derives primarily from two rather depressing trends, recently described in The Chronicle of Higher Education—first, a reduction in the earnings students forgo by attending college (since young people in that age group have such a hard time finding decent jobs) and declines in the average earnings of the non–college educated that have outpaced those of their more credentialed peers.
The younger generation inhabits an age of tarnished opportunity. In August 2014, the unemployment rate for Americans younger than 25 was 13 percent, compared to 4.6 percent for those 55 and older. A recent study that followed more than 1,600 students through their senior year at twenty-five four-year institutions found that more than half struggled to find decent jobs; many lived with their parents and still leaned on them for money.
Such descriptions often elicit a morality tale: professors no longer set sufficiently high standards; students opt for easy majors like communications instead of toughing it out in engineering; they party all the time and don’t study enough. But professors have not suddenly become lax and students have not suddenly become lazy. This kind of finger-pointing looks suspiciously like an effort to validate the fairy tale that the labor market always rewards strong effort and valuable skills.
As a college professor with skin in this game, I think students should study hard and think strategically about the skills they acquire. But I also think they should—and increasingly will—identify themselves as members of a working class that is collectively disadvantaged by neoliberal economic policies based on blind faith in market forces.
Human capital will never entirely lose its value. In Race Against the Machine, Brynjolfsson and McAfee cite a 1965 National Aeronautic and Space Administration Report explaining why astronauts were so useful: “Man [sic] is the lowest-cost, 150 pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system that can be mass-produced by unskilled labor.” The big question is whether these nonlinear all-purpose computer systems can work together to configure an economic system that treats them as valuable outputs rather than merely as cheap inputs. That kind of economic system would invest heavily in education whatever its private rate of return in the labor market. It would also devise ways of productively utilizing workers even when the global forces of supply and demand rule them redundant. It would make full employment a priority.
Kathleen Geier: Earlier this year, the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century ignited a long-overdue public debate about economic inequality in our society. But there’s a major problem with the nationwide conversation on inequality that resulted: it’s been far too abstract. Economists, who dominate inequality discussions, have a tendency to rattle off dry statistics about trends and correlations. Their contributions are indispensable, but their focus on the big picture tell us frustratingly little about what economic inequality looks and feels like. College, for example, has long looked like a stepping stone to upper mobility. But a striking new book looks closer, peering inside individual lives, and shows the modern university to be a crucible of class reinforcement.
Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2013), the extraordinary book by sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, takes the form of a case study, allowing the authors to capture intimate details of their subjects’ lives that a more quantitative approach could never access. And the unusual setting of their study—an economically diverse of college women all living in the hothouse atmosphere of a college dorm—throws class conflict into high relief, which makes it an ideal environment for studying how class works as a system.
The college setting is important for another reason. Though mainstream economists frequently argue that higher education is the chief remedy for American inequality, Armstrong and Hamilton build a compelling case that college is more part of the problem than part of the solution. The sobering message of their book is that the modern university does a better job of promoting social stratification than advancing social mobility.
When they originally conceived of their project—a five-year study tracking the fates of fifty-three incoming female students who spent their first year living in the “party” dorm of an anonymous large public university (“MU”)—Armstrong and Hamilton intended to focus on sexuality. But they soon realized that class, not sex, was the bigger story. The students they followed were an economically heterogeneous lot, ranging from the daughters of CEOs to working-class women from small towns who were the first in their family to attend college. All of the students entered college expecting that an undergraduate education would bring economic prosperity, but by the end of the study period, fully half of the women were on a path of downward economic mobility. Even more telling was that the women’s economic trajectories had sorted out almost perfectly according to their class background. The authors contend that the chief culprit for this dismal outcome is the college itself. They argue that MU and other large state universities “organize the college experience” in a way that “systematically disadvantages all but the affluent.”
Much of what makes Paying for the Party such a riveting, even heartbreaking, book is its abundance of novelistic detail. What grabs you are the people, and the way their stories vividly illustrate the cruelties of the class system. You meet memorable characters such as Hannah, the nicest, and richest, girl on the floor—but one who nevertheless steadfastly denies her class privilege. Then there’s Whitney, the resident “mean girl,” who uses nasty snubs to deflect from her own desperate social insecurity (she’s one of the least affluent women in her elite sorority). There are also a host of working-class strivers such as Alyssa, who was forced to combine full-time study with full-time work, because her struggling parents depended on her to pay for groceries and other necessities.
The modern university does a better job of promoting class stratification than advancing social mobility.
Then there’s Emma, whose troubling story is in many ways emblematic. An A student in high school, and middle-class, Emma entered college aspiring to a career in dentistry. Five years later, she had graduated, but her economic prospects had declined. Rejected for graduate school, she was working a dead-end, $11-an-hour job and burdened by heavy loans. What happened? The authors contend that Emma’s dreams were the casualty of the university.
How so? Like other public colleges systematically undermined by decades of budget cuts, MU has reverted to an earlier model of higher education: the university as country club. As students, the rich can afford to pay high out-of-state tuition rates; as alumni, they constitute an coveted and influential donor base. By and large, what this decidedly unintellectual sector of the upper class is looking for from college is not academic rigor but the opportunity to expand social networks. They crave a primarily social experience, and institutions like MU are happy to give it to them.
This is where party culture comes in. Economic elites dominate MU’s most powerful fraternities and sororities, which control a vast swath of housing and other university resources. Drinking and party culture shaped campus life so powerfully that it affected every woman Armstrong and Hamilton studied, even those outside the sororities, because there are few prospects for a decent social life outside of the party scene.
But the time-consuming demands of party life and the sororities are so excessive that they leave little time for academics. The school provides a ready solution: undemanding majors of the sort that never have, and never will, be taught at Harvard, including “fashion merchandising,” “sports communication” and the like. These majors require little in the way in skill acquisition; instead, as the authors note, they focus heavily on traditionally feminine traits such as “appearance, personality and charm.”
The “party pathway” proved viable for the daughters of the upper class, but frequently ended in disaster for the less-privileged students, who lacked the class-based resources that make such a strategy sustainable. Unlike the more affluent women, they couldn’t afford to take unpaid internships or move to major cities, where the jobs were. Even more crucially, they lacked the family connections to land positions in “glamor industries” like media and fashion. They also proved wanting in other traits that were vital to success in these fields: the kinds of “tastes, personality and self-presentation” that, the authors say, are typical of upper-middle-class femininity. For example, the socially insecure Whitney lost out on job opportunities because of her lack of cultural sophistication—at industry networking events, she dressed inappropriately and couldn’t chat knowledgeably about wine.
When Armstrong and Hamilton turn away from employment and academic outcomes to shine a spotlight on the role of class in the women’s everyday social and sexual lives, the results are just as eye-opening. Their thick descriptions of the painful, class-tinged social interactions between women on the floor are gripping—see, for example, the section on “being mean nicely,” the technique perfected by the social climbers to freeze out the lower-class women without being rude. Similarly damning are their insights about how campus party culture reinscribes traditional gender roles. For instance, they note that the upper-class women pursue “easy majors” rather than marketable skills because they assume they will be supported by wealthy husbands. There are also an abundance of fascinating observations about the interaction of sex and class, such as the finding that even though the least economically privileged women had the fewest number of sexual partners, they were more likely to be “slut-shamed” (labeled as promiscuous). Even more disturbingly, they discovered that the working-class women were significantly more likely to be victims of campus rape, mainly because they lack the social protections of their higher-income counterparts.
Paying for the Party has some real flaws, most notably its limited time frame (a longer-term study might have produced different results) and its failure to examine race (the women studied were all white). Earlier this year, Ross Douthat wrote a grossly misleading column about the book, portraying it as a morality tale about feckless upper-class sluts setting a bad example for the lower orders. Talk about missing the point! Armstrong and Hamilton never pathologize individual behavior; instead, they indict a thoroughly rotten system. They call for major reforms at the political and institutional level, including significantly increasing financial aid to college students and to public institutions of higher learning; banning, or at least heavily regulating, fraternities and sororities; ending legacy admissions; providing students with better academic and career counseling; and creating more college programs targeted at serving poor and working-class students.
But in our austerity-happy age of soaring economic inequality, whether such policies will be enacted is anyone’s guess. Amstrong and Hamilton don’t sound terribly optimistic. Last year, a reporter from The New York Times asked Armstrong to identify the most surprising thing she learned from her research. She replied, “We didn’t expect this to be as depressing as it turned out to be.”
Nightmarish stories about about the criminalizing of motherhood have been making headlines of late. There was Shanesha Taylor, arrested on child abuse charges for leaving her kids in a car to go to a job interview; Debra Harrell, locked up for child abuse for letting her 9-year-old play at a nearby park while she worked her shift at McDonald’s; Mallory Loyola, the first woman to be charged under a new Tennessee law that makes it a crime to take drugs while pregnant; and Eileen Dinino, who died serving a jail sentence because she was too poor to pay legal fees from her kids’ truancy cases. Other countries provide social programs and income supports for poor single mothers; in the United States, we arrest them. This week at The Curve, we ask contributors what, in their view, is driving America’s assault on mothers, and what is the remedy? —Kathleen Geier
Sarah Jaffe: It has been impossible for me to do much this week except obsessively read news reports from Ferguson, Missouri, where the horrors of a militarized suburban police force have been unleashed on a community mourning one of its own, Michael Brown, shot by a police officer on Saturday, August 9. It has been hard to click away from Twitter, where my feed is overflowing with tweets from Ferguson, to go to sleep at night or to work on other stories.
My feed is full of pictures like this: pictures of mothers holding children facing down lines of heavily armed police, police in camouflage, police with wooden batons and riot shields and rifles loaded with who knows what. Mothers in tank tops, babies in shorts, nowhere to conceal the weapon that it would be ludicrous to think they had. I see those pictures alongside pictures of Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, crying for her son who was left dead in the street for hours. Photos of her with her hands in the air, the way her son reportedly died.
As Dani McClain wrote on this website earlier, it is sometimes hard to get the broader feminist movement to see the killing of black children as a feminist issue, though it has long been part of the woman of color-led reproductive justice movement. But as we see the criminalization of mothers grabbing headlines around the country in recent months and years, we would do well to understand all of these issues as connected.
I wrote at Salon about the arrests of Shanesha Taylor and Debra Harrell for not being with their children while they pursued a job and were at work, respectively. I argued there that we should see the NYPD’s notorious arrest of Denise Stewart, dragged half-naked from her Brownsville apartment, and her 12-year-old daughter as part of the same pattern of criminalizing black motherhood in particular, of not just devaluing the work done by black mothers but implying that their parenting is bad, dangerous, criminal.
The demonization of poor mothers but particularly of black mothers was used to sell the “welfare reform” policy signed into law by Bill Clinton, the precise policy that made it necessary for mothers like Debra Harrell to go to work at McDonald’s and not to be home with their children, a policy that shoved parents into work and did nothing to provide them with childcare. This same stereotype of the lazy bad welfare queen serves to reinforce our idea of childcare as a private responsibility rather than a community good, and thus leaves us all without a childcare system that works.
That same stereotype was present when Tanya McDowell, a homeless mother who in 2012 was living with her son alternately on a friend’s couch, in a van, and in a shelter, enrolled her son in the more affluent Norwalk, Connecticut, school district and was sentenced to five years in jail for “stealing” $15,686 in “education services.” Apparently it’s just that easy to quantify the difference between the quality of education in Norwalk and neighboring Bridgeport, where McDowell’s last permanent address had been. But instead of being horrified at the inequality between school districts, we were supposed to be horrified that McDowell had dared to acknowledge the difference herself and to reach across that line to want better for her 6-year-old boy.
