Sunday, November 30, 2008

caring labor and the economic stimulus

As president-elect Barak Obama puts together his economic stimulus plan, a number of feminist economists have proposed that it ought to include investments not just in infrastructure—things like roads and bridges—but also in "human infrastructure," or the care economy. Women have been among those hardest hit by the economic crisis, because women are among the most vulnerable economically. Of the 37 million Americans living in poverty even before the crisis, 27 million are women and children. By making his economic plan friendly not just to the natural environment but also to the human needs so often met by the work of women, feminist economists suggest, Obama can increase both the efficacy and the equity of his economic plan.

Economic historian Julie Matthaei is the author, with Teresa Amott, of Race, Gender, and Work, a Multicultural Economic History of Women in the United States. Matthaei observes that
"Many are looking to the Great Depression as the model for what needs to be done with this economic crisis, and it is full of lessons of what to do, and what not to do. On the other hand, it is crucial to note. . . the very different situation our economy was in then vis a vis women's employment, especially the employment of married women. In 1933, women, especially married women, were a much smaller part of the labor force (12% of married women were in the paid labor force in 1930; 16% in 1940). Indeed, married women's employment wasn’t well-accepted and there were attempts to pass laws excluding them from paid employment, and some actual "marriage bars." So employment programs didn't have women workers -- and their dependents -- in mind. In contrast, today, 60% of married women are in the labor force, providing vital financial support to themselves and their families, and their right to employment is not questioned. Now women constitute 46% of the total labor force, and their employment needs should not be ignored in any effort to stimulate the economy in an efficient and equitable way."

"[Further,] because the vast majority of married women with children were not in the paid labor force, the "care deficit" which Nancy Folbre has written about … in her book, The Invisible Heart, was not the issue it is today. Unpaid caring labor was abundant; most families had full-time homemakers, and hence were not facing the work/family crisis and time bind, and having difficulty caring for children and elders. In contrast, today, caring work -- both unpaid and paid -- is being underprovided, and thus our economy could greatly benefit from investment in this 'human infrastructure.'"

Nancy Folbre herself has commented that "many of [Obama's] economic policies seem … gender biased. [His] biggest fiscal stimulus plans call for investments in green energy and infrastructure that will create new jobs as well as long run benefits to sustainable growth. [But ] most of these jobs will go to men who predominate in the construction and related trades. Women who try to enter such traditionally male occupations face problems of discrimination and sexual harassment, not to mention work schedules that are anything but family-friendly. "

Folbre asks Obama to " commit to explicit federal efforts to improve women’s access to such jobs." Noting that "in [his] last debate with Sen. John McCain, [Obama] supported the Lily Ledbetter Act, which would overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling that an employee only has 180 days to file a lawsuit alleging discrimination, whether or not they have access to the necessary information, " Folbre calls for Obama to get "this legislation moving right away. And [also to ] do something to remedy the deplorable pay and working conditions of home care workers like Evelyn Coke, who was recently denied coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act to overtime pay on the grounds that what she provides is really just 'domestic service.'" "Better yet," continues Folbre, "why not direct part of [the] fiscal stimulus plan to improve the care sector of our economy? Economist James Heckman, among others, shows that investments in early childhood education deliver an extraordinarily high social rate of return—yet many states lack the funding they need to move forward in this area. Countless studies reveal painful shortfalls in long term care, shortfalls that could be met by expansion of public support for paid home care workers and tax credits for family members providing for their own disabled, elderly, and infirm. Like “green” investment, such “pink” investment would [yield] increased employment opportunities as well as long-term benefits—in this case, improvements in human capabilities and quality of life."
"Everyone in America wants to be middle-class, except of course, the super-rich who have enough money to ride out the recession in high style." Folbre asks Obama not to "postpone the small tax increases for families with income over $250,000 that [he] proposed during [his] campaign. We need that money to mend a tattered safety net that fails low-income mothers and their children. Our major anti-poverty program for these families—the Earned Income Tax Credit—provides no benefits for the unemployed. Women workers—disproportionately concentrated in low-paying and part-time jobs—have less access to unemployment insurance than men do. Our child poverty rates are already among the highest in the world. [We need ] a plan to provide income supports for families in dire need, including the bankrupt, the homeless, and the hungry."
"[President Obama ] could make many family-friendly improvements to our tax system that would provide … benefits to women. " An economic policy that supports caring labor will benefit not just women, of course, but caregivers of any gender, and the children, elderly, ill, or disabled people they care for.
"Adults who take time out of paid employment to care for family members should not see their Social Security benefits reduced as a result. A big increase in the Child Credit—and making it fully refundable—would provide tax relief to those who need it most. Parents devote enormous time, energy, and money to raising the next generation of taxpayers—the ones who we expect to pay off our debts. We owe them more support."
The economic crisis provides an opportunity to press for a more just and caring society, one that recognizes the inevitability of interdependence and the centrality of human needs.