(via New Deal 2.0 where it first appeared)
When the White House released its report on the economic security of America’s women, it proposed to improve their well-being with the standard fare of economic policies, usually prescribed for just about any type of problem that ails the job market: more training and education, more tax incentives, and more income support. These prescriptions are already part of the Recovery Act, which for two years has produced dismal economic results. Is more of the same what we need when it comes to improving women’s economic opportunities?
My argument is simple: without a serious and bold policy for eliminating unemployment, all of the proposed measures to address women’s economic challenges, or those of any other group for that matter, will remain feeble attempts to deal with serious problems.
We need a fundamental policy shift at the macro-level that focuses on job security, not just income security; a shift that stresses first and foremost direct job creation, and then tax incentives and retraining programs as needed. Such a policy shift will greatly benefit both men and women and the most vulnerable members among them, who are persistently left behind in recessions or expansions.
Focusing on incomes in many cases is treating the symptoms, not the disease. When the disease is unemployment, the solution is jobs — not temporary income support. When the disease is poverty, the solution is both above-poverty-wage jobs for those who are able to work, and income support for those who are not (in particular the young, the sick, and the elderly).
Unemployment insurance is the most accepted form of income support (rationalized as a program for the ‘deserving’ unemployed, who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own). This is all well and good, but let’s be clear: unemployment insurance is a stopgap measure for very temporary job losses, not an adequate safety net for most unemployed individuals, nor a meaningful economic stabilization policy. Unemployment insurance is not only demoralizing, but its meager assistance does not replace the loss of income from employment. This means that unemployment insurance may decelerate the fall in demand, but will not immediately halt it. And, by definition, it does not create jobs.
The White House report boasts that unemployed women have benefited from unemployment insurance because the presidency has “enacted the longest-lasting emergency unemployment program in history and included the first benefit increase in a downturn in history.” We have to pause and ask ourselves: Is the expanded unemployment insurance program our great success? Jobless women and men want jobs, not the dole.
The White House has also provided emergency TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy families) funding to states. When every state is slashing social programs for the most vulnerable, this is a welcome, but sorely inadequate, assistance. Welfare support for needy families has never been popular with the American public, and in 1996 it was reformed into a more punitive program. Recipients were required to fulfill certain work requirements (to prove that they too are ‘deserving’ of government support) in exchange for their welfare assistance or they faced the threat of losing the benefit. But while the requirement to work was applauded by many, the opportunity to work was not guaranteed by the reform. Initially, women were able to transition into jobs during the 1990s Goldilocks economy, but these jobs still did not lift many of them out of poverty. Yet others were unsuccessful in finding employment, lost their benefits, and became chronically disconnected from any type of safety net.
It is time to abandon the tired old paradigm of dealing with income insecurity alone, and to starting thinking of ways to create genuine job security. Direct job creation can achieve this goal. The benefits of large-scale public employment schemes, New Deal-type programs, and targeted investment and employment policies have received a widespread support. But it is essential that these jobs are supplied in adequate numbers by the public sector if and when the private sector fails to do so. In other words, no individual should be wasted in idleness if they wish to be employed into the safety net program. A well-crafted public sector jobs program that fills the jobs deficit both in recessions and expansions can prove to be the only effective permanent solution to the problem of unemployment. Such programs can deliver especially important benefits to women and minorities.
The safety net will have two key objectives: to fund useful projects and provide decent jobs to its participants. Decent jobs are not just jobs that offer useful work experience, opportunities for training and education, and assistance with transitioning to private sector work. They are also parent-friendly jobs that pay above poverty (but preferably living) wages and supply a decent benefits package. A parent-friendly job is also one that affords flexible hours, creates work in the very communities where women and men live and raise their kids, supports their educational and entrepreneurial interests, and alleviates their unpaid care burden by enhancing child and elderly care services.
A carefully designed program would provide meaningful work and training opportunities to women who have been outside the labor force for too long and may be regarded as ‘unemployable’ by private sector employers. It can also provide women with jobs in traditionally male-intensive sectors. Women can get experience as workers, managers, supervisors, project leaders. For some, the program will provide the experience and know-how to start their own businesses. For many, it will simply provide a decent job and an opportunity to start climbing the economic ladder. These women will work to transform their communities while transforming their own lives.
It is time to stop treating women as ‘patients’ of public policy and to see them as agents of economic change. Paid work from public service employment has the potential to transform the welfare state from a paternalistic institution to one that empowers the very citizens it wishes to serve, by giving them opportunities for paid work with which to reshape their own destinies and those of their communities.
Clearly our men and women are worth far more than the dole they receive; a permanent direct job creation policy is a safety net that recognizes this fact and mobilizes their potential.