Instead of fixing social services so that mothers don’t have to face impossible choices or take unknowable risks, we throw them in jail. They shouldn’t have had the audacity to have children while poor, we say, ignoring the fact that particularly after the 2008 financial crisis we should all be aware that economic circumstances can change at the drop of a hat through no fault of one’s own. Ignoring the years and years of racist policies that made sure that the face of poverty was likely to look like Taylor, Harrell, McDowell.
Our public policy suggests that women shouldn’t have the audacity to parent while poor.
Selma James, one of the founders of the Wages for Housework movement and the author of the anthology Sex, Race and Class, talked to me recently about the way she still sees care work devalued—from the low wages for preschool and childcare workers to the willingness of child services workers to take children away from their families. “When you are a carer, how you care, how you are allowed to care, the time you are allowed to care, these are the conditions of your labor,” she pointed out. Wages for Housework was a demand both for women to be seen as workers rather than the natural providers of care, but also a demand for real money for those who do that caring work, for an understanding that it is economically indispensable work. The welfare system, before it was dismantled, was a step in this direction. Now, instead, as Shanesha Taylor said, many mothers face a choice “between providing for my children and caring for my children.”
I started out as a feminist blogger and became a labor reporter, and now I find myself slowly but surely writing more and more about criminalization, about the way that police affect a community, about the intersection of our supposed criminal justice system with the economic system under which we live. I cannot write about gender in this country without writing about work and the economy; cannot write about inequality without writing about the vast criminal punishment system. Putting people in jail and violently policing their communities, is a substitute here in the United States for social policy. “Broken windows” policing is a substitute for fixing those windows, for equitably funding schools so no more mothers go to jail for “stealing” a free public education, for making sure that families have homes and childcare. Policing did nothing to help Lesley McSpadden raise her son. All it did was ensure that she found him dead in the street on his way to visit his grandmother.
As we continue to watch the militarized police in the streets of Ferguson, I think of the words of Dream Hampton about the caring work done by the women during the protests:
These women offer a place where Ferguson youth could come & scream & cry & be held & heard in love. Mighty work. pic.twitter.com/WrVSbR6Ui0
— dream hampton (@dreamhampton) August 13, 2014
But I also think of what Selma James told me not long ago:
“Caring work is irrelevant because they don’t want us cared for, you know. I think they want a lot of us dead.”
Mariame Kaba: In March, I started a petition demanding that Maricopa County prosecutor Bill Montgomery drop all charges against Shanesha Taylor. Like many others, I saw her mugshot photo circulating in the media. Her tear-stained and anguished face was unforgettable. At the time, Shanesha was a homeless mother of three who left her two youngest children in a car while interviewing for a desperately needed job. Her children were discovered alone in the car unharmed. Shanesha was arrested and jailed for several days. After more than $114,000 was raised by strangers and nearly 60,000 signed a petition, Shanesha accepted a deal from the prosecutor that will eventually lead to the dismissal of her felony charges. I have no doubt that public attention and pressure played a role in this outcome.
Shanesha has expressed happiness and relief about the resolution of her case. I, on the other hand, remain angry that she was criminalized in the first place. How could prosecution and jail be the solutions for what is obviously (to my mind) a consequence of poverty and a lack of resources? The children were immediately taken to the hospital and pronounced in good health. They were placed under the supervision of child protective services. According to sociology graduate student Frank Edwards, nationally, “Black children enter foster care at a rate 2.4 times greater than do White children.” We know that, for the most part, removing a child’s primary caregiver doesn’t improve their future outcomes. If anything, they worsen them.
Black women are seen as preternaturally “strong”—which justifies punitive treatment by the state.
In the United States, black mothers have been and continue to be disproportionately punished and controlled in various ways. In “Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers,” legal scholar and sociologist Dorothy Roberts offers a cogent analysis of how the criminal legal and child welfare systems work together to police and control black women’s bodies and families. She writes that the systems “function together to discipline and control poor and low-income black women by keeping them under intense state supervision and blaming them for the hardships their families face as a result of societal inequities.” She also argues that stereotypes about black women as “welfare queens” and “matriarchs” subject them to and reinforce punitive policies.
This is not new. Black women’s bodies have long been “managed” and criminalized. In her book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Roberts offers many examples of the criminalization of black women, including this one:
In 1989, officials in Charleston, South Carolina, initiated a policy of arresting pregnant women whose prenatal tests revealed they were smoking crack. In some cases, a team of police tracked down expectant mothers in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In others, officers invaded the maternity ward to haul away patients in handcuffs and leg irons, hours after giving birth. One woman spent the final weeks of pregnancy detained in a dingy cell in the Charleston County Jail. When she went into labor, she was transported in chains to the hospital, and remained shackled to the bed during the entire delivery. All but one of the four dozen women arrested for prenatal crimes in Charleston were Black.
More recently, in 2006, 16-year-old Rennie Gibbs delivered a stillborn baby. After an autopsy, the medical examiner found trace amounts of cocaine in the stillborn child and ruled that this caused the death. Gibbs was charged with “depraved heart murder.” The grand jury concluded that Gibbs had “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” caused the death of the baby by smoking crack cocaine during her pregnancy. Gibbs, then 16, faced life in prison.
The so-called “war on drugs” has really been a war on people, and its effects have been particularly devastating for black women and girls like Rennie Gibbs. While blacks make up 13 percent of the US population and are consistently shown to use drugs at similar or lower rates than others, they comprise almost one-third (31 percent) of those arrested for drug law offenses and more than 40 percent of those incarcerated for violating drug laws.
In the United States, the ‘bad mother’ is usually poor and almost always black. Popular representations of black women are shaped by our ideas about race, gender, sexuality, class and more. Black women exist in the culture as hypersexual, unfeminine, angry, potentially criminal, depraved things. We have been excluded from ideologies of domesticity and our families are pathologized. We are preternaturally “strong” and feel no pain therefore justifying harsh and punitive treatment by the state.
It’s a small miracle then that some people were able to overcome our collective socialization to express compassion for Shanesha Taylor and for her children. But it isn’t nearly enough for us to care about black mothers and their children or to simply acknowledge their suffering; we must change policies that are destroying their lives. We must end the war on drugs. We must provide free or low-cost childcare options. We must create living wage jobs. And we must end racist mass criminalization.
Randy Albelda: Les Misérables, all over again… Some aspects of the criminalization of motherhood, such as arresting pregnant women because they take drugs, are just plain misogynist. In the view that drives these practices, women are not capable of controlling their own bodies. But some policies that criminalize mothers are deeply shaped by perceptions of the essential character of poor mothers, and women and men of color—perceptions magnified at the intersection of race and class.
Poor unmarried mothers historically have been characterized as deviant, dependent and even dangerous to society. Mimi Abramovitz’s 1988 classic Regulating the Lives of Women traced the ways in which unmarried mothers were seen as unfit (and therefore in need of regulation), especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More modern depictions, like that of Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965, implied that problems facing urban black Americans at that time were rooted in the “Negro Family,” largely headed by a single mother. Ronald Reagan’s story of a welfare “queen” that drove a Cadillac and illegally milked the system resonated with the public, driving home the image of poor mothers as undeserving. Several states currently require or have introduced bills that require drug tests of mothers on welfare. Poor people, especially mothers receiving government assistance, have long been subject to scrutiny, surveillance and even criminal sanctions for their everyday actions.
Poor mothers’ lives are more exposed than other mothers’.
The problem poor mothers face is not criminal or deviant tendencies. It is that they are caught between a rock and hard place. Taking care of children is expensive and time-consuming, while women’s jobs often pay lousy wages. Mothers with low-wage work often face inflexible work hours in jobs that offer few benefits. In 2012, according to US Census data, the median earnings for employed single and married mothers was $29,120. The Wider Opportunities for Women 2010 report indicates that the typical childcare cost for a single parent with one preschooler and one school age child in the United Sates was $12,960. Without another reliable adult around, it is a Herculean task to find enough time and money to survive.
Further, poor mothers’ lives are more exposed than other mothers. Being poor means taking public transportation, living in denser housing, doing your laundry out of your house. Being poor while parenting (not unlike being black while driving) may be just enough for social workers, teachers, neighbors, bosses and others watching to deem you an inadequate mother. There is no denying that at times all mothers make poor choices about their kids or their spending. If you are white and not poor, there are few consequences for normal human error. But what are you supposed to do when you have no good options available? Do you leave the kid in the car while you go for an interview, or miss the interview and lose the chance of getting a job that provides for him? Do you go into debt to live in a safe neighborhood or risk harm in a dangerous, but cheaper, one?
Ironically, welfare “reform” in the 1990s was supposed to “clean up” poor mother’s deviant act by requiring employment and encouraging marriage. Welfare rights activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972, “We’ve been trained to believe that the only reason people are on welfare is because there’s something wrong with their character“ (Ms. Magazine, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue”). In fact, welfare reform forced many women to break the law. The amounts provided were so low and the scrutiny so high that most women had to work under the table in order to make ends meet, and many inevitably would break some rule of receipt. And there were many of these rules, especially around women’s sexuality. A woman could be denied aid for living with a man or refusing to disclose a child’s paternity.
Promoters of employment and marriage for poor mothers argued it would make poor women less lazy, less dependent and better mothers. The title of the 1996 legislation that brought in sweeping changes to the cash assistance was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act reflecting the sentiment at the time. On the day President Clinton signed the bill, he proclaimed the legislation would transform welfare “by promoting the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and family.” By having to “work” for a living, mothers would be able to stand on their own and be strong role models for their children. Even beyond the maddening fairy tale that poor mothers did not work (either for pay in low-wage jobs or taking care of their kids), this argument turned out to be fantasy. The labor market for low-income mothers was not reformed nor was there an expansion of affordable quality children care to fill the need. Far too many employed mothers do not make enough to support themselves, while employment leaves less time to spend with children. Welfare reform had made family life impossible for many. Coupled with the rise in men’s inequality since the late 1970s, there has also been an increase in the numbers of low-wage or no-wage men, not to mention the wholesale imprisonment of men of color. So much for the marriage solution.
“Ending welfare as we know it,” as President Clinton famously hailed the 1996 welfare legislation, has not resolved the untenable decisions poor and low-income mothers have to make. The growing examples of the neo-criminalization of poor motherhood seems to suggest that the deviant label still holds. Maybe poor employed mothers will garner more sympathy than welfare mothers did. I hope so, because the economics consequences of jail time in the United States are high.
In living their lives and doing the best they can, many mothers (and fathers) run up debt and patch together arrangements for their children that sometimes fail or are just plain dangerous. But, as we are seeing, these types of actions are deemed unlawful and deserving of punishment more often when done by poor mothers of color. The real crime lies elsewhere: the rising number of jobs that do not pay a living wage, an inadequate safety net and the woefully inadequate levels of early education and care.
Kathleen Geier: Why is America so much more likely than other countries to mete out punishment to low-income mothers, rather than offer help? The reasons are complex, but certainly, deep-rooted sexism has contributed to our refusal to adjust our patriarchal Mad Men–era work policies to meet the new realities of American families. Racism has also unquestionably played a major role. Not only has enduring racism weakened the bonds of social solidarity needed to support redistributive social programs, it has also been a powerful contributor to the rise of the carceral state.
