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National NOW Times >> Fall 2004 >> Article

Legislative Update: Bush Administration & 108th Congress Damage Women's Rights, Economic Status

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

Bush Tax Cuts Assault Women

George W. Bush and ultra-conservatives in Congress pushed through a relentless series of tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the federal government's ability to fund important discretionary spending programs.

Women and low-income families, who depend upon the equalizing effect of government programs, fall victims to these policies. In addition, entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc., now have tight spending caps. This year, Republicans proposed a spending cut of $1.8 trillion over the next ten years, which will affect Medicaid, veterans' benefits, the State Child Health Insurance Program, the Food Stamp program and others, but have been temporarily beaten back by our allies in Congress.

Bush promised at the recent Republican National Convention to "partially privatize" Social Security—a move that will undermine the financial basis of this successful retirement insurance program. Women will sink further into old-age poverty as a result.

Right Wing Return to the Past

Conservatives in the White House and Congress seem determined to shrink the federal budget to the point where military might and corporate welfare remain the only concerns of government. They extinguished our 20th century national goal of expanding the middle class and aiding the poor. Many of women's equality gains of the past four decades have been scaled back. Little doubt exists that conservative politicians, strategists and their corporate backers want to return women to the home sphere, taking them out of labor market competition and re-engaging them in full-time unpaid housework and caregiving, whether they want that or not.

Bush Policies Lose Jobs for Women

A fundamental change of the Bush II era shifted more of the tax burden from upper income brackets onto the middle class, while providing little or no relief for the lowest income earners, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report. More than seven million families with incomes between $10,500 and $26,500 did not receive the 2003 increase in the child tax credit, disproportionately affecting single women raising children.

Our weakened economy caused tremendous job loss. The combination of corporate-friendly tax policies and trade agreements, such as the North America Free Trade Agreement, accelerated the disappearance of millions of jobs. The economic recession caused the loss of 1.2 million jobs over the last four years–many never to return.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research reports that the period from 2001 to the present marks the only period of sustained job loss for women in the last 40 years. Women workers lost over 300,000 jobs between the start of the recession in March 2001 and March 2004, resulting in a 0.5 percent decline in their employment level. The proportion of single mothers with jobs fell in 2003, raising the unemployment rate of single moms from 9.5 to 10.2 percent.

Poverty Continues to Rise

The harsh campaign against the poor, which began under Ronald Reagan, escalated when ultra-conservative Republicans took over Congress in 1994. Defaming poor women as "welfare queens," Republicans in Congress made it possible for Bill Clinton to block-grant welfare funds and place responsibility for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program on the states—which has had devastating consequences for poor families across the country. Poverty, especially among children, continues to increase at an alarming rate.

Conservative politicians frequently trumpet the fact that welfare rolls have declined. This should come as no surprise, since former recipients came up against the strict time limitations of TANF or were turned away from even applying. It is now abundantly clear that reducing the rolls did not reduce the number of women and children living in poverty.

Census Bureau figures released in late August show that poverty continues to rise. Poverty among adult women is 12 percent—a whopping 40 percent higher than men's 8.9 percent poverty rate. An increase of 1.3 million people, totaling 35.9 million in 2003, now live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.

The 19th century mentality of these welfare reformers led to a dangerous policy of promoting marriage among poor women as a means to end poverty—ignoring the fact that many women are on welfare because they fled violent relationships. NOW's campaign to require TANF programs to provide screening and services for domestic violence survivors met with opposition from conservatives who adopted a risky voluntary approach—allowing state welfare officials to decide whether to spend limited funds on those services.

The $1.8 billion in federal and state funds for Bush's marriage promotion initiatives (which have been demonstrated to be ineffective in reducing poverty) came from already-inadequate funds that would have been used for child care, job training and transportation services for low-income women.

Pay Equity – The Gap Widens

The wage gap widened in 2003 as real earnings of women fell 0.6 percent to an average of $30,724, the first annual decline since 1995, as compared to men's average earnings of $40,668, essentially unchanged over the year. As a result, the wage gap went from 77 cents to 76 cents paid to women compared to men’s dollar. Women and their families lose $200 billion of income annually due to the wage gap. Over a lifetime, women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because of pay discrimination, contributing to their old-age poverty.

In light of this decline, it comes as no surprise that the Bush administration removed 25 publications on women's work and pay from the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau web site.

Millions Lose Overtime Pay

Overtime pay is a significant source of income for millions of workers, and a substantial proportion of those affected are women. On Aug. 23, the Bush administration reinterpreted their enforcement of the decades-old Fair Labor Standards Act (which effectively established the 40-hour week by requiring time-and-a-half pay after 40 hours for covered employees) by eliminating millions of workers earning more than about $24,000 per year.

The loss to those who receive overtime pay averages $161 per week—money these families counted on, which will now accrue to corporate profits.

Unemployment Insurance reform and federal-funding assistance are two more areas where right wing foot-dragging allowed under-funded and inadequate state-based employment insurance programs to limp along. Many states don't provide UI coverage for part-time, seasonal or temporary workers, which has a disproportionate impact on women who have been laid off.

