I can think of many reasons why a Mitt Romney presidency would be bad news for women. It’s no surprise that I find his contempt for Roe v. Wade, his stated intention to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood, and his promise to champion a Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to be more or less automatic disqualifiers.
But a less obvious, although no less important, concern for women voters is Romney’s enthusiastic support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposal. Feminists must closely examine what I am calling the Romney-Ryan budget plan because, while not the juiciest topic around, it touches every aspect of a woman’s life, including her reproductive health.
Through a series of posts over the coming weeks and months, I will review five key areas where the Romney-Ryan budget runs roughshod over women: putting future cuts to Social Security benefits on a fast track that Congress could not slow down; converting Medicare to a privatized voucher system; making Medicaid a state block grant program; eliminating family planning funding; and slashing a whole range of social programs that disproportionately serve and employ women. I’ll also take a look at the beneficiaries of the Romney-Ryan budget — those that stand to gain the most while the majority suffers.
First, let’s talk about the reality of being a woman in the United States.
Linda was a single mother who lived with and helped care for her aging parents while she raised her daughter. She never attended college and worked all her life at low-paying jobs. She had trouble finding work after one layoff, which led to a serious episode of depression and an extended period of unemployment. For a number of years she worked as a live-in nanny for a family that insisted on paying her “off the books.” Linda never worked at a job that offered a pension or a 401(k) plan. She lived paycheck to paycheck, like so many women, and she maxed out her credit cards trying to provide for her family.
All of these factors contributed to Linda’s complete lack of retirement savings. Because of low wages, time out of the workforce and her need to retire a few years early due to health issues, Linda’s monthly Social Security check is now pitiful. She qualifies for her state Medicaid program and other assistance, which help pay for her prescriptions and doctors’ bills. But low-income housing options for seniors are minimal in her area, so she is now living with her daughter.
In many ways, Linda is a textbook example of how women fall behind in the U.S. As a young mother, she was afraid to take the father of her child to court, and thus never received a dime of child support (like 49 percent of today’s custodial parents, who have no legal or informal child support agreement). She worked in jobs filled predominantly by women, like child care and retail — jobs that are undervalued in our society. She started at a disadvantage and was never able to pull her head above water.
And what about Linda’s daughter? Linda wanted Emily to have a better life. But she wasn’t able to help her daughter with college tuition, so Emily started her adult life with massive student loans hanging over her head. Because of this debt and the continuing wage gap, Emily has struggled to save up for a home in a safe neighborhood, to build a cushion for herself and her family, and to save for her own eventual retirement.
Linda and Emily are not alone. There are many women like them, trying to make ends meet while supporting children and parents and spouses. Women make up 49 percent of the U.S. labor force, and in 64 percent of families with children they are either sole breadwinners or co-breadwinners. But women cluster in just 25 of the more than 500 job classifications recognized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and most of those jobs are in sectors like retail, hospitality and service, which don’t offer decent pay or good benefits or even a fair shot at advancement up the career ladder.
Meanwhile, women are still paid 77 cents on the dollar, on average, compared to men. And that statistic is worse for women of color: African American women are paid just 68 cents and Latinas 59 cents for every dollar paid to men. Who can put aside savings at 59 cents to the dollar? It is not at all unusual for women to file for bankruptcy at least once in their lives, as Linda was forced to do. In fact, millions of women and families already live below the poverty line, and many more are just one health or job crisis away from joining the ranks of the poor.
Women need better-paying jobs and benefits, and they need to know there is a safety net to keep them from falling when times get tough and life doesn’t go quite as planned. Relying on the kindness of friends and family is a nice concept, but what happens when everyone you know is barely getting by?
As I delve into the Romney-Ryan budget in future posts, it will become clear that our country — the richest in the world — has the awesome power to help its people live productive, healthy lives or to kick them in the teeth when they’re down. Guess which way the Romney-Ryan budget leans?