There is another factor that has loomed increasingly large in recent decades: economic inequality. Rising inequality has led to an increasing dominance of wealth over our political process, and it is this, more than anything else, that has thwarted legislative efforts aimed at helping struggling moms. A forthcoming study by two political scientists, Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin Page, provides powerful evidence that the rich really do rule. Looking at 1,779 national policy outcomes in the United States over a period of over twenty years, Gilens and Page found that economic elites and business groups had “substantial independent impacts” on policy, while groups representing average citizens had “little or no independent influence.” In fact, the preferences of economic elites outweighed those of regular folks by the whopping ratio of fifteen to one.
Universal childcare has been the great lost cause of American feminism.
A growing body of research supports Gilens and Page’s findings. In his 2012 book, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Gilens found that when Americans of different income levels disagree about policy, “the views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has almost no relationship to policy outcomes.” Another important study, by Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels confirmed Gilens’s results. Bartels’ analysis showed that US senators are highly solicitous towards constituents at the top of the income distribution and not responsive at all to those at the bottom.
What do low-income mothers have to do with this? It’s simple: to the extent we’ve tailored our public policies to suit the whims of the rich, by cutting their taxes and slashing government services, we’ve neglected the needs of working mothers. Nearly two decades ago, low-income mothers lost the right to welfare as an entitlement, and in the years since, extreme poverty among female-headed households tripled. Working-class single mothers are also struggling to find jobs. The percentage of single mothers with a high school education or less who are employed has declined sharply, from 76 percent in 2000 to only 54 percent in 2011.
Low-income single mothers—underemployed, suffering from economic stress, frequently overwhelmed—deserve a far better life. In European social democracies, they’d be eligible for assistance such as income supports, a child allowance, baby supplies and help at home from visiting nurses. Perhaps the most dramatic difference, however, is that they’d receive childcare. Universal childcare was one of the major goals of second wave women’s rights movement, and indeed, it came heartbreakingly close to becoming a reality. A groundbreaking, comprehensive childcare bill was passed by Congress in 1971—but then President Richard Nixon vetoed it. Ever since, universal childcare has been the great lost cause of American feminism.
Childcare as it exists in the United States today is shamefully inadequate. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn pointed out in an awarding-winning article last year, our childcare system is scandalously underregulated. It is also woefully underfunded. Among OECD countries, we rank third to last when it comes to public spending on family benefits. The major way we fund childcare in this country is through tax breaks, but the annual childcare tax credit is only worth a maximum of 35 percent of care costs, or up to $3,000 per child—grossly inadequate, when you consider that total childcare costs for two children is higher than the median rent in every state. Childcare subsidies and vouchers exist for women who meet eligibility guidelines, but co-pays are high and wait lists are long. In our post-recession austerity era, the nation’s already meager childcare budget has been slashed to the bone, and public spending on childcare is currently at a ten-year low. Given this sorry state of affairs, it’s hardly surprising that less than half of American 3- and 4-year olds are enrolled in preschool.
The time has come for feminists for revive the long-dormant dream of a free, universal childcare system. Getting there won’t be easy, but we can start by building on efforts that are already afoot. Paid family leave, which would enable parents to take paid, job-protected leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted or sick child, is a reality in several cities and states. Just last year, Congress took a major step forward when Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rose DeLauro introduced a bill that would create national paid family leave for American workers. Campaigns for universal pre-K are also gaining ground. President Obama supports universal pre-K and the program which already exists in some states and localities, including Georgia, Oklahoma and New York City.
Research shows that paid leave and universal pre-K offer significant benefits well beyond the immediate ones of providing relief to stressed families. Paid family leave increases women’s job tenure and employment rates and improves child health and development. Early childhood education programs such as universal pre-K significantly improve long-term educational and employment outcomes, and they do so disproportionately for low-income children.
Making these programs the law of the land won’t be easy, given economic elites’ control over our political process. And clearly, even if they are enacted, paid leave and universal pre-K won’t come close to adding up to a universal childcare system. But it would lay a foundation, and we could build from there. It’s been forty-three years since the failure of the major effort to achieve universal childcare in this country. It is long past time for feminists to begin to dream again.
In this installment of The Curve, we asked our contributors to examine Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. If economic inequality continues to soar, as Piketty says it will, and inherited wealth plays a growing role in our economy, in what ways does that affect women specifically? And what weaknesses arise in Piketty’s own analysis due to the absence of gender and race from his book? Where can we, as feminists, build on Piketty’s analysis?
Our participants are Kate Bahn, a PhD candidate in economics at the New School for Social Research and co-founder of LadyEconomists.com, with a forthcoming review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century in the Women’s Review of Books; Joelle Gamble, national director of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, a nationwide student policy organization; Zillah Eisenstein, an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York; and Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. –Kathleen Geier
Kathleen Geier: Does Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century have anything useful to say about feminism? Thus far, discourse about this watershed book has been overwhelmingly male-dominated (the only feminist critique that I am aware of, before this round table, has been Zillah Eisenstein’s). Though Capital has many virtues, attention to gender, alas, is not one of them. Like most mainstream economists, Piketty does not deploy gender as a category of analysis, nor does he engage with the work of feminist economists. Nevertheless, he offers insights about the nature of economic inequality that feminists can build on to advance both gender and economic justice.
As the historian Stephanie Coontz recently observed, during the past forty years our economy has been shaped by two overwhelmingly important trends: the rise of gender equity on the one hand, and the decline of economic equality on the other. These phenomena may appear to be unrelated, but in fact they are linked. During the 1970s and ’80s, women’s labor force participation soared, driven in part by families’ needs for additional income as economic inequality began to spiral and most men’s wages declined. As women’s average educational attainment and years in the workforce increased, so did their wages. Even so, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn argue that during this period, women were “swimming upstream” in a context of rising wage inequality.
During the 1990s and 2000s, economic inequality continued to skyrocket, but gender equity began to stall. As leading feminist intellectuals such as Coontz, Arlie Hochschild and Paula England have noted, during this period the growth in American women’s labor force participation began to fall off, and so did their advancement in managerial and professional occupations. Low-income women also fared poorly, as they lost the right to welfare as an entitlement, and extreme poverty among female-headed households tripled. For a while, the gender pay gap continued to narrow, until progress there began to slow as well.
How can Piketty help us understand these important developments? Piketty’s argument is that absent extraordinary government intervention, economic inequality will continue to soar, because the return on capital is likely to outpace the rate of economic growth. In short, economic inequality is a feature of capitalism, not a bug.
If, as Piketty predicts, economic inequality continues to grow, this bodes ill for women. Evidence that suggests that there is a strong link between gender equity and economic equality, and that women are more likely to prosper in more egalitarian economies. As Blau and Kahn have shown, in countries with more equitable wage structures, women enjoy a narrower gender pay gap. Blau and Kahn have also found that women’s labor force participation in the United States is slowing relative to other economically advanced countries, and they identify our lack of family-friendly work policies as the chief culprit.
Blau and Kahn don’t directly link the decline in American women’s labor participation to rising economic inequality, but their findings suggest a possible pathway. A number of researchers, most notably political scientist Martin Gilens, have found that in America today the preferences of the rich overwhelmingly drive policy outcomes and that economic elites are disproportionately likely to oppose egalitarian, pro-worker economic reform. This suggests that as that the increasing concentration of wealth in our society is a major threat to feminist work and family policies. Growing economic inequality may well be the powerful obstacle blocking women’s economic advancement in our society.
Piketty suggests that to curb economic inequality, we need to reduce the rate of return on capital. He argues that the best way to do so would be via a tax on global capital, an idea that he admits is “utopian.” The other major remedy he advocates is a steeply progressive income tax. He doesn’t explicitly analyze other anti-inequality policies, but he suggests that they would not be nearly nearly as effective. Why not? This brings us to a fascinating question, which he doesn’t fully answer: What causes the rate of return on capital to be so high in the first place?
As economist Suresh Naidu has noted, there are, broadly speaking, two possible answers to this question. The neoclassical interpretation would be that the rate of return is mechanistically determined by the market: by the forces of supply and demand. If this is the case, then tax policy is the only effective remedy. According to Piketty, the elasticity of substitution between labor and capital is high; this theory, if true, implies that labor market reforms would have little impact on inequality. The enactment of a policy such as a high minimum wage would merely give the capitalist an incentive to replace workers with technology in order to maintain high profits.
But elsewhere, Piketty argues that the return on capital “is always in part a social and political construct” that “depends on national rules and institutions.” As he notes, in Germany, where worker representatives sit on corporate boards, the market value of firms’ capital is lower than in other advanced economies. If capital is indeed primarily a social and political construct, then consequently a much broader array of anti-inequality policies would be effective. On the whole, Piketty’s institutionalist analysis is more persuasive than the neoclassicist version, because it is a better fit for his evidence. He shows, for example, that war and progressive taxes weren’t the only factors that caused economic inequality to decline after World War I; political transformations such as the rise of labor unions also played a major role.
An institutionalist perspective suggests that one promising approach to fighting economic inequality would be labor policies targeted at women. A large body of research (including this study) shows that increasing female employment and earnings would reduce household income inequality. This suggests that anti-inequality advocates should champion policies that improve women’s labor force participation, such as paid family leave and other flexible work arrangements.
Increasing economic growth would also, as per Piketty’s analysis, reduce economic inequality. Economic growth, as he defines it, consists of two important factors: productivity growth and population growth. In economically advanced countries, the fertility rate is positively correlated with the female labor force participation rate. This suggests that besides increasing women’s employment, flexible workplace policies would offer the additional advantage of boosting economic growth by increasing the birth rate. There is also evidence that family-friendly policies enhance productivity, which is another way they could increase economic growth.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an exciting and groundbreaking book that forces us to look at economic inequality in a new way. Unfortunately, it is seriously flawed by Piketty’s policy imagination, which is confined by the neoclassical straightjacket. Moving beyond the neoclassical framework suggests a richer array of anti-inequality policy alternatives, of which the feminist response I’ve described is just one subset. Opening up Capital to heterodox analyses such as those provided by feminist and institutional economics allows us to imagine a pro-equality political program that is a better match for the book’s bold vision.
Kate Bahn: One of Piketty’s subtle successes in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is his sensitivity to the limits of economics theory and the imperfection of the economic data. He gains credibility by admitting the shortcomings of his calculations, and perhaps this rhetorical style contributes to the popularity of Capital in comparison to efforts by other renowned economists, like Joseph Stiglitz’s 2012 book, The Price of Inequality, and Robert Reich’s 2013 documentary, Inequality For All. Throughout the book, Piketty cautions that his data is the best available (and it really is impressive), but that it should not be judged complete. He tells us that income tax returns are conservative low estimates of income because of tax evasion, offshoring and tax exemptions that obscure the earnings of those at the top. Economic theory, he says, may provide a general story, and economic models can be useful metaphors, but there are many ways that economic theory does not describe the real world.
Piketty’s subtlety does not extend to the gender biases (as well as racial biases and ethnocentric biases) underlying economic theory and data collection. Piketty points out that certain data, particularly measures of capital income, are incomplete because it can be hard to measure things that are purposefully obscured to the benefit of those in power. Similarly, data collection organized and carried out by male-dominated institutions has a long history of devaluing women’s economic contributions and economic lives.
One simple example of the gender bias in data collection comes from the findings of a 1983 economics dissertation by Penelope Ciancanelli at the New School for Social Research. Ciancanelli describes how the US Census has historically undercounted women’s work in the labor market. Early census takers at the turn of the twentieth century were instructed not to consider women as employed if they were not earning at least a majority of the family’s income. Men were not subject to the same strict definition of employment. Because a lot of the work women did to earn money was done within their homes, it was not considered actual work unless it brought in money above a certain threshold. Its value to the economy was disregarded. With data collection like this, it is no wonder that women’s labor force participation measurements were so low.
