The plan isn't perfect, but women's poor employment outlook seems to be on Obama's radar.
There were a lot of rumors about what would be included in President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress yesterday. Would it be mostly tax cuts? Would it extend unemployment benefits? How much will be spent on infrastructure projects?
The last point had me slightly worried. Not because we don't have a huge need to spend vast amounts of money updating our dilapidated infrastructure. Not because we shouldn't be putting construction workers, architects, engineers, and factory workers back to work making it happen.
I was worried because those kinds of jobs are overwhelmingly held by men. And while the "mancession" meme had truth to it when the recession began -- men's unemployment rate was at 11 percent in August of 2009, while women's was 8.3 percent -- and men are still experiencing an unemployment rate of 8.9 percent, women have not been immune to the trend. And now they are sliding backward. Since the recession technically ended, women have lost 281,000 jobs, while men have gained 805,000. The percentage of women who have a job hasn't been this low since 1988.
A large chunk of their job loss has occurred in the public sector. Women lost 343,000 public-sector jobs between June 2009 and June 2011, accounting for 70 percent of the cuts. As Susan Feiner explains, women have been concentrated in this sector because many of the jobs don't challenge gender ideology (care giving roles and direct services are still seen as "feminine" work) and the schedules are often flexible, facilitating the care work that usually falls to them. So the cuts have fallen heavily on women, particularly teachers. As state budgets have been hit by shrinking tax revenues and increased spending on unemployment benefits and other safety net programs, they've slashed payrolls, often in education. About 290,000 school personnel have lost their jobs nationally since September 2008. And women make up about 78% of our pre-K to 12 teachers.
Obama's jobs plan surprised me by taking direct aim at this phenomenon. It includes $30 billion to prevent up to 280,000 teacher layoffs. It will also help preserve or extend school days and the school year, as well as give support to after-school programs. This is really, really important. Women's unemployment won't be directly addressed by infrastructure spending, but anything to bolster schools will make a difference. It also helps us remain competitive as a country with a well-educated workforce.
But it doesn't give any relief to out of work teachers the way infrastructure spending is expected to put unemployed construction workers back on the job. And women aren't just losing teaching jobs in the public sector. They're losing jobs in the private sector as well, while men are making some small gains, with their layoffs often occurring in secretarial and administrative support roles. There are also other places women's jobs can be boosted, for example by investing in eldercare and childcare and raising the standard of living in poorly paid, low benefit service work. Meanwhile, we as a country need to work on dismantling the gender segregation in our workforce, including helping women into the construction industry and other male-heavy areas that pay well and usually come with good benefits. None of these are issues we can ignore.
But I'm happy to see that women are on Obama's radar, and it is extremely important that we save teachers' jobs. The package isn't perfect from any way you look at it, but it does hold signs that he is at least paying attention to many of the crises we face.
Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.