Work-Related Injuries Multiply

The Bush administration also prevented implementation of long-sought regulations requiring employers to adopt ergonomic standards to reduce repetitive motion and musculo-skeletal injuries on-the-job types of injuries common among women. The Senate voted to override the administration on this issue, but the House leadership refused to go along. The administration steadily relaxed numerous Occupational Health and Safety Administration rules, so that many more people work in an unsafe work environment.

Minimum Wage Still Falls Short

For several years now, Republican congressional leadership opposed even a modest increase in the federal minimum wage standard from $5.15 an hour (without increase since 1987) to $6.65 over a two year period. Even $6.65 has 37 percent less purchasing power than did the very first minimum wage adopted decades ago.

Appropriately valued, the federal minimum wage should be $9 to $12 per hour to provide basic support with the current cost of living. Because of this failure to act, millions of female-headed households struggle to make ends meet and many end up in the ranks of the homeless and desperate. Women make up more than 60 percent of workers who earn minimum wage, which amounts to only a little over $10,000 per year before taxes.

Consumer Protections Attacked

Republican congressional leaders continue attempts to restrict the right to bring a lawsuit for injuries resulting from defective products, medical malpractice or discrimination. Class-action litigation, one of the most important tools that women use to assert legal rights, is under particularly strong attack. A tort "reform" bill passed in the House and now waits for a vote in the Senate this fall. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., pledged to take up an anti-litigation bill every single month.

Educational Equity Eroded

In the Bush budget, the Women's Educational Equity Act funding has been deleted for the third year in a row, and the WEEA Equity Resource Center closed. The Bush administration attempted to scale back Title IX (the guarantee of equal educational opportunity for girls and women) as it relates to athletics by appointing a biased commission to study the regulations, but backed off somewhat when a huge outcry resulted. However, reports indicate that the Department of Education has quietly moved forward with a plan to discourage girls' and women's sports participation by allowing advance "interest surveys" without ever offering the sports opportunity. Legislation to override Title IX equal education provisions by authorizing single sex education in public schools will soon be implemented.

Health Care Less Affordable

Bush proposed and Republicans passed a bill that will eventually doom Medicare through funding caps and by forcing seniors into private insurance in order to get a weak prescription drug benefit. Republican budgets shifted more financing responsibilities onto states for Medicaid, resulting in fewer benefits and higher eligibility standards for low income beneficiaries, most of whom are women.

At the same time, more and more workers and their families lose health insurance coverage as costs escalate. Over a 15-year period, the percentage of covered workers declined from 70.1 to 64.2 percent in 2002. More than 45 million people now lack health insurance. The Census Bureau reported in late August that 17 million women have no health insurance.

VAWA Undermined

This administration's budget proposed funding for emergency shelters, crisis hotlines and other intervention services at 26 percent below currently authorized levels. Bush-appointed individuals continually oppose Violence Against Women Act programs on key advisory committees.

Housing Crisis Worsens

Some 28 percent of female-headed families experience critical housing problems, and women fleeing abusive relationships have particular trouble finding safe, affordable housing. Today, affordable apartments and homes are hard to find, while prices in many communities continue to climb. Due to Bush's voucher policies, 250,000 families lose housing vouchers next year, and within five years 800,000 eligible families lose vouchers.

Funds Cut to Global Programs

The Bush administration attempted to expand the Global Gag Rule to include international HIV/AIDS programs in Africa and Asia on the same fallacious grounds that the administration used to withdraw $34 million in family planning funding to UNFPA for the past three years. They said some HIV/AIDS programs have links to supposed policies in China involving coerced abortion—an allegation that remains unsubstantiated despite repeated investigations.

Aug. 13 marked 20 years since the first Global Gag rule, in which the United States denied funding to any Non-Governmental Organization providing, referring or even discussing abortion services. By now, hundreds of millions of poor women in as many as 150 countries have been harmed by this callous policy. An estimated 78,000 women die each year due to unsafe abortions in developing countries and many thousands are injured.

Continued Attack on Repro Rights

The Republican leadership will soon ram a bill through Congress, misleadingly named the Child Custody Protection Act, endangering the lives of young women. The law would threaten jail time for a non-parent relative or friend—even an aunt, grandmother or clergy—who tries to help a young woman access reproductive health services in another state, even if that is the closest facility.

In addition, the administration distorted scientific information to advance its anti-abortion and anti-family planning agenda, such as the baseless assertion that abortion causes breast cancer which was once posted on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services web site. Other valid, science-based information disappeared from federal agency web sites. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been funneled to unproven abstinence-only sex education and HIV/AIDS programs.

Legislation to promote the availabliity of contraceptives, such as the Equity in Prescription Contraceptive Insurance Coverage Act, continue to languish in committee, and a politicized FDA refused to approve safe and effective emergency contraception for over-the-counter sale. Bush attempted to remove coverage for birth control from federal employees health insurance, and consistently proposed inadequate budgetary amounts for Title X, funding domestic family planning programs.

The government denies military women and dependents their constitutional rights by banning abortions at overseas U.S. military hospitals, even when the women are willing to use their own funds. This dangerous policy continues even though the Senate has repeatedly voted to repeal the ban. It persists despite numerous reports of rape and sexual assault of military women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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