Women’s work continues to be undercounted. The 2012 World Development Report on Gender and Development demonstrated that women are more likely than men to work in informal sectors of the labor market, meaning their income from labor cannot be counted using tax data like that on which Piketty relies. While Piketty notes that tax data is insufficient for describing economies in the developing world, where all people are more likely to work in the informal sector, he ignores that women’s informal or uncounted work is important throughout the global economy. In the United States, women are 70 percent of the workers in tipped industries like restaurants, making their earnings from labor difficult to measure. Piketty would remind us again that his calculations highlight relative measures of magnitude between different periods in history rather than precise descriptions. He might argue that informal work is not a big enough piece of economic activity to skew relative magnitudes. However, if what isn’t counted is gender-biased, then the relative magnitudes between genders does shift and presents a more complicated story about inequality.
This is important because income from capital (the interest that one receives from assets) has become even more unequal between classes than income from labor. Piketty argues that this schism follows the simple law of r>g: a higher rate of return on capital than the rate of economic growth leads to widening inequality as the wealthy watch their savings expand. One interesting effect of the growing importance of capital that Piketty does not explicitly acknowledge is that it may exacerbate wealth inequality between genders, too.
The US Small Business Administration, in discussing access to financial planning resources, has noted that women have lower access to these tools. Piketty demonstrates that access to different types of financial investment sources has huge implications for the rate of return, which in turn affects growing inequality. Not only are women likely to have less wealth to invest, but at any given level of wealth, they are less likely than men to have access to financial instruments, exacerbating capital inequality because of gender discrimination.
This criticism of Piketty should not demean his work but rather indicate where the discussion can go deeper. His assessment of the changing nature of inequality is quite alarming. The next step is to understand what exists beyond these broad contours. What things are not being counted. His analysis provides a basis to continue the discourse of inequality and looking at other factors that influence where a person falls in the distribution.
Joelle Gamble: It’s easy to write off a 700-page economics book as an impenetrable tome destined to litter the shelves of prestigious institutions or serve as a conversation piece on the coffee tables of educated elites. However, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century presents an analysis of power and wealth that, despite little mention of marginalized groups in the text, shines light on the urgent concerns of women and people of color in the United States.
Consider the main takeaway of Piketty’s work: capitalism will not solve wealth inequality on its own. His now-famous equation r>g asserts that during times of slow economic growth, the rate of the return on capital (r) will exceed the rate of economic growth (g). This process leads to a booming wealth stock that will be increasingly concentrated in the hands of capital owners.
Since the 1970s, the United States has experienced less-than-stellar economic growth. Wealth inequality has also increased steadily after a brief and anomalous respite in the 1950s. This matters because the people who benefit from the accumulating returns on capital in this country represent a small and homogeneous portion of society. (I’m talking about the truly wealthy, not just rich people. As Chris Rock put it: Shaquille O’Neil is rich; the guy who signs his paycheck is wealthy.)
To make matters worse, the wealth gap between black and white America has increased over the past few decades. For proof, just look at the Unbearable Whiteness of Being that is the Forbes list of the top 400 wealthiest people in the United States.
One could argue that the United States isn’t a rentier society like eighteenth-century France, and that the solution to getting too small a piece of the economic pie is to work harder and earn a higher wage. But there are some problems with that suggestion. We distribute wages in this economy based on the productivity of workers, or at least that’s the theory. In reality, wage inequality has remained relatively stagnant through much of US history, even as American workers have become increasingly productive.
Raising the minimum wage and investing in education are important policies that, if robustly developed, can support women and people of color in the workforce. But these efforts would not be enough. In Capital, Piketty discusses the “super-manager” bracket (think CEOs and others in top decile of earners). These super-managers earn exorbitant wages compared to the rest of the population, and even to other top earners with similar skills and education, yet there is no strong correlation between their performance and their pay.
It is at this point that the labor market reveals itself to be a system shaped by social norms and biases rather than objective criteria alone, like marginal productivity. We’ve developed social markers for what makes a “high-tier” worker. For example, big financial firms tend to hire and reward predominantly white men from a small slice of the economic strata. Earners assigned arbitrary value by wealthy institutions benefit from the productivity of the larger workforce.
Wealth distribution and high-tier wage distribution in the United States can be attributed, essentially, to discrimination. This misleading valuation of worker productivity and the resulting wealth inequality create a pressing need for political action. Whether that means raising the minimum wage, correcting gender imbalances in wages and fields of employment, investing in education, or directly redistributing wealth, there is a clear need for policy to step in where the market has failed.
On the question of redistribution, we have solutions. In Capital, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax to spread the economic benefits of returns on capital more equitably, which, theoretically, would close the wealth gap between classes. But there are also ways to target the wealth and wage gaps amongst women and people of color specifically. As Dean Starkman notes in The New Republic, targeted redistribution can close the white-black wealth gap and a wide set of solutions already exist that target equal pay and equal opportunity for women.
With these solutions and others, we can begin to correct the widening inequalities that are pushing out women and people of color. And, the effects of wealth and wage inequalities on marginalized groups is multiplied many times over. Exercising the political will to correct inequalities is not just a matter of economics; it’s a matter of social justice.
Zillah Eisenstein: It is disappointing in 2014 to once again have to return to decades-old arguments about the relationships between capitalism and patriarchy and racism. All the celebration of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century reminds me of what has not changed when it comes to understanding how women’s many forms of labor are not recognized as integral to the patriarchal structuring of the economy. And, sadly, Piketty is not alone in this.
I begrudgingly have more to say about what Piketty, and Pope Francis and even Barack Obama do not say, than what they do say. Their silences and omissions weigh heavily on me. And although I promised myself many years ago that I would no longer dialogue with progressives who ignored issues of race and gender, here I am again, doing just that.
Each of these men denounces excessive inequality, but without recognizing the way that structural racism and patriarchy intimately define economic injustice. They act as though capitalism is a singular system—rather than an overlapping and multiple structural nexus of power. And even when Obama articulates his My Brother’s Keeper initiative designed to offer “opportunity” to black boys and young men, there is no recognition of how racism is implanted in patriarchy. His signature program on race does not recognize the inequality that affects girls and women of color. Instead, Obama fractures the connection between patriarchy and racism to capitalism.
Piketty is deeply critical of the distribution of wealth and its concentration. Maybe if he focused more on the production of wealth—via its many routes—domestic unpaid and underpaid labor, consumer labor especially in its invisible digitized forms, the sexual and racial ghettoes of the working poor, and so on, he would realize that income distribution emanates from at least a tripartite structuring of labor and capital—by race, gender and class.
Girls and women do the majority of the labor across the globe of every sort—domestic, peasant, migrant, farming, reproductive, consumer, affective, slave and waged. Birthing is done exclusively by women. Most of this labor goes unrecognized, and is poorly paid, if paid at all. This sexual class of diverse women remains an open secret.
Piketty worries about the concentration of wealth. I worry about how and why wealth is so particularly concentrated across the globe in terms of people’s color and sex, with the attendant levels of poverty. He writes that his analysis is “imperfect and incomplete.” He also wonders what we can know “about how wealth and income have evolved since the eighteenth century, and what lessons can be derived from that knowledge for the century under way.” But one cannot do this without fully recognizing the particular role of chattel slave trade and its continuing remnants in the structural racism and sexism that has become a problematic system of wealth inheritance. Black enslaved women as a group added more (unrecognized) wealth to the economy than anyone, and had the least recompense to show for it. Proof of this labor-plunder remain today.
Piketty says that wealth disparity will continue to increase because of patterns of inheritance vs. merit. For women of all colors and men of most colors their inheritance is defined by structures of power not recognized in the mainstreamed notion of capital, or labor or the economy itself. So why start with such a partial and incomplete approach to capital accumulation to begin with?
Of course, Piketty is not alone here. Pope Francis has gained enormous popularity by focusing on the excesses of capitalism, the horrors of poverty etc. while fully endorsing patriarchal choices for girls and women in terms of their reproductive lives and health. The very person promising to limit inequality cocoons them into misogyny. It is a well-known and documented fact that the world the pope condones, one without contraception or abortion is a world with more poverty.
Pope Francis criticizes unbridled capitalism much like Piketty, for its injustice. But a critique of unbridled patriarchy and misogyny is needed as well. It is common knowledge that the majority of the poor across the globe, including 70 percent of the world’s refugees, are women and children. Yet, Pope Francis stays far from these realities. Women remain hidden for him while in plain sight.
The newest fashions of unfettered capitalism have their own new unfettered racialized patriarchy. The tyranny is male-centric and heterosexist. It breeds a culture of exclusion that Piketty, maybe unwittingly, and the pope openly endorses. It is significant that Piketty denies being a Marxist throughout the book. He instead embraces J.J.Rousseau’s critique of excessive accumulation. I want to remind the reader that Rousseau’s so-called radical egalitarianism explicitly endorsed traditional patriarchy—women were not citizens, nor should be given their uncontrolled sexual passion. He lumped women with children and “cripples.”
Piketty, as well as Pope Francis, perpetuates the notion that the political economy is not sexual, that personal life is not intimately connected to the public “market” and its many forms of labor. They bifurcate the locations of capital that privatize and depoliticize women’s bodies in their non-laboring forms—unpaid labor, domestic labor, consumer labor, affective/caring labor. This viewing of capital as both contained and singular leaves us with an inadequate rendering of the present crisis of racialized capitalist patriarchy.
Injustice is defined by more than economic suffering. People—men, women and trans—of all colors suffer from the particular structural identities that intersect with and in the economy. The male-centric heterosexist racialized viewings from Piketty and the pope are disguised in anti-capitalist rhetoric, but they remain intact.
I want new kinds of Marxists who are also anti-racist feminists. Marx de-normalized, denaturalized and historicized class, but did not do so for gender, sex or race. We need to do this: de-naturalize and historically contextualize gender and race and sex intertwined with capital. This contextualization expands and enlarges the meanings of labor and capital beyond production. It begins a historical materialism of racialized capitalist patriarchy so that an inclusive critique of excessive inequality can be crafted.
Piketty says “capital is not an immutable concept,” that it reflects prevailing social relations. This is why patriarchy and racism are key to this understanding. The inequality is particularly excessive according to color and sex. Great wealth alongside grinding poverty colludes with a horrific misogyny that defines girls as part of the trafficking of sexual labor and their bodies.
We are witnessing the chaos and cruelty of capital(ism) with its new excesses of the 1 percent. It is now past due to connect the parts—between global capitalism, gross inequality and sexual/gendered and racial oppression. Singularly, they remain piecemeal and protected.
There will be no cure for (economic) inequality as long as capital is severed from its origins in race and sex and gender. All one needs to do is look at the punishing globe to know this.
Heather Boushey: One of my colleagues has Business Week’s Teen Beat–esque profile of Thomas Piketty on the wall of his cubicle. The cover portrays Piketty as a teen heartthrob, complete with a lipstick kiss.
Ironically, very few women seem to have caught “Pikettymania.” While there have been dozens of reviews of Piketty’s book, I have found only a few that have been written by women. Is Piketty relevant for women? For feminists? Yes! Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a book that every feminist should read.
Anyone who has read about Piketty is familiar with his equation r > g. Piketty’s analysis leads him to conclude that unless the rate of return (r) on capital is brought down, below or at least closer to the rate of growth (g), inequality will continue to rise. In other words, so long as profits are greater than wages, inequality will continue to rise.
