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Heidi Hartmann

Heidi Hartmann

Posted: October 27, 2010 10:10 AM

After the crash, the downturn was dubbed a "mancession." As the meme continues to circulate, the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog asked leading thinkers to help sort fact from fiction. Are men suffering more than women in a weak economy? Is Washington doing enough to address female unemployment? How do we ensure a jobs agenda that's fair and equitable? In the third part of an ongoing series, "The Myth of the Mancession? Women & the Jobs Crisis", economist Heidi Hartmann describes all the ways the current administration has worked to aid women.

A report released last Thursday by the White House makes an excellent case that women have benefited greatly from the policies and programs advanced by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. Also see Speaker Pelosi's report released Friday, highlighting the top 5 gains for women in the 111th Congress and how few Republicans voted for each. By inference, women will suffer if the November elections shift the balance of power between the parties. Unfortunately, many women, leaders included, probably do not know just how much women have benefited from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the economic stimulus, the Affordable Care Act (health care reform), and other policy changes in the past 22 months.

Partly, that's because the story is difficult to piece together -- several laws and government agencies are relevant. Partly, it's because in this economy many people have lost more than they've gained. If you lost your job and then get unemployment insurance benefits, even if they're larger than they would have been without the stimulus (the stimulus provided an additional $25 per week for every worker receiving jobless benefits and encouraged states to cover types of unemployment they didn't before, helping more women qualify), you're mostly focused on what you've lost, since the benefits average only about two thirds of prior earnings. Partly, it's because of incomplete and inaccurate reporting. Many observers, including the various government agencies, have a tendency to look at only one slice of the pie and not see the whole.

Recovery.gov, the government website that tracks spending on the stimulus, reports primarily on the contracts and grants issued by federal agencies for infrastructure and other project spending, showing where the projects are and how many jobs the grant recipients reported that they created. The dollars shown as allocated or spent do not add to the total in the law, because grant and contract spending were less than 1/3 of the total of approximately $800 billion in stimulus spending. If one focuses on this slice of the pie, it's easy to suggest, as Bryce Covert did, that women will be left out because they don't hold a large share of construction jobs.

Getting more women into construction jobs would be great, of course, because they often pay reasonably well without requiring a college degree and women are woefully underrepresented in the industry, consistent with decades of neglect by (and underfunding of) government enforcement agencies. During President Obama's transition and the legislative debate over the stimulus in January and February 2009, the women's movement tried hard to get a goal set for the share of these jobs that should go to women. That didn't happen, but the Recovery Act does include $20 million for grants designated for transportation and technology training and for supportive services for women, minorities and disadvantaged populations underrepresented in infrastructure-related employment. And Secretaries Solis (Labor) and LaHood (Transportation) and others have been touring the country emphasizing the need to hire women and minorities in federally funded contracts and to make sure women- and minority-owned businesses get a fair share of contacts and subcontracts. This is just the type of public education and training Covert says women need in order to participate equally in the newly funded jobs -- too bad she didn't indicate the Obama administration is working hard on this.

But what about the other 2/3 of the stimulus spending pie? Who got that?

Much of the non-infrastructure spending in the stimulus went to women because much of it was designed to help those in financial trouble, those with lower incomes, those with dependents, and older Americans, all of whom are disproportionately women. Approximately 60 percent of older Americans are women, women make up 95 percent of parents who raise children without a partner, women are lower earners than men, and they have lower average family incomes than do men. More than $14 billion went to one-time cash grants to older Americans. Twenty billion went to working and nonworking parents in the form of expanded tax credits that were refundable (cash grants) to those with such low income that they don't owe any taxes. Another $116 billion went to the Making Work Pay Tax Credits, which reached all middle- and working-class taxpayers. Nearly $21 billion went to food stamp increases and $41 billion to unemployment benefit increases (both of these amounts were subsequently increased further) and $25 billion to enable those who lost jobs to retain health insurance at only 35 percent of its cost. The states got more than $4 billion to modernize their unemployment systems to cover more women and low-wage workers. The stimulus included nearly $11 billion in expanded Pell grants that help low- and moderate-income students attend college. All this adds to $248 billion that went directly to mostly low- and moderate-income individuals and their families.

In addition, $141 billion went to the states to help them pay their share of Medicaid costs and for aid to education, creating jobs for teachers, teaching assistants, nurses, home health care aides, etc. These are the very jobs that Bryce Covert argues in her piece didn't get as much funding as they should have. I would have liked to see them get more, too. But blame Congress, not President Obama, as Congress insisted on cutting proposed aid to the states substantially. While Covert is probably right that some hospitals have shut down, employment in health care has not fallen. In fact, health employment grew every month throughout the entire recession and continues to grow in the slow-job-growth-recovery we are in now, the only industry to do so (see an IWPR paper on the Great Recession). And it's worth noting that much of Medicaid spending goes to care for poor elderly patients, another area of care Covert claims was neglected. Moreover, the stimulus includes nearly $4 billion for job training, plus $500 million specifically for training in health care jobs and $680 million for training and services to the disabled.

Employment in education also held up fairly well throughout the recession, but finally lost jobs in September as state and local government budgets continued to be pinched by the recession and slow recovery. President Obama requested supplemental funding for the states, but the Senate dawdled over and then reduced the amount, preventing sufficient aid from getting to the states and to school systems in time for the start of fall semester. (Similarly, the Senate has failed to extend a $2.7 billion block grant to the states that was included in the stimulus bill to increase TANF, or welfare, funding in this time of need and was used by the state to fund 250,000 jobs for low income parents and youth.)

In her piece, Covert notes that eminent historians Linda Gordon and Eileen Boris emphasize the need to fund and upgrade low-paid women's jobs in such fields as health and elder care and child care. Once again, just as with health care and elder care, Covert overlooked the opportunity to point out that the stimulus provides funding both for care of children and for training and wage improvements for child care workers. The stimulus included $4 billion in new funding for child care and Head Start, doubling the usual federal funding. More than $1 billion was earmarked for cost of living increases and staff training and other measures that would increase the quality of child care and of child care jobs.

Covert helpfully makes the point that women's earnings are more important than ever to their families because so many are co-earners or support families on their own, especially since more men have lost jobs than women since December 2007, when the Great Recession began. It would have been nice if Covert had acknowledged all the ways in which the stimulus and other federal spending helps women and their families, rather than focusing on assumed gaps for women that she failed to investigate thoroughly. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in August that the stimulus will have increased employment by 1.3 to 3.3 million Americans on average in 2010, the peak year of its impact. Given that the number of unemployed grew by nearly 8 million, many of us wish our government were doing even more to help people and boost the economy (see a statement from the Campaign for America's Future).

Have women, men, and families been hurt by this massive recession? Unquestionably, yes. Have women been hurt more than men? Possibly, despite less job loss, because they started the recession with lower earnings and incomes and, as the primary family caregivers, they are likely doing even more care work at home as family budgets fall. Poverty has increased for nearly all demographic groups, and especially for single mothers and their children, who in good times and bad are always the most vulnerable. Our social safety net was largely shredded long before this recession began; it badly needs repair (please see a recent IWPR fact sheet on this point). The federal stimulus program has strengthened the safety net and prevented millions more from falling into poverty and unemployment. Has the federal stimulus program done less for women than men? I doubt that very much.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.