No Jobs + Shredded Safety Net = Disaster for Women

Jul 13, 2011Lynn Parramore

Women face a double whammy in the jobs crisis and proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare. That's a catastrophe in the making that will harm the entire economy.

The Pew study released last week showed clearly that the so-called 'mancession' has morphed into a 'hecovery' in which men are outpacing women in finding employment. Job trends during a tepid recovery have favored men over women in all but one of the 16 major economic sectors -- a sharp contrast to other modern recessions, in which women either gained jobs faster in the recovery or gained them at a similar rate to men.

A little bit of the gender gap can be explained by the fact that women have been walloped by recent rounds of government layoffs. The first great jobs hemorrhage was largely in the private sector and whacked men the hardest. But the second wave of layoffs in the public sector has had a greater impact on women, who hold the majority of teaching jobs.

But this doesn't nearly explain the size of the gap, which has emerged as the Rosetta Stone of the unemployment crisis. Experts and journalists are scrambling for answers.  Slate's Annie Lowrey speculates that perhaps men are being less picky. Maybe they're agreeing to wage and benefit cuts, taking menial positions, part-time work, or jobs outside their traditional purview, like nursing. She also wonders if there could be hiring discrimination afoot. Given the kind of inflammatory rhetoric coming from people like Michael Barone of the New York Post, who suggests that men are "hustling to acquire new skills and learn how to do different jobs, while many women sit back and accept whatever the macroeconomy doles out" -- that one doesn't seem implausible.

But we can't say for sure yet. What we do know is that while over the past few decades women have greatly expanded their power in the labor market, they're now losing ground in the wake of the financial meltdown. That's bad.

This is worse: The current attacks on the social safety net coming from Washington disproportionately hurt women. Under the guise of the sham debt-ceiling crisis, we hear of possible cuts to Social Security and Medicare --  programs that millions of women rely on.

Even though female participation in the workforce has jumped since the 1950s, the percentage of working age women who have jobs seems to have leveled off at around 70%, which is far below the rates for working age men (over 90 percent). Why is that? Well, until there is some freaky sci-fi breakthrough, only women can have babies. And they still bear the brunt of childcare. So most mothers still leave the workforce temporarily in order to give birth, while some leave for years to raise small children. This is why they generally receive smaller Social Security checks than men who have worked steadily. On the other hand, women live longer, and often have special burdens caring for children and grandchildren. So any decrease in Social Security -- call it chained CPI or whatever you like -- is especially injurious to women. (There is something ironic in this, given that it was a woman who brought us Social Security in the first place -- Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor!)

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A few more facts: women represent two-thirds of retirees over 85. The average woman receives about $1,000 a month from Social Security. Half of women aged 65 and older rely on Social Security for at least 80 percent of their income. By the age of 85, 81 percent of women are unmarried. These are the women who would be hit hardest by schemes like the chained CPI.

Because women receive lower Social Security benefits, Medicare is particularly critical for them. Women comprise 57% of the Medicare population, and also make up three quarters of our most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries -- those living in nursing homes or other long term care facilities.  Long-term care isn't cheap, and often the savings of such women run out. Then they have to turn to Medicaid. But of course, there's also plenty of talk of significant changes to the Medicaid system! There are many ways we could bring down the costs of health care, such as allowing the government negotiate for better prescription drug prices. But this fight was never really about bringing down costs for ordinary people, was it?

So what will happen to women who can't find jobs and may see the social safety net torn away? Back before the Social Security system, elderly women would often find themselves in poor houses or poor farms. These facilities, built for the destitute, were known for their minimal and often inhumane conditions. Before the New Deal, aging Americans lived in terror of ending up in such places if there were no family members to contribute to their upkeep. Nowadays, people have fewer children and live longer, so if the social safety nets are slashed, the likelihood of destitution will be even greater. The picture becomes quite Dickensian.

Women are in many ways the key to our economic well-being and recovery. A disaster for them is a disaster for everyone. Nancy Pelosi and other female leaders in Washington have started to make noise, and that's a good thing. The warning has been issued: throwing women under the bus to pay for a deficit caused by a banking crisis, out of control military spending, and health care priorities that benefit big Pharma is not acceptable.

Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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