"It's the economy, stupid!" That was the rallying cry for the Clinton campaign in the 1992 presidential election. It's even more true today. With the U.S. suffering from the effects of a long and painful recession (I know, I know -- it's technically over) -- the economy is the number one issue for women and men alike going into the 2012 elections.
But women arguably have a bigger stake. They lost more jobs as the downturn continued (men lost more in the beginning), and have gained far fewer back as employment slowly and painfully inches up. On top of that, women earn less in the first place, hold more forced part-time or temporary jobs, and have fewer benefits. All of that adds up to a compelling reason to understand and pay attention to the economy. And we're not stupid -- we're just mad as hell -- and who can blame us?
The temptation is just to vote 'em all out of office. Women are the majority of the population, of registered voters, and of those who actually go to the polls -- meaning women can control any election. But voting doesn't help (and can actually hurt) if you can't cut through the mumbo-jumbo of political rhetoric to get to reality. That's where being "well informed and well armed" comes in. When you know what to ask of candidates, and which answers mean something and which are just bumper-sticker reasoning, you'll know where your vote belongs -- and where it doesn't. Go ahead and be partisan -- not for a political party, but for your own interests.
The Deep Divide -- What Can Government Do? What Should Government Do?
When the economy slips into a recession or near-recession as it did in early 2008, both political parties get nervous, and propose various "fixes" to get more money into circulation and stop the downward spiral. (It's unclear whether they're feeling the people's pain, or feeling the pain of trying to get elected in a downturn).
Debate over how to produce a healthy economy goes to the very heart of the liberal/conservative philosophical divide. Conservatives put their faith in the business sector and the wealthy, while liberals and progressives believe government has a more direct role.
From the day he took office in 2001, President George W. Bush had one solution to virtually every economic problem -- tax cuts primarily benefiting the wealthy. His philosophy was a simple-minded version of conservative arguments in general: If corporations and the wealthy individuals who fund them through investments pay lower taxes, they will invest those tax savings in ways that will create jobs, such as building new plants, acquiring new subsidiaries, or expanding product lines. Businesses will direct money to suppliers, contractors and employees to accomplish these goals. Everyone will have more money to spend and the economy will grow.
Trickle Down, or Trickle Up?
This theory has been generally referred to as "trickle down," or "supply side economics," meaning change made at the top of the wealth pile eventually makes its way to workers at the bottom. Corollaries are that private enterprise is always better than government spending, and the less government interferes in the "free market" through regulation, the better.
Liberals and progressives believe that putting money in the hands of those that actually need it to live on is a better plan to keep the economy going -- because they spend more of what they have instead of just adding it to investment accounts. Low and moderate income people have to spend it all, every month, just to buy the basics. They hold the principle that in a recession, money should be injected into the economy as fast as possible.
Progressives also believe that the government can have a positive influence on economic growth through spending tax dollars. They would create some jobs by repairing infrastructure such as roads and bridges, funding green energy research and development, hiring more teachers, police, and firefighters, and restoring government services that have been cut.
Fallout for Women
One big factor in both the rise of the Tea Party and the debate over the debt ceiling that almost shut down the government in 2011 was an attack on public sector jobs and public sector unions. In addition, federal budget cuts and the lack of tax revenue in the states has contributed to the shrinking of public sector jobs. Because firefighters and police are often exempted from these layoffs, the axe has fallen mostly on women, who make up the majority of teachers, health workers, child care workers, and public welfare workers. An analysis by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), in Washington, D.C. found that women employees lost 81 percent (473,000) of the 581,000 jobs lost in the public sector from December 2008 through July, 2011.
Though job growth for everyone is recovering very slowly, it is slower for women than for men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women have regained only one out of five (536,000 or 19.7 percent) of the total jobs they lost as a result of the recession, while men have gained almost one out of three (1.95 million or 32.3 percent). In the last year, from November 2010 to November 2011, of the 1.6 million jobs added to payrolls, 474,000 or 30 percent were filled by women and 1,126,000 or 70 percent were filled by men.
The Big Argument for 2012
The economy promises to be the most contested issue in the 2012 elections, from the race for the White House to down-ticket congressional, gubernatorial, and even local races. The fundamental differences between the parties, and liberal/conservative ideology, remain as entrenched as ever.
Because the "super committee" created by the 2011 Budget Control Act failed to come up with additional cuts in the name of deficit reduction, the law provides for automatic spending cuts (called "sequestration") of $1.2 trillion to kick in in January 2013, divided equally between defense and non-defense programs.
Some believe the committee never intended to come to agreement, because members on both sides believed the threat of automatic spending cuts would be politically advantageous. Regardless of whether this is true, the issue is likely to dominate the 2012 political debate -- and women have the most to gain. Or to lose.
This post was adapted from "No More Bull: What Women Need to Know About the Economy and Why It Matters in 2012."