President Bush has unveiled his budget request for the next fiscal year, and it's hardly surprising: a dramatic increase in defense spending, an even larger deficit and proposed cuts in a wide range of domestic programs such as education, childcare, health research, Medicaid, Medicare and job training. Those programs being cut, not coincidentally, are those that disproportionately impact women.
Bush's budget proposal is consistent with what author Riane Eisler, in her book The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), calls a "dominator" economic system. Such a system is characterized by a distribution of resources to those on top, heavy investment in armaments and a lack of investment in meeting human needs. The result is an economic double standard in which programs associated with "femininity" (such as care-giving) are devalued, while "masculine" priorities (such as war) are highly valued.
If the U.S. ever catches up with the U.K. and other parts of the world that have embraced gender budgeting, it could go a long way toward changing our national budget priorities. Originally inspired by the early experience of countries such as Australia, and given further momentum by the U.N.'s commitment to the concept in the Beijing Platform for Action, gender budgeting is a simple idea: National budgets should not only be analyzed for the impact they have on certain groups (e.g., the poor), but they should be analyzed for gender fairness, including an analysis of how apparently gender-neutral models and policy-making tools may have an implicit gender bias.
The Women's Budget Group (WBG), an organization that brings together feminist economists, researchers and policy experts to consult with the U.K. Ministry of Finance, gives us one example in their analysis of the U.K.'s New Deal programs to reduce unemployment. They found that only 8 percent of funding for these programs goes to single parents, of whom 95 percent are female. Yet 57 percent of funds go to young people, of whom only 27 percent are female.
If we did a similar analysis of funding for outside contractors providing services on the ground in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we would no doubt find that (1) the large majority of the contracts go to male-led and male-dominated companies, some without a single female board member and (2) close to 100 percent of the jobs created by those contracts go to men. Conversely, in U.S. domestic spending, women are the primary beneficiaries of such funding as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) feeding programs (which also heavily employ women), but the $5.5 billion allocated to it is far outstripped by such costs as extending corporate tax breaks and/or tax cuts to the rich ($1.7 trillion over the next decade) that disproportionately benefit men.
The WBG stresses that gender budgeting is best done when women are a part of the budget-making process. With women holding only 16 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress and a paltry seven women on the budget committees in the House and Senate combined, that idea is a long way from current reality. But if the first step toward getting something done is imagining it, we can at least start down the path.
For a longer version of this article, see the Winter issue of Ms., now available on newsstands and by subscription from www. msmagazine.com.