Piketty comes to this conclusion by analyzing a treasure trove of data that he, along with his colleagues, pulled together, creating the World’s Top Incomes Database. What we learn from this data is that income inequality is now at the same level as it was at the dawn of the twentieth century. His data shows how today’s high income inequality becomes tomorrow’s greater wealth inequality. An individual who earns a lot of money today may spend it all on yachts or diamond-studded watches, but to the extent they save some of that income or invest it, they will, over time, accumulate a larger and larger stock of wealth. Greater stocks of wealth give those at the top a larger pile of money to pass on to their children. As Piketty says, “The past devours the future.”
In order to illustrate how inheritance affects the economy, Piketty points the reader to the novels of Austen, James and Honoré de Balzac, noting that “for Jane Austen’s heroes, the question of work did not arise: all that mattered was the size of one’s fortune, whether acquired through inheritance or marriage.” For one example, he points to the Henry James novel Washington Square, where Catherine Sloper’s fiancé flees after is learning that her dowry is a third of what he thought and tells her, quoting her rich father, “You are too ugly.”
Now, I like Jane Austen (less so Henry James), but I’m certainly glad to have been born in 1970, not 1800. These novels are a testament to the limited choices that women had. The rules over inheritances will again make all the difference for women’s equality. Do inheritances go to the eldest child or to the eldest male child? What happens upon the death of a spouse—does the wife or the child inherit? We already know that women are far behind men in their wealth holdings: in 2014, only one in ten US billionaires were women, but of those, women were more likely than men to inherit that wealth, as one-third of billionaires who inherited their wealth are women (34.1 percent). The female share of self-made billionaires is only 3.1 percent.
The answers to these questions may not be good for women. And if they are not good for women, they are not likely to be good for our economy. Over the past century, and especially past half-century, we have seen greater gender equality, and our economy has benefitted enormously. In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin or their sex. As women and minorities broke down the barriers to entering professions, this has boosted the United States economy, accounting for up to a fifth of all productivity gains between 1960 and 2008, according to one study.
Women have a lot to gain from an economy that rewards individuals based on what they do with their life, not who they marry or who their parents are. I hope that feminists catch a little Pikettymania.
Read Next: A solution to wealth inequalit that would actually work.
In the final days of its 2013–14 term, the Supreme Court handed down three rulings of major consequence for women. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a 5-4 majority held that requiring some for-profit employers to pay for insurance that covers contraception was a violation of religious freedom. In McCullen v. Coakley, the Court unanimously found that a Massachusetts law creating a thirty-five-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics violated protesters’ free speech guarantees. In Harris v. Quinn, the Court ruled 5 to 4 that it was unconstitutional to require homecare workers to pay fees to the unions representing them.
While the McCullen and Harris decisions were adjudicated primarily on First Amendment grounds, and while the Hobby Lobby and McCullen cases, in particular, have often been framed as “culture war” issues, all three rulings have profoundly important implications for women’s economic rights. What does it mean when an employer is able to paternalistically restrict how a worker chooses to use her own health benefits? How does restricted access to abortion and contraception affect women economically? How does the setback the Court dealt to homecare workers—a workforce composed overwhelmingly of women of color—affect their decades-long fight better pay and working conditions, and the feminist project to revalue care work? We explore these issues and more in this week’s roundtable. —Kathleen Geier
Sarah Jaffe: When SCOTUS handed down its decisions, a handful of journalists discussed Hobby Lobby and Harris together—they came out on the last day of the Court’s session, they were written by the same justice (George W. Bush appointee Samuel Alito, certainly no friend of women, workers or women as workers), both split 5-4, and both clearly issues of rights in the workplace. McCullen was discussed separately: the abortion clinic buffer zone ruling came out on a different day, was unanimous, and was written by a different justice (Chief Justice Roberts). But McCullen too is a decision that will affect women (and men) in the workplace.
How many other people go to work each day being accosted, called murderers, and violently threatened as they attempt to cross the parking lot?
An abortion clinic is a fraught location, a front in the so-called culture wars, and an institution with which even some pro-choice people have an ambivalent relationship. Decades of legal and legislative attempts to chip away at Roe v. Wade have isolated abortion clinics and the doctors, nurses and other workers there from other, less controversial medical establishments. Decades of anti-abortion rhetoric that calls doctors murderers has painted targets on the backs of physicians who perform abortions. We understand the need for a buffer zone in order to help the patients reach the clinic in safety, but we should also understand it as a way to keep the workers safe on the job. How many other people go to work each day being accosted, called murderers and violently threatened as they attempt to cross the parking lot?
The attempts by lawmakers to make abortion more difficult, more arduous, more expensive to access have a disproportionate effect on lower-income people. Waiting period? Try taking several days off of work, and in a post–Hobby Lobby world, do you really want to explain to your boss why you need that time? For the 40 million workers in this country who have no access to paid sick time, it means losing several days’ pay for an expensive procedure not covered by insurance if you’re lucky, and added travel costs if you aren’t. Add to that the prospect of having to run a gauntlet of people trying to shame you, harangue you, and yes, possibly out you.
Image created by NARAL Pro-Choice America
It should go without saying that the decision to have a child or not is one of the most profound economic decisions most of us will make in our lifetimes. The Supreme Court this week made it harder for lower-income women to be able to make that choice for themselves. While I support those who argue for the right of all people to enjoy sex on their own terms, we have spent far too little time elaborating the ways in which the “culture war” is a class war.
Take Hobby Lobby. The hashtag #NotMyBossBusiness gave me some hope that the discussion of this case would turn not on religion, hypocrisy or even just on corporate personhood but on the place where Americans’ freedoms are most curtailed: work. It is, after all, the boss, not the government, who has the most say over what we do and say, whether we can pay the rent or feed the kids, the boss who has increasingly sought the right to influence our political choices and what we wear and track our every move and keystroke.
Instead, I have watched photos of people going into Hobby Lobby stores to rearrange letter-blocks to read “pro-choice” flit across the Internet as if the workers who will have to put those blocks back away are unaware of their boss’s power over them. If we were more aware of this decision as one that will affect women not simply as women but as workers, we might stop and ask ourselves what it would mean to actually be in solidarity with the people who work at those stores, to help them get what they need.
The separation between abortion care and other healthcare that I commented on above plays out in Hobby Lobby, which attempts to paint birth control not as a legally required part of a worker’s compensation package, one that allows women to work on an equal footing with the men, but as something outside, different and worse. Or, in the voices of some dismissive commentators, simply less important, not a big deal, something easy enough for women to buy on their own.
If we recognized Hobby Lobby as a workplace issue, we might reply that the people who work at Hobby Lobby stores make between $9.50 and $14 an hour (and those are actually fairly good wages when it comes to retail work) and that $25 a month (if it’s actually that cheap; that depends on which form of contraceptive you’re using) is a significant extra expense if one is, say, raising children on the wages from that job.
Which brings me to Harris, also a decision about mostly women in the workplace and about healthcare. Even more so than the retail service work Hobby Lobby employees do, home healthcare work is gendered labor that women are expected to do for love, not money. The age-old expectation that women are natural carers, that their highest calling is to care for a family—that very same sexist expectation is at the core of McCullen and Hobby Lobby. It’s an expectation that both denies women’s opportunities to work outside the home, and devalues the caring work they do, waged or unwaged.
Kathleen Geier: There is much to be said about the Supreme Court’s deeply disturbing Harris decision. But as Sarah points out, one important aspect of the ruling has gotten buried in the avalanche of more general commentary: its blatant sexism. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito invented a new, separate-but-unequal category of worker known as the “partial public” employee. Alito’s rationale is that because partial public employees perform care work in the home, they should be treated differently from other employees who work directly for the government. The most significant conclusion of this line of argument is that, unlike public employees proper, partial public workers are not required to pay union contributions. The economic threat this poses to their unions is clear: if enough workers choose to opt out of such contributions, the unions could be bankrupted.
In granting a second-class legal status to labor that is performed in the home, the Supreme Court reinforced patriarchal norms that devalue domestic work and care work.
The ruling is a devastating setback for hundreds of thousands of organized homecare workers nationwide. These workers, who are overwhelmingly women of color, have fought back against the economic exploitation they suffer by joining labor unions. With its decision in Harris v. Quinn, not only did the Court target this largely female workforce, but it also undermined broader feminist goals. In granting a second-class legal status to labor that is performed in the home, the Court reinforced patriarchal norms that devalue domestic work and care work. It attacked the larger feminist project of advancing women’s economic equality by recognizing care as work and insisting that our society compensate female workers fairly.
Domestic workers, including homecare workers, have long struggled to gain the legal benefits and protections that other workers in our society enjoy. It wasn’t until the 1970s that most domestic workers were finally covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which offers overtime protections and a minimum wage. Even so, one category of domestic worker was exempted from the FLSA: workers who provide “companionship services,” a group that includes homecare workers. Precisely because the traditional New Deal–era legislation offered no remedies to this group of workers, they need unions to fight for their rights. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey, because of union contracts, “this almost entirely female workforce has made huge improvements in wages and benefits, in training, and in respect in the states that provide for collective bargaining.” But those gains are seriously threatened by the actions the court took in Harris.
Low-wage homecare workers illustrate a larger problem, which is the role that women’s care work plays in maintaining their deep and persistent economic inequality. Directly, there is the opportunity cost that comes when women cut back hours or drop out of the paid labor force to provide care; economist Nancy Folbre has referred to this cost as the “care penalty.” Unpaid care work also affects women’s compensation in the paid labor market in ways that are less direct. Research has shown that a portion of the gender pay gap is attributable to the fact that women with children are, on average, paid less than their otherwise identical counterparts, regardless of whether they’ve ever taken time out of the work force to devote themselves to full-time motherhood. The disrespect associated with care is so strong that working in a caregiving occupation is associated with a 5 to 10 percent wage penalty, even when skill levels, education, industry and other observable factors are controlled for. Clearly, feminists have a powerful interest in revaluing care, a cause that has suffered a serious setback with Harris.
Why do we devalue care work in the first place? Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein point out in their excellent history, Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, that intimate care work is associated with the stigma of handling dirt, bodily fluids, mess. Additionally, in a society based on the myth of individual autonomy, care work provides an uncomfortable reminder of how profoundly the condition of dependency structures human existence. Boris and Klein also argue that the “devaluation thesis assumes the unworthiness of the labor because of the race, class, and gender of the workers.” But more than anything else, they say, what ensures the continuing devaluation of this type of labor is “the way the state chooses to structure it.” With the Harris decision, the state has elected, as it has so often in the past, to structure care work in a way that ensures the continuing economic inequality of those who perform it.
Already, Harris is having an effect. Observers believe that the gains of recently organized home-based Connecticut childcare workers are threatened, because the Harris decision would likely apply to them. In addition, in one of a series of end-of-term orders, the Court sent back a Michigan case to the lower courts “for further consideration in light of Harris v. Quinn.” In These Times’s Moshe Marvit argues that since the legal issues in the Michigan case were somewhat different from those in Harris, the Court’s move “may be a quiet expansion of the Harris decision.”
It would hardly come as a shock if the Roberts Court built on the relatively narrow Harris decision to issue far more expansive rulings against labor unions. According to The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, “in confronting a politically charged issue, the court first decides a case in a ‘narrow’ way, but then uses that decision as a precedent to move in a more dramatic, conservative direction in a subsequent case.” Toobin believes that the Court may eventually use Harris as a precedent for a more radical move against public sector sector unions generally. If they do so, it would be a serious blow to women’s economic equality. As a recent study documents, women in labor unions earn significantly highly wages than their non-union counterparts, and this finding holds for every educational level, from women who dropped out of high school to those with graduate degrees. Unionized workers are also significantly more likely to receive employer-sponsored health insurance, retirement benefits and paid family and medical leave. To the extent that the Court weakens unions, it also undermines women’s economic power in our society.
