The Financial Debate—Moving the “Joannes” Front and Center

With the election a few days away, campaign rhetoric is at a fevered pitch. The financial meltdown crisis is at the forefront of policy debates, and the two tickets are trying to appeal to undecided voters who are anxious about their future and calling for change.

Recognizing that women voters have good reason for economic worries, the Economists’ Policy Group on Women’s Issues issued a report card on October 23 that graded John McCain and Barack Obama on ten critical issues.  This group of more than 30 economists were concerned that the focus on “Joe the Plumber” overlooked the problems facing the “Joannes” around the country.  Women in the U.S. economy “typically earn less money and shoulder more family responsibilities than men,” said Nancy Folbre, staff economist at the Center for Popular Economics, during a phone press conference releasing the report.

The overall scores for McCain and Obama were a D and a B, respectively.  With two Fs bringing down McCain’s average, Barbara Bergmann, professor emerita, American University, said, “It’s not unfair to describe McCain as a firm enemy of many measures that would bring progress for women, while there is hope that under an Obama presidency, their situation could advance substantially.”

The introduction of hyperbolic language into the discussion on tax policy has become a Republican talking point.  Palin has tagged Obama as having a socialist and Marxist bent.  McCain has coined the phrase “Redistributionist in Chief” to describe Obama, who told the fabled plumber that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”  Randy Albelda, professor at the University of Massachusetts and vice-president of the International Association for Feminist Economics, prefaced her findings with a basic primer on how taxes function in our democracy:  Taxes by design play two primary roles.  The first is to fund goods and services that the population needs and wants because markets or families can’t meet these needs (examples would include street lights, schools, and public infrastructure).  The second is “to redistribute income.”

Women, to a much greater extent than men, depend upon services paid for by the government.  With tax cuts promised by both candidates, the increase in the deficit may affect the revenues needed to fund those programs vital to women. The economic challenges that women face go far beyond what Folbre characterized as “sticky floors and glass ceilings”—language describing concerns with women’s professional advancement. The gap between women’s and men’s poverty rates is larger in the United States than any other industrialized country, making women more dependent on the social services “safety net.”

Rates of poverty increase for mothers raising children on their own and older women in the United States. Mothers, who may need to be absent from their jobs to take care of sick family members, risk losing pay or even their jobs. In addition, the minimum wage is insufficient to cover the cost of living for a single person.  As Albelda stated, “Over the last several decades, many government programs for the poor have been narrowed and retooled to promote low-wage employment.  As a result, many low-wage women earn too little to pay their basic bills, but too much to be eligible for child care, health insurance and housing of food assistance.”

Often without private health insurance or pensions, social security benefits are the bedrock of retirement financing for these women.  With a longer life span, women are more vulnerable to having inadequate fiscal resources to cover old age. Other economic factors bear consequences for women, including the costs of pregnancy—planned or unintended—domestic violence ($5.8 billion per year in health care costs) and responsibility for childcare.

Not surprisingly, a mid-October nationwide bipartisan survey (conducted by Lake Research Partners and AboutVoter/Consumer Research) found that the top issue driving voter concern was the economy. Healthcare ranked second, with women more likely than men to say it’s one of the major issues influencing their vote. Thanks to such efforts as the economists’ report card, women heading to the voting booth on November 4th will have a clearer understanding of the differences between the McCain and Obama approach to the economy.

It may help determine whom they pull the lever for.

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