What Would a Feminist Budget Look Like?

The last-minute deal to avoid default and end the government shutdown included one of the most tried and true maneuvers in the Congressional playbook — or should I say tired and false.

A new, 29-member super-committee has been appointed to come up with a budget deal, including tax and spending policies. If they don’t succeed by Dec. 13, we could be back to shutdown city. Their formal negotiations began yesterday, and as the Washington Post described it, “the sudden outbreak of bipartisan bonhomie masked a lingering dispute over the issue of taxes, which looms once again as the biggest roadblock on the path to compromise.”

Remember what happened back in 2011 when Congress faced a crisis over raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget? They created a supercommittee. It was supposed to make everything better, but what it came up with was the sequester. The sequester was billed as a fail-safe mechanism mandating spending cuts that would be so draconian the two parties would have to find common ground.

News flash — it didn’t work. We got the sequester, and make no mistake, it’s meant disastrous results for women and families.

It gets worse: This year, if Congress doesn’t enact a real budget, with programs that people need, paid for by fair taxation on the wealthiest, the sequester will continue to impose deeper and deeper across-the-board cuts in essential government services and programs.

That scenario looks a lot like a slow-motion version of the shutdown we all just struggled through. You’d think Republican leaders in Congress would want to avoid that outcome, what with their party’s brand in a deep hole because of their recent hostage-taking antics. But whether they are ready to act responsibly is anybody’s guess right now.

While we wait for the next breakdown in talks, I propose something a lot more constructive.

First, we need to be ready to stand up to the Tea Party Republicans who will keep using manufactured crises to get a budget deal — slashing programs that mostly serve and employ women, boosting military spending, and giving even bigger tax breaks to billionaires and corporations — that they can’t achieve through the legitimate democratic process. Then, we need to demand a feminist federal budget deal.

A feminist budget would be designed to address the struggles women and their families face every day.

Women make up about half the workforce; a majority are either the sole or an essential breadwinner in their household, and do most of the housework and caregiving for children and elders to boot. Women are far over-represented in poverty wage jobs (let’s call the minimum wage what it is) and are routinely paid less than their male counterparts for the same work or work of equal value.

And in today’s economy, far too many women are unemployed or underemployed. Here’s how that all adds up: women work hard, meet their responsibilities, follow the rules — and still, too often, can’t save for things like a down payment on a house in a good school district, or their kids’ college education, let alone their own retirement.

A feminist budget would recognize the need for change. It would be designed to reduce income and wealth inequality, which disproportionately affects all women but particularly women in communities of color. It would require the wealthiest individuals and corporations to pay their fair share in taxes. Finally, it would align federal taxation and spending with our highest values: a fair sharing of the benefits and burdens of living in a democratic society; investments in education, health care, and social well-being; and a secure retirement system that keeps tens of millions of people out of poverty.

So, how do we go about building a feminist budget? Plank #1: tax fairness.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) has introduced the Fairness in Taxation Act, which would create new tax brackets for millionaires and billionaires.

Here’s how Rep. Schakowsky describes the problem:

“Income inequality in America is the worst we’ve seen it since 1928. Wages have stagnated for middle and lower income families despite enormous gains in productivity. Where has all the money gone? In the United States today, the richest 1 percent owns 34 percent of our nation’s wealth — that’s more than the entire bottom 9 percent, who own just 29 percent of the country’s wealth. And the top one-hundredth of 1 percent now makes an average of $27 million per household per year. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of Americans? $31,244. It’s time for millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share, which is why I introduced the Fairness in Taxation Act. This isn’t about punishment or revenge. It’s about fairness. It’s about avoiding budget cuts that harm middle class families and those who aspire to it. We can choose to cut education, job creation and health care, or we can choose to ask those who can contribute more to do so.”

If enacted, the Fairness in Taxation Act would raise more than $78 billion.

Here are some more common-sense ways to ensure that everyone is contributing their fair share:

  •   Close loopholes that encourage shipping jobs overseas and keeping money in offshore havens — 40.1 billion deficit reduction
  •   Lower tax-exempt amount in estate tax — 4.5 billion * Abolish capital gains tax and tax as regular income — 88.1 billion
  •   Institute cap and trade to reduce deficit and help the environment — 52 billion
  •   Tax non-salary executive compensation (stock options, bonuses, etc.) — 17.4 billion

Oh, and by the way, revenues will also increase if we reduce the gender wage gap by passing laws like the Paycheck Fairness Act and if the 99 percent started seeing pay raises commensurate with GDP increases; that would start with passing a minimum wage law that would guarantee a living wage as the floor.