For now, however, the Court has carefully and cleverly restricted its ruling to one vulnerable group: the overwhelmingly female, nonwhite, low-income group of workers who labor in private homes and receive their wages from the state. The Court’s decision rests on the dubious contention that homecare workers are not public employees. But these workers are paid by the government and the vital work they do, which serves broader public goals of improving public health and enabling families to balance work and care responsibilities, is anything but private. By weakening their right to economic redress through unions, the Court increased the state’s—and by extension the taxpayer’s—complicity in maintaining low-wage markets. We are low-wage employers now, and it is women, and most especially immigrant women, women of color and poor women, who continue to pay the price.
Sheila Bapat: As analyses of the Supreme Court’s June 30 ruling in Harris v. Quinn continue to swirl, the potential of this decision to weaken public sector unions becomes more and more clear. The “right to work” movement is exploiting domestic workers’ uncertain status and, as Kathleen notes, the bias against women performing care work, to begin dismantling public sector unions. After the ruling, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander weighed in to support the Supreme Court’s ruling, stating that that Illinois’s collective bargaining program is a “disturbing union scheme to turn private homes into unionized workplaces.”
As a result of this ruling, funding for collective bargaining efforts—efforts that can help raise domestic workers’ wages and improve their overall working conditions—will likely dwindle. Yet there are policy changes we can make to lessen the blow.
How can domestic workers seek higher wages and improved benefits, given the Harris decision setback?
Raise the federal minimum wage, for all workers. A wage hike for all workers would improve earnings for domestic workers, too. Unfortunately, in April the US Senate failed to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. While states and localities have been succeeding in raising wages, disparities in wages across states have been found to hurt domestic workers. Some states that did raise minimum wages are still excluding domestic workers from that guarantee—this includes Rhode Island, West Virginia and Delaware. An across-the-board wage increase for all workers—which is what a federal wage hike can accomplish—helps avoid this disparity.
Create a federal program that pays and advocates for domestic workers. It is primarily Medicaid dollars that pay domestic workers in state programs. We could envision a more robust federal program— as part of Medicaid or outside of it—to support domestic workers’ wages and working conditions. We could envision a federal “association” of such workers that solicits comments from fellow workers, holds public meetings, makes recommendations to the state and speaks on behalf of domestic workers. Given the rising demand for care workers in the United States, it makes sense to develop a federal program that ensures the protection of this crucial workforce.
Support state domestic workers’ bills of rights. The domestic workers’ movement secured domestic workers’ bill of rights in New York in 2010, which expands overtime protections for workers, provides a day of rest and disability benefits. Similar legislation has emerged in California, Hawaii and, most recently, Massachusetts. Most of these bills expand overtime protections for workers. The Massachusetts legislation may be particularly important to look at, as it includes model provisions for workers who are not unionized such as a worker’s right to a contract with their employer that spells out wages, hours and expectations.
Support worker centers who advocate for domestic workers. Non-union actors like 501(c)3 worker centers have been crucial to advocating for domestic workers already. Worker centers may become more important given this ruling. The domestic workers’ movement comprises many of these centers and has achieved success by appealing to the public and to state legislators directly. The legislation these worker centers advocate for can ensure that workers are entitled to the state’s minimum wage so that exclusions like those found in Delaware, Rhode Island and West Virginia are eliminated. The local and national campaigns undertaken by worker centers also keep domestic workers’ rights on our local and national radar; they help us remember why domestic work is so crucial and why domestic workers should have better working conditions.
Federal legislation may not be politically plausible right now given that Congress cannot even raise the minimum wage. State-focused campaigns aimed at addressing the effects of Harris v. Quinn may have more success. Regardless, in light of the ruling in Harris v. Quinn, we should begin to explore creative solutions to improving wages for domestic workers and other public sector employees—solutions that can improve conditions both for workers and for those who need care.
Democrats have made women’s issues—specifically, women’s kitchen-table economic issues—a centerpiece of their stump speeches heading into the 2014 midterm elections. In the wake of the last election, when unmarried women comprised an unprecedented quarter of the electorate, this emphasis reflects a hard political calculus. But can women translate their newfound electoral clout into concrete policy gains? Do the Democratic Party’s ties to corporate America hamper its ability to deliver on feminist goals (such as paid family leave) that the business community has historically resisted? What about the limits imposed on the Democrats by the intransigent opposition of the increasingly radicalized Republicans? What legislative goals can feminists conceivably achieve in Washington in the foreseeable future? To what extent, in other words, can capitalism accommodate equality for women, in the present political configuration? And how can this knowledge of the “limits of the possible” inform feminist activism?
Our participants are Bryce Covert, Nation blogger and economic policy editor for ThinkProgress; Liza Featherstone, a journalist based in New York City and contributing editor to The Nation; Zerlina Maxwell a political analyst and contributing editor to Ebony.com, Feministing.com and more; Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communication at University of Illinois at Chicago and libertarian feminist; and me, Kathleen Geier, your host at The Curve. This time we asked our participants to exchange e-mails, producing the conversation below.
Bryce Covert: Hi, everyone! Excited to talk with all of you.
There are workplace issues that affect women that Democrats could solve without incurring costs or the wrath of the business community. National paid family leave could be instituted as a social insurance program that wouldn’t cost businesses anything and would cost the government just what it takes to administrate the program. Paid sick leave has come with little business cost in the cities and states that have implemented it and brings some financial benefits. Republicans, nonetheless, have stood staunchly in the way of both, proving that it’s not just businesses or a limited deficit that they’re protecting but something else—“free markets,” perhaps, and a workplace out of the 1960s.
But some much-needed policies have to cost money. Raising the minimum wage won’t be free of costs for businesses: research differs on how much and what it would mean, but we know it won’t be totally free. We desperately need universal, high-quality childcare and preschool, but that’s very costly. Some Democrats are willing to pony up the money, and President Obama has proposed paying for universal preschool with tobacco taxes. But fiscal hawks or anti-tax Democrats will wither at the challenge. Other policies would require handing businesses mandates: quotas for diversity among top leadership, regular reviews of pay scales to make sure women and people of color aren’t being unfairly paid less.
In the end, what stands in the way of even incremental progress is a Republican party uninterested in legislating. But even if they came on board, some of the policies that require spending money or ordering businesses to change their practices might not get any traction from our Democratic allies.
If feminists want to make significant gains for women, we will need to support political alternatives to the mainstream of either party.
Liza Featherstone: The Democrats are like pickup artists at a bar—women only give them the time of day when the other guys are even more pathetic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is typical, making cynical use of the abortion issue (“Hey, baby, at least I’m pro-choice.”), while supporting education policies that amount to a full-on attack on a mostly-female workforce (teachers), and opposing just about any policy that the business community doesn’t like. If feminists want to make significant gains for women, we will need to support political alternatives to the mainstream of either party, and to build institutions that are independent of corporate America.
This approach already looks promising in some cities and states. Pressure from the Working Families Party—which briefly flirted with a primary challenge to Cuomo– seems to have forced the governor to support raising the statewide minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and to allow local governments to set their minimum wages higher than that. (We’ll see if he sticks to this.) Even better, Seattle, due to the work of newly elected Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, has raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And because Sawant and her party are independent of the business community, they’re fighting to close the many loopholes that Democrats have permitted in the new law. Reforms like childcare and paid family leave—and labor law reform making it easier to organize the low-wage sectors in which so many women work—will also require this kind of thinking and organizing beyond the Democratic Party.
Sure, some Democratic politicians will get on board—and many more will loudly remind us that they’re better than Republicans—but to get what we want, we have to be willing to kick the party and its leaders to the curb.
Zerlina Maxwell: One of the preliminary steps we should take in framing this discussion is to break down what we mean by “women voters.” The gender gap does not affect all women equally; those most affected by the gender gap are women of color and single women. With this breakdown in mind, it becomes very clear that not every economic issue for women is created equal. If Democrats, really want to shape policy and messaging that addresses key concerns of women of color, they need to first acknowledge that all women don’t have the same concerns and “a rising tide lifts all boats” isn’t persuasive.
There are Democratic leaders in the White House, like Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, and in Congress, namely House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who are already sounding the alarm on work-life balance issues that affect everyday women. They’re working now to get women’s concerns on the immediate legislative agenda for 2014. The upcoming White House Summit on Working Families is perhaps the perfect forum to set an agenda that will get out the women vote in November around a core of economic messaging.
I also think our conversation needs to acknowledge the structural obstacles that Democrats face due to the dismantling of the traditional labor movement.
I also think our conversation needs to acknowledge the structural obstacles that Democrats face due to the dismantling of the traditional labor movement. While this puts us at a disadvantage, women of color labor leaders, including Ai-jen Poo and Sarita Gupta, have won recent legislative victories. They should serve as guides to building a movement and a message that attracts women of color by championing the issues that directly affect them (i.e., minimum wage, affordable childcare, equal pay, zero tolerance policies in schools that put young women of color into the criminal justice system for minor infractions, and paid leave). While it’s true that ties to corporate interests, Big Oil and Wall Street hamper the ability of Democrats to challenge the status quo for working women, that doesn’t mean Democratic leaders cannot work in tandem with the women of color already organizing around these issues to set the path for legislative change.
Kathleen Geier: So far, we seem to agree on some broad points of emphasis: we agree that women need paid leave, childcare, a higher minimum wage, universal pre-K and policies to close gender and racial pay gaps. But there’s considerable disagreement about how we get there. Bryce points out that businesses, Republicans and some Democrats will offer strong resistance to this agenda. Liza emphasizes change through institutions that are independent from the mainstream political parties, while Zerlina highlights efforts by women of color organizers who have worked with Democrats to enact reforms. What’s notable is that the successes that both Liza and Zerlina point to—such as the $15 minimum wage Seattle recently enacted and the landmark Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York State—were state and local initiatives. Getting legislation like that passed on the national level right now would be impossible, because Congress is far more divided along partisan lines than is any state or local government.
Is there a prayer that Democrats could win over intransigent Republicans to support aspects of its feminist economic agenda? Recent European history offers a faint glimmer of hope. As political scientist Kimberly Morgan argued in a 2013 paper, in recent years European conservatives in Germany, the UK, and other countries, faced with the need to win more votes in the context of women’s growing workforce participation, abandoned their long-standing opposition to family-friendly policies and began to embrace them. But the European right is a very different animal from its American counterpart and it’s hard to see that happening here—the GOP is becoming more, not less, ideologically extreme.
Also, even though the Democrats’ economic agenda for women has virtually no chance of passing, it’s a tepid document nevertheless. Recent research such as Claudia Goldin’s new economic study and a paper by sociologists Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden shows that the gender pay gap is associated with long working hours and lack of workplace flexibility, but the Democrats’ plan doesn’t address those issues—though it does promise regular reviews of pay scales! The Democrats’ proposal to fund childcare is also weak. Why not quit fiddling at the margins and propose something visionary like a universal childcare system? Given the weakness of the Democrats and our divided political system with its multiple veto points, getting a work-and-family agenda through Congress is going to be a very hard sell indeed. Passage of such legislation will require the talents of a strong, highly organized political movement. Feminists would be well-advised to pour their political energies into building and strengthening such a movement rather than becoming overly invested in the ever-popular quadrennial presidential election soap opera.
Why not quit fiddling at the margins and propose something visionary like a universal child care system?
