Carework: When Equality Is Not Enough

After the crash, the downturn was dubbed a "mancession." As the meme continues to circulate, the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog asked leading thinkers to help sort fact from fiction. Are men suffering more than women in a weak economy? Is Washington doing enough to address female unemployment? How do we ensure a jobs agenda that's fair and equitable? In the fourth part of an ongoing series, "The Myth of the Mancession? Women & the Jobs Crisis," Eileen Boris calls the reevaluation of carework a national priority.

When it comes to women's place in the economy, is equality enough? Most feminists have long argued for equal treatment: pay us the same for the same work, hire only on the basis of qualifications, train us for the jobs that men have, give us access to capital just like men. Remember Rosie the Riveter? She showed the nation that women could "do it." Now the Obama National Economic Council has come out with "Jobs and Economic Security for America's Women," a report to counter claims that its recovery programs left women behind in addressing the "mancession."

The report clearly owns up to the increased centrality of women's employment -- as half of the labor force, the majority of college graduates, and the "primary or co-breadwinner" for two-thirds of families. The persistent gender wage gap (77 cents to a man's dollar) becomes more devastating when households must depend on women's earnings alone. And more of them are doing so during these hard times.

The report contains credible numbers about the impact of the Great Recession. Women constitute 42 percent of the long-term unemployed, and, among single heads of household, unemployment reached 13.6 percent at a time when many solo mothers were hitting lifetime limits on welfare. African American and Latina women, as well as older women from all races, have felt the crisis harder than their white counterparts, as they have historically. The black female unemployment rate is twice as large as that for white women.

Despite inadequate funding, Obama certainly has gained measures that, while under-promoted as being "for women," disproportionately benefit women because they predominate in targeted sectors. The list is impressive. Small Business Administration loans go to women three times more than to men. Recovery, Education Jobs and Medical Assistance Acts save jobs of teachers, nurses, and other public sector and health employees, three-quarters of whom are women -- and who also are half of the students at community colleges, the beneficiaries of training monies. The funding of public assistance and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit reaches poor women.

Despite such support, moving women into better jobs currently dominated by men and insuring their equal treatment remains the presidential solution for women's advancement. Obama's first signature went on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to rectify the Supreme Court's undermining of equal pay enforcement. Like other recent Democratic presidents, he wanted to train and educate women into higher wages. Carter encouraged women to move into the construction trades, though their numbers stagnated. Clinton promoted training for poor single mothers, though workfare hardly prepared for living wages. Obama proposes pushing girls into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs.

The administration certainly recognizes that women's responsibilities for families curtail their labor force participation. Following Clinton, who signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, Obama lauds workplace flexibility but offers only dialogue, best practices, modest funding for states to pay benefits, and a larger dependent tax credit.

It isn't that this response ignores carework. There has been investment in health professionals. One initiative continues home health care and provides relief for family caregivers. But these efforts fall short of the massive investment needed to reorganize how we as a society undertake care.

Does the dominant equality discourse -- that too often equates equality with a white male standard -- interfere with the hard task of revaluing carework, labor too often associated with unpaid maternal love and familial duty? Is this work underpaid because women of color and immigrants perform it? Where are the calls for boys to enter home health, social work, nursing, or early childhood education? Where are the initiatives to raise wages in the carework economy? As long as we merely seek to make women equal with men by getting women into men's jobs, then we disdain the work of daily life as unskilled toil, below the dignity and worth of Americans. With carework the growth industry of the present and future, let's rethink what equality means. By turning our gaze to the dependency that marks the human condition -- our equal fate despite unequal access to sustenance along the way -- let's reconfigure the meaning of equality and improve the living and working conditions of women where they work today. Not as a stealthy initiative, as Obama has begun, but as a national priority.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.