As 2008 closes out, the nation
experiences a moment of déjà vu: An economic crisis that shrinks prior
downturns to minor inconveniences. A Democratic President-elect
speaking of change, a new deal in fact. It seems that the Obama
administration full well intends to tackle the economic crisis by borrowing
ideas from FDR, spending money on giant public works projects that both
relieve unemployment and invest in our country’s infrastructure so that we’re in a
better situation to revive our economy. Reviving the New Deal
sounds like a great idea to everyone, but can a New Deal for the 21st
century reflect 21st century values?
2008 America would be hard
for citizens of 1932 America to recognize, and not just because we’ve
moved from a more rural to more urban society. Even though marriage
rates started to decline soon after the economic downturn of the Great
Depression hit, people’s ideas of the proper life for most women didn’t
vary much from what it had been in the past–women were meant to be
married and supported by a husband. Working women were viewed
during the crisis as leeches who took up jobs that "belonged" to
men. In 2008, working women are the norm, and even the hard right
that idealizes the iconic 1950s housewife admits that most women have
to work, and that women may even like to work, outside of the home.
Most importantly, women’s
dependence on men is no longer a given, much less an ideal. Recently, the number of adult
women living without a spouse in the U.S. outnumbered the number of
women with one.
Even married women tend to have much more independence than they used
to–most make their own money, and many have their own accounts and
own property separately or jointly with their husbands. These changes
present a huge problem for simply reviving the New Deal with New Deal
values, because the old New Deal reflected much different views on gender.
Work-family economics expert
and Democratic consultant Karen Kornbluh has
been repeatedly highlighting some of the problems with New Deal values
for 21st century families.
Kornbluh’s central argument is
that any "New New Deal" must address a critical flaw in
our existing New Deal social programs: They are biased toward dual parent,
single-earner families with children. Under our current system, a stay-at-home
wife and mother who never worked a day in her life will get a larger
share of Social Security than a working single mom. And as Kornbluh
smartly put it, Social Security benefits "the Cleavers more than
Roseanne and Dan." In other words, even among married couples,
our system rewards single-earner marriages more than dual-earner ones,
which are by far more common.
The New Deal-era ideas we’ve inherited about what jobs "count"
in a public works program reflects this outdated idea of female dependence. In her New York
Times editorial on the subject, Linda Hirshman lamented the fact that
most of the jobs
that would be created under public works investments Obama is contemplating would draw
on a mostly-male workforce, even though the ranks of the unemployed
include women who need jobs just as much — their homes
need two incomes, or they belong to the 51% of women that don’t
have husbands. Hirshman suggests that by focusing some
of the job creation money on education, social work, libraries, and
child care, women workers could benefit from a public works program as well
programs in developing countries around the world often focus on improving
women’s education and employment prospects, realizing that
by lifting up the half of the adult population that suffers more from poverty, you get more return on your investment.
Women in the United States enjoy relatively more economic prospects
and better status than do women in many developing countries, but that doesn’t mean
that the same principles of economic relief can’t be adapted to the
U.S. Meeting women where they’re at and giving them the tools
to improve their and their families’ economic prospects will help
every public works project stretch further.
But using federal funds to relieve women’s child
care concerns could be a great source of economic relief in itself. Hirshman
talked about expanding Head Start as a way to get more women working, but this is just one aspect of what a program like this could do. Better and less costly
childcare would do more than employ women; it would free up mothers
to work more hours, and it would free up money spent directly
on child care now for other things, such as
improved housing or even just the sort of consumer spending that we’re
told over and over is the engine of our economy.
It could also free up working-class women to get job training for better, more skilled jobs.
Right now, one reason we have a pay gap between men and women is that
men are more likely to have the skills necessary for high-paying jobs. But there are
plenty of female-heavy sectors of the economy that are desperate for
employees, attractive to female workers, but are running dry
because women don’t have the time or money to pay for more extensive
job training. We could step in and help out, to everyone’s collective
benefit. I’ll examine one such sector of the economy in my next
column, coming out at the beginning of 2009.