Why Have Women Been Excluded from Economic and Budget Talks?


Women were disproportionately impacted by the recession and have regained fewer jobs during the recovery than men. Women are also the most likely to be impacted by proposed cuts to social programs now being considered in Congress. Unfortunately women policy makers, elected officials, and experts seem to have been excluded from the policy-making talks on these matters.

As Congress and the President continue to discuss economic and social policy through their negotiations over the federal budget, women are demanding a seat at what appears to be a boys-only table. In a joint letter to President Obama, the leaders of several major national women's organizations characterized the negotiations over the budget as "the old boys club."

According to the letter, all of the people appointed to participate in the negotiations are men: Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Senators John Kyl, R-Ariz., Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Max Baucus, D-Mont., Reps. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Vice President Biden, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Budget Director Jack Lew and economic adviser Gene Sperling.

The budget cuts proposed by Republicans, especially to Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and other social programs, will, like the economic crisis, disproportionately impact women. Women are needed in the budget talks to ensure that women again do not feel the biggest brunt of economic and social policy, the organizations' leaders explained.

On a press teleconference call earlier this week, Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women told reporters, "We're concerned that an understanding of the disproportionate impact on women from both the anemic recovery that we're experiencing now and the budget cuts is not at the center of the analysis and must be at the center of the analysis."

Cynthia Harrison, vice-chair of the Women's Committee of 100, described the impact of the recession and the economic policies that have propelled the recession. "Men have gained 81 percent of the new jobs, whereas only 19 percent of those jobs have gone to women," she said.

"As a result, men have recovered 21 percent of their lost jobs, and women have gained back only one-tenth of the jobs they lost during the recession," Harrison added. Economic crises are typically defined as a problem in male unemployment and recovery efforts tend to focus on industries that are typically dominated by men, such as construction and related industries.

In addition, O'Neill explained that retiring or retired women, because of gender- and race-based income gaps, face disparities in retirement security that should be part of the consideration of issues like Republican proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. "That needs to be part of the consideration when deciding which programs to cut and which people are going to get tax benefits," she said, apparently referring to new proposals by the Republicans to pass trillions in new tax cuts for the richest Americans.

Because women make up a disproportionate minority of federal elected and appointed officials, "it is always important to make a special effort to include the issues and concerns of those excluded from the political process," O'Neill added. "We've got a systemic issue here," she said, referring both to the marginalization of women in the political establishment and the unequal impact of the economic crisis on them.

O'Neill said that she believes there are good people in the administration who are aware of the problem, but steps need to be taken quickly to include women and women's issues in the discussions on the budget. Otherwise, "we're going to go down the road in planning the federal budget that hurts women more and more and more."

Bobbie Brinegar, executive director of the Older Women’s League, re-emphasized how women make up the majority of Medicare and Medicaid recipients, two of the main social programs on the Republican Party's chopping block. In addition, retired and retiring women are less likely to have a pension and more likely to have smaller retirement savings than men, and will rely more heavily on Social Security incomes after leaving the workforce.

"Cuts to these programs would be devastating and place an enormous burden on senior women," Brinegar said.

Changes in the Social Security program should first focus on lifting the cap on payroll taxes on the richest Americans in order to strengthen the program. She said that while Social Security has no impact on the federal deficit, such a reform would stabilize the program for 75 years, longer than any other public or private entity.

Efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit should focus first on down-sizing military spending and raising taxes on the rich, the leaders of these organizations agreed.

So where are women in Washington's budget negotiations?

On the Republican side, they seem to be missing in action. Republican woman members of the House voted unanimously for the Republican plan, known as the Ryan plan, to end Medicare, to slash Medicaid and to gut many major social programs cited as vital to women. Media reports indicate that Republican leaders arm-twisted members of their caucus who rightly feared a backlash by voters against the plan.

After voters organized protests at Republican congressional town halls and the victory by a Democrat in the special election in New York's 26th congressional district, some Senate Republicans became squeamish. Five Republican Senators voted against the Ryan plan, widely seen as the Republican ideological base line plan, while two others did not appear for the May 25th vote.

Only one Republican woman, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who closely associated herself with the Tea Party, voted for the Ryan plan to end Medicare and provide trillions in new tax cuts for the rich.

Of the four remaining Republican women Senators, three voted no, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison did not vote. None of the Republican women Senators have been apparently involved in high-profile budget talks such as the widely publicized "Gang of Six," and none have been appointed by their party to a new round of talks.

On the other side of the political spectrum, no women congressional Democrats voted for the Ryan plan that would end Medicare and severely slash Madicaid and other programs in order to pay for more tax cuts for the richest Americans. Still, none apparently have been appointed to participate in talks over budget issues.

Brinegar listed four widely recognized women experts on the financial system that could be considered as possible advisors to the President on budget and economic policy:

  1. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chair Sheila Bair, the first government regulator to sound the alarm about the financial crisis,
  2. Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Schapiro, who was appointed to the commission in 2009,
  3. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Special Advisor Elizabeth Warren, who also served as Congress' top investigator into the collapse of the financial system, and
  4. Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (While Lincoln earned the ire of the labor and civil rights movements for her refusal to support the Employee Free Choice Act, she won praise among progressives generally for a strong proposal to halt Wall Street speculation.)

The organizations who joined the call to bring experienced women leaders and policymakers into the negotiations included the National Organization for Women, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation, Dialogue on Diversity, the Older Women’s League, U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Women’s Committee of 100, Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, the Women’s Research and Education Institute, and the YWCA USA.

O'Neill explained that their entreaties to the White House have been heard and it has agreed to meet with leaders of these organizations to discuss these matters further.

Notably, former top White House economic advisor, Christina Romer, left public service last year to return to the academy. While she publicly cited personal issues, insiders suggested that her positions on economic policy were sidelined by another top advisor, Lawrence Summers, who had previously earned sharp criticism for sexist comments as Harvard University President. Some accounts indicated that Summers deliberately sidelined her within White House circles and that his actions may have reflected a sexist attitude. Summers also left the administration late last year.

Romer had pressed for a significantly higher stimulus package at $1.2 trillion and consistently argued that political responses to the economic crisis should focus in no small part on those parts of the workforce with large female components, such as healthcare and education.

Photo by Marilyn Bechtel/PW/cc by 2.0/Flickr

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