Plank #2: Protect Social Security

The idea of cutting Social Security keeps coming back to the public debate like a bad penny. But cutting Social Security is a ridiculously bad deal because the Social Security system has nothing to do with the federal budget, period.

It is separately funded via payroll taxes, and should not even be in the conversation. The latest attack on Social Security is a new way of calculating the annual cost-of-living adjustment in benefits called the chained-CPI. The chained CPI is a benefit cut for current as well as future Social Security beneficiaries — in other words, all of us — and the ill effects would grow worse over time. Women, particularly women of color, would suffer disproportionate harm.

The way the chained CPI works, seniors’ Social Security benefit won’t keep up with their living expenses. Over time, the gap between a woman’s actual living expenses and her Social Security check keeps getting bigger and bigger. According to the National Women’s Law Center, by the time the average woman is 85 that gap is equivalent to two weeks of groceries. After a lifetime of low-wage work and unequal pay, many women don’t have enough savings to make up the difference. Let’s face it: for women, instituting the chained CPI is like tripping someone at the end of a race after forcing them to run on the outside lane the whole way.

Another bad idea is to cut expenses by “means testing” Medicare. In plain English, that’s the first step toward turning Medicare into a poverty program. Instead of cutting it, we should be strengthening it, by allowing it to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. And we should be expanding it by making it available to more people, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, the White House keeps signaling its willingness to cut Social Security and/or Medicare benefits in return for … not a whole lot.

Plain and simple — we cannot cut Social Security. It is an earned benefit that workers pay for month in and month out, during their entire working lives. And, the men — yes, they are almost all men — who keep trying to cut Social Security via the chained CPI and other tactics may think they are pulling the wool over our eyes about what they’re up to. But women are not fooled. We know that cutting Social Security is especially devastating to women who, thanks to working a lifetime at unequal pay, are significantly more likely than men to outlive their savings.

Not only is the chained CPI bad policy, it is also bad politics — terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad politics. President Obama may not need to get re-elected in 2014, but his Democratic colleagues do. Republicans are salivating at the prospect of picking off vulnerable Democrats who go along with a White House push for the chained CPI. Those who want to win at the ballot box will peel away from the President and any party leaders who try to sell them on that policy.

Plank#3: Create jobs through investments in education, health care, and social well-being; scale back military spending:

At the Pentagon, the Cold War never ended. Assumptions made fifty years ago still drive military decisions, bringing us weapons we don’t need and deployments that don’t protect national security. In the current budget, defense spending amounts to about 22 percent of all federal expenditures.

Is there a better way? Of course there is.

  •   Bring about 1/3 of soldiers stationed at overseas bases home — savings of $12 billion
  •   Reduce strategic nuclear arsenal to 15 percent of current levels — $11.4 billion
  •   Bring armed forces enrollment numbers down to pre-2003 sizes — $12.1 billion
  •   Cut spending on defense contractors — $5.4 billion.

Meanwhile, a robust jobs program that makes the right investments in education, health care, child care and social programs would help struggling families finally recover from the Great Recession. Good ideas can be found in proposals by the Congressional Black Caucus  and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

And finally, a feminist budget would ensure full funding for Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) programs.

VAWA programs are aimed at two simple goals: provide services for survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and stalking; and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Women’s rights advocates and their champions on Capitol Hill worked hard to pass an inclusive VAWA re-authorization earlier this year. But thanks to the sequester, VAWA programs are being defunded to the point where shelters are being forced to close their doors.

Domestic violence is a key driver of women’s poverty, and a huge drag on the overall US economy. It only makes sense to fully fund these essential programs that help survivors get back on their feet.

Women are constantly being told that when we demand equality and economic justice, we are asking for too much, too soon. The lawmakers (mostly men) who draft our budget priorities are particularly fond of this argument. The next time you hear it, tell them what a feminist budget should look like.

Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 10/31/2013

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