Bryce Covert: Everyone has highlighted the need to build a movement outside of the two political parties, and I think that this is the key to enacting any family-friendly policy agenda. And it’s important to take stock of how much feminists have influenced the political climate already. Hillary Clinton’s response to whether the United States should have paid family leave came off incredibly tepid, but her tepid answer used to be the political norm. Talking about issues like childcare or paid family leave used to be off-limits. Michelle Obama had been rumored to be adopting these issues when she moved into the White House, but back then they were seen as too hot-button.
Now many national Democrats—Nancy Pelosi, Kirsten Gillibrand and President Obama himself—talk about them without hesitation. This conversation has become so mainstream, the needs of women voters so important for winning elections, that Republicans felt compelled to offer a package of bills aimed at working families, flex scheduling and equal pay, even if they are predictably bad policies. These political shifts can be chalked up to movement building and organizing—and I would argue feminists have been deeply involved in that work, from the National Domestic Workers Alliance to A Better Balance to the National Women’s Law Center and lots of other feminist organizations and organizers at the national and local level.
Still, we all seem to recognize that a full-scale, federal policy agenda won’t be enacted any time soon. That’s why state-level policy change has become so important, as Kathleen points out. Three states now have paid family leave, and others are working on similar programs. Seven cities and one state have paid sick days. Nine states have raised their minimum wages this year. This doesn’t just help the people who live there, but offers a chance to prove that these things can help workers without hurting economies. They can keep pushing on the national conversation to move it further toward women’s economic needs.
Liza Featherstone: I agree with our emerging consensus that the momentum for state and local policy change—and organizing—is much greater right now at the state and local level than at the federal level. That’s a good place to focus our energies. I also heartily second Kathleen’s suggestion that feminists eschew the sideshow of the presidential election, as it is likely to divert energy and money from the grassroots movement building, and to yield little substantive change.
It’s going to be hard for feminists to resist the drama, especially if Hillary is in the race. The possibility of the first woman president has a certain storybook appeal. There will be harshly misogynist right-wing attacks on her, and her abilities will be unfairly questioned by sexist Republicans, probably in ways that will make invigoratingly outrageous cable TV and social media entertainment. All of this will draw feminists to her cause. But ultimately, she’s a waste of our time. The lives of few women will be improved by electing this particular woman president. As Bryce has noted, her policy ideas about paid family leave are tepid even at the rhetorical level. She is a former member of the board of directors of Walmart—a company that has been the target of the largest sex discrimination class action suit in history. Any movement aimed at helping the majority of working women would have to regard her, like most mainstream Democrats, as more of an obstacle than an ally.
Zerlina Maxwell: First, we would need to establish that Democrats are not trying to win over Republicans, the third of the American voting population that is getting more and more extreme everyday. This incarnation of the American GOP is at war with itself, with the Tea Party emerging as the controlling force in the caucus and the catalyst for obstruction in the House. We aren’t going to be able to win over the types who tweet incessantly about #Benghazi, but there are so many disengaged people, near the center, that can be energized.
If Hillary Clinton runs, as expected, then feminists have a unique opportunity, even more so than in 2008, to rally young women and allies around a more ambitious economic agenda.
While I do think Democrats need to focus their attention on local, congressional and state races in order to frame a women’s economic agenda, I don’t think the best strategy is to ignore Hillary Clinton and national Democratic leaders. Instead of ignoring the media spectacle that is presidential horserace coverage, we as a diverse and modern feminist movement need to use the media spectacle to our advantage. If Hillary Clinton runs, as expected, then feminists have a unique opportunity, even more so than in 2008, to rally young women and allies around a more ambitious economic agenda.
I’m also hopeful that through the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, Hillary Clinton or Senator Elizabeth Warren can become leading voices for this women’s economic agenda—pay equity, minimum wage, paid leave—and set the stage for a new era of feminist progress. We must ride the Hillary Clinton wave for the benefit of the down-ticket races that could win back the House. We shouldn’t ignore it.
Deirdre McCloskey: The “ties to corporate America” do not, pace Liza Featherstone and Zerlina Maxwell, necessarily “hamper [women’s] ability to deliver on feminist goals.” Corporate America is ahead of the political curve on many matters of human rights—look for example at the stance of the Fortune 500 companies on gay rights. And capitalism has regularly “accommodated equality for women,” giving opportunities, such as employment for married women, that governments or traditional society regularly opposed. Bryce Covert is correct to suggest focusing on programs that business would not oppose, though she’s also correct that the congressional GOP as presently aligned is unlikely to agree to anything agreeable to the president. Kathleen Geier’s call to arms is a call to defeat for feminist projects if we don’t choose them carefully. Universal childcare framed as an investment in the future, and backed by notionally conservative figures such as they economists James Heckman and Claudia Goldin, is worth pushing hard, if only for the next Democratic administration.
What is not a feminist issue is raising the minimum wage to, say, Seattle’s $15.00, since it is women, and especially women of color, who will be first to be shown the door—or, silently, not hired in the first place. And I don’t see dumping on Hillary Clinton as a good idea. She is at present likely to become president. Do we really want to be seen as opposed to the first woman president on account of her imperfect feminist purity?
Kathleen Geier: I believe electing a Democratic president is important, because the Democrats are dramatically better than the Republicans on every issue. But I also think that any generic Democrat will do and feminist energies would be better invested in movement-building activism as opposed to presidential political campaigning. I don’t oppose Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but like Liza, I worry about feminists getting caught up in the Hillary drama. Perhaps Zerlina is correct and feminists use the Hillary media spectacle to promote a feminist economic agenda, but I’m doubtful. This week, the White House hosted a Working Families Summit. Who wants to bet that an initiative like that will get drowned out amid the latest speculation about how Hillary handled a rape case in 1975 (or whatever the next ginned-up Hillary “controversy” is)? It’s a sign of progress that the Democrats are finally addressing feminist economic issues—remember how, a decade ago, they were running away from feminism and recruiting a bunch of macho candidates like Jim Webb? What they are finally doing this year is a step in the right direction, and I hope feminists can build on the most important parts of the message, instead of getting sidetracked.
As for Deirdre’s comments about the minimum wage, there is no question that Seattle’s newly enacted $15 minimum is a bold experiment. But the consensus in the academic research is that the minimum wage has little disemployment effect. Deirdre calls for framing childcare as an investment in the future, and at times in my writing, I have argued for it in those terms as well. But though I’ve been gratified to see some conservative and libertarian intellectuals such as James Heckman and the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey support early childhood education, elected Republicans who advocate for these policies are all too rare. The biggest problem with the Democrats’ economic agenda for women is that the chances of enacting it at this time on the national level are remote. The last time the GOP supported women’s rights in any significant numbers, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, earth shoes and fondues were all the rage.
European countries won their feminist-friendly economic policies through powerful labor unions, and perhaps a revitalized labor movement is our best chance of achieving similar goals in this country. Because of deindustrialization, the old industrial labor unions are a thing of the past, but teachers’ unions and health care workers hold some promise, particularly for feminists, since they represent female-dominated professions. Organizing workers is a huge challenge in today’s economy, but over the long term, it remains the best hope for women’s economic empowerment.
The Editors: Thank you for joining us at The Curve, and please join us in two weeks, when Kathleen will convene a discussion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.
Welcome to The Curve, where feminists talk economics. Twice a month at this site, we will feature a roundtable on a topic of feminist concern, with Kathleen Geier as your host. The Curve’s editors—Betsy Reed, Sarah Leonard and Emily Douglas—began this project with Kathleen because we have long been frustrated by two phenomena.
One is the way in which women’s voices are so frequently sidelined in economic debates. Our voices are few and far between in the economics blogosphere. It’s striking that almost none of the reviewers of Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking Capital in the Twenty-First Century were women. And as Media Matters recently showed, women are rarely invited to discuss the economy on cable news.
The flipside of this problem is that, even amongst ourselves, feminists don’t talk enough about economics. Too often, discussions about so-called culture problems like abortion access and domestic violence lack the economic context necessary to appreciate their true causes and repercussions. When topics such as the pay gap or workplace discrimination come up, coverage is often superficial and focused on the experiences of a tiny elite. Meanwhile, the economic pressures on women are mounting: as inequality soars, women make up a growing proportion of the long-term unemployed, low-income women lead a growing majority of single-mother households, middle-income women struggle with few social supports, and even the progress being made by high-income women into the executive suites remains glacially slow.
Hence The Curve—where feminists will hash out economic issues and intervene in feminist debates from an economic perspective. We will draw on the many fine economists, labor journalists, bloggers and academics already producing tremendous work.
Later, we will get more granular, but for the first round of discussion we are asking our contributors to think big. Given arguments among feminists over Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and debate about the firing of Jill Abramson at The New York Times, and in the context of ongoing movements to gain rights for low-wage care workers, we’d like to begin by exploring the very nature of feminist success. How much does it matter for women that gender discrimination persists at the top? Does feminist success mean an equal number of corner office suites and stock photos, or something more? Is there an inherent class conflict within feminism—indeed, has feminism lost sight of class? Is there the potential for a cross-class feminist movement that transforms the economy for the benefit of all women?
Joining us for our first conversation are, of course, moderator Kathleen Geier, with Demos president Heather McGhee, Center for American Progress senior fellow Judith Warner, and economist Nancy Folbre. We are delighted to have them with us at the launch of this series.
Over to you, Kathleen.
Kathleen Geier: Whatever you think of Sheryl Sandberg, her chirpy self-help book Lean In achieved at least one very important objective: it exposed the deep class divide within American feminism. Sandberg, the centimillionaire Facebook executive, wrote a book arguing that individual empowerment was the way forward for the women’s movement and ignited a raging debate among feminists. Sandberg’s frank acknowledgement that her message was pitched to professional elites rather than the masses, her enthusiasm for capitalism and her advocacy of a depoliticized strategy that focused on self-improvement rather collective action troubled many feminists on the left. If feminism is defined down as the right of elite women to enjoy equality with men of their class, is that really feminism—which at least in theory advocates the liberation of all women—in any meaningful sense?
Of course, Sandberg’s rationale was that if more women advanced into leadership positions, all women would gain. But there is little reason to have faith that Sandberg-style “trickle-down” feminism will benefit the masses any more than its economic equivalent has.
Sandberg’s book made the class divide within contemporary feminism clear, but it’s a rift that has deep historical roots. During first-wave feminism at the beginning of the twentieth century, when economic inequality reached historic levels, there was tension between wealthy suffragettes like Alva Belmont and socialist feminists such as Mary Ritter Beard. Widely divergent views about economics within feminism have continued ever since. During second-wave feminism in the ’60s and ’70s, these differences were less prominent. While it’s true that second-wave socialist and liberal feminists engaged in spirited debates about the merits of capitalism, crucially, as the sociologist Leslie McCall has pointed out, there was far less economic inequality between women in that era than there is in our own. That eased class tensions, as did the fact that the second-wave feminists were united in the goal of achieving formal legal equality for women.
But after most of the legal barriers came down, the momentum of the women’s movement slowed. There were many reasons for this, but among the most fundamental ones is that the next set of items on the feminist agenda—economic demands like universal childcare and paid parental leave—faced far more formidable political hurdles. In the ensuing decades, economic inequality spiraled, and the class divide between women widened.
Capitalism and feminism are on a collision course.
In 2014, economic inequality is as high as it was during the era of first-wave feminism. Different classes of women—low-income women who make up over half of minimum wage earners, middle-income women whose wages have stagnated for a decade and elite women seeking to shatter glass ceilings—have needs and problems that look very different from one another. Is there a way for feminism to bridge the class divide and advance an economic agenda that will serve the interests of all women?
