Monday, June 23, 2008

Women and the Workforce

As a result of some of my posts over the last week on issues relative to discrimination against mothers, I've tried to think about what sort of economic policies would help to support the participation of women with children in the workforce.  As many studies and articles have pointed out (and if I were more of a journalist and had more time, I would find them and provide links), the culture of the American workplace is really suited to the advancement of men and men with the support of the traditional wife.  

Perhaps not last week, but the week before, the NY Times Magazine had a long article about the co-parenting movement.  For some couples, the nature of their interests and careers allows them to do this.  For others, this equal sharing can't work due to various economic necessities, discrimination against men working part-time or reduced hours, or a workplace that simply puts too much 24/7 pressure on its employees (i.e., wants flexibility for itself, but offers little for its employees).  

Women who are married to men who can hold down high incomes often opt out of the workforce because they can't find satisfying work that is flexible enough to allow for satisfying and necessary interaction with their children.  Their husbands aren't able to flex and keep bringing in the high incomes, so the wives bend and flex.  As Linda Hirshman in particular keeps pointing out, in the event of divorce, these women are screwed.  They haven't kept up their job skills, for one.  She urges women to press on with careers.  I've not read everything that Hirshman has written, but she seems to agree that it's a man's world and women have to play by men's rules or risk the consequences.

While the above discussion is really one that middle- and upper-income women find themselves mired in, low- and moderate-income women have problems as well.  Current economic policies address their needs for childcare and equal pay inadequately.  The welfare system has been changed to encourage the development of job skills by these women, but governments have not been able to solve childcare problems, nor am I sure that educational benefits provided by the federal government and the states take into account the needs of women with children when setting award levels.  

While "choice" rhetoric has given ammunition to many (not all) childless people who resent the needs of people with families--"choice" turns having a family from a social good to a matter of personal choice and luxury--women who are mothers face significant disadvantages in the workforce and deserve accommodations in recognition of their caregiving functions that social policy does not currently allow.  That is, women should start asking politicians for social and economic policies that would level the playing field for us and give us an equal chance at workplace success.

First of all, universal healthcare for children, regardless of economic status, would help women in particular change jobs or look for meaningful work without having to give consideration first to benefits.  Such measures would also help in instances of divorce, guaranteeing that children are protected while parents attempt to sort out their economic problems.

Second, tax deductions for childcare are not helpful for women who do not itemize their taxes, and the amounts available through the current deductions or flexible spending allowances are a mere drop in the bucket for total expenses.  If you have more than one child, the amounts available are almost meaningless.  Tax credits for women filing separately, regardless of marital status might be helpful.  As would a national and federal investment in welfare-linked childcare centers--for low-income women, neither deductions nor credits have any benefit, and flexible spending accounts are not available for people who work for hourly wages.  

Changes to the self-employment laws would benefit women trying to keep up their job skills while engaged in raising children.  My impression is that many women are able to find work as consultants (no benefits) or in starting their own home-based businesses--these sorts of efforts maintain job skills and contacts, and they also allow women to do end-runs around the typical problems associated with the protocols of a male-dominated and controlled workforce.  But the self-employed are expected to pay both halves of the social security and medicare taxes, which is crippling.  Women filing schedule C self-employment returns with dependents under the age of 18 should have the employer's share of social security credited to their accounts by the federal government.

For that matter, our social security system makes no adjustments for anyone who has to cut back on their employment in order to do the necessary caregiving that comes with disabled children, spouses, or parents, or caring for the elderly.  Anyone working less than full time because they need flexibility to provide care for a qualifying elderly or disabled individual should get social security credits from the federal government as a result of lost work time.

Changes need to be made to our social and educational policies that preserve access to education for women with children.  For example, many state and county K-12 systems have policies and programs for helping teen age felons return to school to graduate from high school, but how many have programs to help teenage mothers gain a high school diploma in a timely manner?  Often, it seems that we simply tell young women who get pregnant and who do not terminate their pregnancies that they have ruined their lives.  If education really is the zero sum game it's often described to be, I'd be happier to tell teenage felons that they've ruined their lives and are on their own in terms of education.

The major federal grant program, the Pell Grant, and its corollaries, the ACG and SMART grants, don't take childcare expenses into account when making awards to women with children.  Neither do the major federal loan programs.  If women are to achieve job skills and enter the workforce, we need to level the playing field in terms of higher education.  Colleges and universities do not often make housing accommodations for women with families.  Essentially, women with families are not welcome as students in higher education.  

It may be that there are already programs that address some of these issues, and that I am unaware of them.  But it seems to me that organizations like NOW, NARAL, etc. could be trying to figure out a bill of workforce rights for women with children, and not wasting their time with publicity stunts like the Hall of Media Shame.  Or be willing to devote equal resources to policies that would benefit women with children as opposed to devoting nearly all of their resources to "choice," the primary benefit of which is for women who do not wish to have children.  

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