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Leaving Women Behind

  • and Laurie Rubiner
October 21, 2004 |
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President George W. Bush has framed his domestic agenda in recent speeches as a response to women's economic security concerns. In fact, in the president's "Ownership Society," women would be less -- not more -- economically secure.

The president's nomination acceptance speech contained a direct appeal to working moms. He offered women a post-"era-of-big-government-is-dead" message about putting government on the side of families: "The times in which we live and work are changing dramatically...Today, workers change jobs, even careers, many times during their lives, and in one of the most dramatic shifts our society has seen, two-thirds of all moms also work outside the home...This changed world can be a time of great opportunity for all Americans to earn a better living, support your family, and have a rewarding career. And government must take your side."

It's smart politics to offer help for struggling families. Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced himself to California voters by championing an after-school initiative before he ran for governor. President Bill Clinton campaigned on the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1992. It was the first bill he signed and he mentioned it in every State of the Union Address. President Clinton won among married women in both 1992 and 1996. Sen. Kerry's focus on policies to help struggling middle class families pay for childcare, college and health insurance helped him earn high marks on the economy earlier in the election.

Americans today find themselves struggling to give their kids a shot at the American Dream. They compete with workers around the world for wages and benefits, switching jobs every five years and -- in one out of four cases -- work in nonstandard (temp, contingent, freelance) jobs. As a result, they must work longer and longer hours just to make ends meet. We refer to these new workers as "global free agents" and their families, in which both parents work, as "juggler families." Both lack protection from programs (designed in the New Deal era) that rely on large employers to deliver benefits.

Women pay the greatest price for our outdated social contract. They can no longer depend on a lifelong mate to provide economic security, and when they enter the job market themselves, their family responsibilities close many doors. They have less job security, lower wages and fewer benefits. Women constitute a full two-thirds of those who lost health insurance coverage this year.

But what the president offers women is bait-and-switch politics. His Ownership Society proposals would make women far less economically secure than they are today by eliminating -- instead of reforming -- the risk-sharing mechanisms of our social contract programs. The agenda includes privatizing Social Security; replacing the current health care system with tax shelters; offering additional tax shelters to replace or augment private pensions and undermining the 40-hour workweek. These proposals would leave Americans "owning" more of their own economic insecurity.

Take just one piece -- arguably the cornerstone -- of the president's Ownership Society agenda: his health care plan. Women are less likely than men to have employer-sponsored health insurance, yet the president's proposal includes no increased access for those who do not get insurance through their employers -- other than a meager inducement to individuals to purchase a policy on the private market. But these tax credits are far too small to make coverage affordable, and would actually buy less coverage for women than for men. Women's premiums and deductibles are typically higher than men's due to their need for services such as maternity care. His only mechanism for controlling costs is to hope that individuals will exert control over insurance companies and the medical profession when they have to pay health expenses out of their own pockets. As a result, under the president's plan, the cost of employer-sponsored coverage will continue to climb. More people will find themselves without employer-sponsored insurance coverage. And those individuals without such coverage will continue to have nowhere to go.

The right response to the changing family and economy is not to ask families to own more of the risk inherent in the global economy, as the Ownership agenda proposes to do. Instead of undermining the social contract, we should redesign it so it can once again offer families the tools to share risk and prosper in a global economy. Reforms should include citizen-based health insurance, subsidized by income; progressive retirement accounts; new refundable, tax-subsidized accounts to help parents save for the expenses of having a family; universal pre-K and after-school programs; and childcare subsidies and workplaces that do not penalize parents who need flexibility to care for kids.

Women may appreciate that a conservative president, in a Nixon-goes-to-China gesture, has demonstrated he understands the concerns of working mothers. But they need more than recognition. They need real reforms to outdated social contract programs giving them the tools to share risk and prosper in a global economy.

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