I believe that there is a way forward for a feminism that meets the economic needs of the vast majority. But first, feminists must acknowledge some perhaps uncomfortable truths. One is that Sandbergism is a dead end. Contra Sandberg, the barriers to women’s progress have little to do with our purported failure to “lean in.” Indeed, researchers have found that even “ideal” women workers who do “all the right things” are far less likely to advance than men are. The barriers to women’s progress are not personal, they are structural, and they are embedded in the workings of American capitalism.
Capitalism and feminism are on a collision course, because capitalism depends on the unpaid care work of women in the family. One major analysis showed that the rate of American women’s labor force participation was slowing compared to the other OECD countries and identified the US’s failure to enact family-friendly labor policies as the chief culprit. Another important study found that the persistence of the gender pay gap was largely due to the lack of workplace flexibility in many sectors and occupations.
It is no accident that the societies ranked as having the most gender equality are the European social democracies, which tend to have the most economic equality, as well. It is also hardly coincidental that in America over the past twenty years, feminism has stalled while economic inequality has skyrocketed. Both feminism’s halt and inequality’s surge are connected to the rise of the neoliberal capitalist state, with its deregulated workplaces, its deep cuts in social services and its reliance on the unpaid labor of women to provide care.
Image created by the National Women’s Law Center
A feminism that recenters itself around economic justice would have much to offer American women. Issues like universal childcare and paid family and sick leave would have the most resonance for low- and middle-income women, because those are the groups most in need of these benefits.
But even many elite women would have much to gain from sweeping changes in the American economy and workplace. They, too, feel torn by the competing demands of work and family—sometimes to the point where they drop out of the workforce altogether. They would benefit from reforms like more workplace flexibility and a European-style cap on work hours. Finally, an economy that provided more economic security for all would likely lead to a more relaxed, less time-intensive parenting culture. Mothers won’t feel as much pressure to fill every waking moment assisting their children with educational and résumé-building activities to assure their future success.
For as long as a class system exists, there will be a class divide among women. But the vast majority of American women have many economic interests in common. However, as history has shown, the only effective and lasting way we can advance them is through collective action—by organizing ourselves and making demands on employers and on the political system. That is hard and frustrating work, but it is the only way to make real change.
Heather McGhee, president of Demos: When Sheryl Sandberg and Jill Abramson—women leading powerful institutions in male-dominated industries—ignite our most robust media conversations about gender equality, we feminists face a quandary. Of course feminists want women who are tantalizingly close to the top to break through, and of course we know that the paucity of women leading our institutions is a glaring symbol of enduring gender hierarchy. But women will not succeed in dismantling one hierarchy by climbing to the top of another. It’s not nearly sufficient for us to become leaders without forcing our institutions to value all who have been undervalued.
The vast majority of women, in America and worldwide, are ill-served by today’s economic paradigm. It is a paradigm that is founded on a steep hierarchy of value for everyone and everything (say, when a retail cashier’s hourly labor is deemed worthy of $7.25 and her boss’s $10,000). With hierarchy so essential to our economic system, it should be unsurprising that businesses exploit society’s undervaluation of women—as well as that of immigrants and people of color who are still mainly stuck at the bottom of our social and political hierarchies.
A business model that relies on suppressed wages at the female-dominated front lines of the growing low-wage economy will not be feminist when a woman breaks through as a CEO.
An emblematic case is in retail, one of the largest industries where low-paid women work, and the subject of a new report by my colleague at Demos Amy Traub. The gender inequity in the sector is immense: saleswomen at large retailers are paid $4 less an hour on average than their male co-workers, meaning a woman would have to work 103 days more a year to make the same wage as a man in the same job category. More than half of women in retail earn less than $25,000 a year for full-time work—even though the vast majority of women in retail are over 20 years old, a third have children and over a third provide half or more of their household’s income. Demos’s research shows that retail’s gender pay gap costs women an estimated $40.8 billion in lost wages annually, a total that will rise to $381 billion cumulatively by 2022.
A business model that relies on suppressed wages at the female-dominated front lines of the growing low-wage economy and soaring pay in the white male-dominated C-suites will not be feminist when a woman breaks through as a CEO.
Fortunately, women leaders can redefine success. We’ve calculated that raising the annual pay floor for a full-time worker to $25,000 would benefit over 3 million female retail workers and their families. Businesses could afford it—the largest ten retailers spent more last year than the cost of the raise simply buying back their own stock to inflate share value. A raise would also add to GDP through low-paid workers’ increased spending, boost worker productivity and, ultimately, the companies’ bottom line—as examples like Costco show. That’s changing who and what is valued. That’s our feminism.
Judith Warner, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety: The real work of feminism today—the grassroots activism and advocacy, the political organizing, the policy development, the community outreach and academic research—is, and long has been, focused on improving the lives of the greatest possible number of women. Women who work and struggle. Women in communities that are marginalized and underrepresented in politics. Women dealing with poverty and violence. Women scrambling for decent childcare and for jobs that pay a living wage. Women seeking higher education and career enhancement opportunities. Women sandwiched between two generations of loved ones who need their care. Women heading up families alone, often while dealing with their own under-treated health needs or disabilities.
Image created by the Working Poor Families Project
In the popular imagination, however—and in the eyes of critics—feminism is about something else entirely. It’s about highly successful women “leaning in” for more privilege; rich, highly educated, mostly white professionals wringing their hands over “choices” most women can’t contemplate at all.
Why the disconnect?
It’s largely a question of who produces our mental images. Upper-middle-class women’s stories about “having it all” sell. They reflect the realities of those who write, edit and produce them; they tap into the pressing day-to-day concerns of those who have the time and inclination to consume agenda-setting publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic. Stories of low-income, even middle-class women, don’t make for great “click bait.” They don’t inspire the same pleasurable mix of self-identification and schadenfreude in the readers that these publications and their advertisers aim to reach. If working-class stories appear in these sorts of outlets at all, many readers regard them as homework—the stuff you should be reading, but don’t really want to read. Such stories don’t turn into bestsellers.
There’s a further stumbling block keeping essential feminist issues from moving to the center of “our” national conversations. Many of the policy solutions needed to improve the lives of the vast majority of women in the United States—things like paid family leave, paid sick days and raising the minimum wage—simply aren’t pressing concerns for the upper-middle-class women who create and consume our narratives of women’s reality. As is true in most spheres of our winner-take-all-society, there is an experiential gulf between upper-middle-class, highly educated women, and all the rest. That gulf was not created by feminism. It merely reflects broad American inequality in the twenty-first century.
Blaming feminists for that divide is completely wrong-headed. It’s as pointless as confusing the media caricature of feminism with the real thing—and then bashing feminism for its narrowness of vision. Instead, we need to identify policies that address the needs of the greatest possible number of women across the socioeconomic spectrum. We need to tap into the experiences that unite us without minimizing the very real differences of class, race, education and empowerment that set us apart. One avenue that might offer hope: fighting for meaningful workplace flexibility. This would mean measures that help workers rather than employers secure the flexible work arrangements they need, enabling anyone to spend time with both work and family.
Opponents of feminism have long castigated leaders of the movement for not representing the voices of “real” women. Back in the days of the suffrage fight, feminist leaders were called “unnatural.” Today, they’re often delegitimized with words like “elite” or “privileged.” I don’t think feminists gain much by contributing to that particular form of backlash, the net result of which is to serve a big “shut up” to women who speak out.
Nancy Folbre, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst: It’s a more-than-four-way intersection, there’s no traffic light and people often don’t know which way to turn. Some, driving luxury SUVs, will be perfectly safe. Others, on foot, are likely to get hurt. Gender is an important vehicle of collective identity. So too are class, race, ethnicity and citizenship.
Both women and men often find themselves in contradictory positions, privileged in some respects, disadvantaged in others.
The concept of “intersectionality,” prominent in the writing of W.E.B. Du Bois, has been advanced in recent years by black feminist theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw. Today, it represents the sharpest dividing line between the communitarian tradition of socialist feminism and the individualist tradition of liberal feminism.
There’s nothing intersectional inside Lean In, the much-touted book by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg that urges women to compete more assertively for highly paid professional and managerial jobs. The book speaks to women seeking to advance their careers, not those who are struggling to find and keep jobs that pay the bills. Nor is there any focus on forms of inequality not based on gender.
Which is exactly why the book vindicates intersectional analysis: the most photogenic women challenging gender inequality are those unencumbered by other forms of disadvantage.
The most celebrated economic victories for women in the US have come at the top, not the bottom, of the income distribution. Hillary Clinton is even more iconic in this respect than Sheryl Sandberg.
But don’t blame the feminist movement—or feminist theory—for this uneven impact. Blame the underlying intersections of gender, class, race, ethnicity and citizenship. Then, map the roads to economic success shifting under our wheels.
Globalization and neoliberalism have reduced the demand for labor in the US and weakened the bargaining power of wage earners as a group. Workers without a college degree have been particularly hard hit and family incomes have polarized.
Women equipped with the educational background, financial wherewithal and motivation necessary to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher have fared relatively well over the last thirty years, enjoying small wage gains and more family-friendly benefits (such as paid maternity leave) than other women.
The economic rewards for working longer hours have increased over time, giving men a significant edge in the workplace.
The promise of a hefty paycheck gives college-educated women some modest bargaining power with the typically college-educated fathers of their children, who generally earn more and are more likely to marry (and, in the event of divorce, pay child support) than other men.
Dual-high-earner couples can also sidestep some of the emotional discomfort of bargaining over their division of labor by outsourcing: purchasing childcare, housecleaning and restaurant services provided by less-educated women—often immigrants—earning poverty-level wages.
And yet women in relatively secure, well-paying jobs still face gender-based obstacles to professional success. As Sandberg’s book persuasively argues, both women and men have internalized norms of masculinity and femininity that put mothers, in particular, at an economic disadvantage.
As more economically oriented research suggests, corporate pressure to hire only ideal employees who can work long hours (and head for the airport at any time of the day or night) has intensified over time. In a fascinating article just published in the American Sociological Review, Youngjoo Cha and Kim Weeden document the increasing prevalence of “overwork” (defined as working for pay fifty or more hours per week) in the US between 1979 and 2009.
Men are more likely than women to overwork in paid employment partly because they have wives or domestic partners who fulfill the resulting need for overwork at home.
The economic rewards of working longer hours have increased over time, giving men a significant edge in relative earnings almost sufficient to countervail women’s increased educational attainment and job experience—especially in professional and managerial jobs.
As the authors put it, their statistical analysis illustrates how “new ways of organizing work can perpetuate old forms of gender inequality.” It also illustrates how, despite crosscutting differences, women still have a common interest in rerouting the highway to economic success.
The Editors: Thanks to all of our contributors for participating, and to our readers for making it this far! Please join us in two weeks, when Kathleen will bring together an equally astute group to discuss the following question:
Democrats have made women’s issues—and specifically, women’s kitchen-table economic issues—a centerpiece of their stump speeches heading into the 2014 midterm elections. In the wake of the last election, when unmarried women comprised an unprecedented quarter of the electorate, this emphasis reflects a hard political calculus. But can women translate their newfound electoral clout into concrete policy gains? Do the Democratic Party’s ties to corporate America hamper its ability to deliver on feminist goals (such as paid family leave) that the business community has historically resisted? What about the limits imposed on the Democrats by the intransigent opposition of the increasingly radicalized Republicans? What legislative goals can feminists conceivably achieve in Washington in the forseeable future? To what extent, in other words, can capitalism accommodate equality for women, in the present political configuration? And how can this knowledge of the “limits of the possible” inform feminist activism?