By Mimi Abramovitz
The current effort to dismantle the public sector is the latest round in the rancorous debate about the role of so-called “big government” that has shaped public policy since the mid-1970s. Initially targeted at program users, the attack subsequently took aim at public sector employees and union members. Since most scholars and activists focus on one group or another they miss the whole story and the strategy’s wider impact. Lacking the gender lens needed to bring women into view, they also missed that women comprise the majority in each group. Until the 2012 presidential campaign turned women’s reproductive health services into a hot political item, few seemed aware of this decades- long “war on women.”
Origins: Thirty Years of Neo- Liberalism
Since the onset of the economic crisis in the mid 1970s U.S. leaders have pursued a neoliberal agenda designed to redistribute income upwards and downsize the state. Its contours are familiar: tax cuts, retrenchment, privatization, deregulation, devolution, and weaker social movements. Meanwhile, the Right sought a restoration of family values and a color-blind social order. To win public support for these unpopular ideas their advocates resorted to what Naomi Klein called the “shock doctrine”: the creation and/ or manipulation of crises to impose policies that people would not otherwise support. Discounting data and evoking the shock doctrine, government foes targeted not just programs for the poor but also popular entitlement pro- grams once regarded as the “third rail” of politics. Unlikely to pass Congress intact, their proposals – which fall heavily on women – will set the agenda for months to come.
Given that women make up the majority of government service users, employees and union members, the cuts constitute a “war on women.” Many of the programs now on the chopping block address the basic needs of women and their families. Current House budgets propose to cut child care, Head Start, job training, Pell Grants, housing, and more by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Social Security (57 percent women beneficiaries), Medicare (56 per- cent), and Medicaid (54 percent) also face the budget axe.
Less spending by Washington translates into reduced federal aid to states and cities. To balance their budgets, the states will spend $75 billion less in 2012 than in 2011. Those who would set women back have set their sights on women’s reproductive rights. The Guttmacher Institute reports that early in 2012 legislators in 45 states introduced 944 provisions to limit women’s reproductive health and rights including massive cuts to Planned Parenthood. Fewer services also means more unpaid care work. Employed or not, women are the majority of the nation’s 67 million informal caregivers. They pick up the slack when
services disappear. From 1935 to 1970, the services provided by an expanding public sector
helped women balance work and family life. Since the mid-1970s, neoliberal budget cuts shifted the costs and responsibility of care work back to women in the home. So does the growing practice of moving the elderly and the disabled from publicly-funded residential centers to home-based care and discharging hospital patients still in need of medical monitoring and nursing services.
Fewer Public Sector Jobs for Women
The anti-government strategy also decreased women’s access to public sector jobs. As social movements pressed for an expanded welfare state after World War II, these jobs became an important source of upward mobility for white women and people of color excluded from gainful private sector employment. By January 2011, women comprised 56.8 percent of all government workers: 43 percent of federal, 51.7 percent of state and 61.4 percent of local government employees. Women filled these jobs because society assigned care work to women, their families needed two earners to make ends meet, and social welfare programs benefited from cheap female labor. The public sector also became the single most important employer for blacks, who are 30 per- cent more likely than other workers to hold public sector jobs. More than 14 percent of all public sector workers are black. In most other sectors, they comprise only 10 percent of the workforce.
The Great Recession and the slow recovery have decimated public sector employment. During the early stages of the recession, men suffered more than 70 percent of total job loss because “male” jobs (construction, manufacturing, etc.) are particularly sensitive to cyclical downturns. The current “recovery,” by contrast, has been tougher on women, who comprise over half of the public workforce. The public sector lost 2.6 percent of its total employment from June 2009 to May 2012. Women suffered 61 percent of those job losses (348,000 out of 573,000). They gained only 22.5 percent of 2.5 million net jobs added to the over- all economy. In 2010, the poverty rate among women rose to its highest level (14.5 percent) in 17 years.
Loss of Union Rights
Total union membership plummeted from a peak of 35 percent of the civilian labor force in 1954 to just 11.8 percent in 2011 – the lowest percentage of union workers since the Great Depression. Private-sector unionization dropped to 6.9 percent. Despite the loss of thousands of government jobs, public unions withstood the onslaught, maintaining an average membership rate of more than 37 percent. It helped that the majority of public sector work cannot be outsourced or automated.
Seeking to weaken the remaining unions, foes of labor and government turned against the public sector – labor’s last stronghold. Some governors demonized government workers as the new privileged elite to convince the public that collective bargaining, not tax cuts, is the enemy of balanced budgets. When governors strip teachers and nurses of their collective bargaining rights but spare police and firefighters, they hit women especially hard: 61 percent of unionized women but only 38 percent of unionized men work in the public sector. The loss of union protection sets women back economically. Unionized women of all races in both public and private jobs earn nearly one-third more per week than non-union women, although white women earn more than women of color. Trade union women face a smaller gender wage gap and are more likely to have employer- provided health insurance and pension plans than their non-union sisters.
Loss of a Strong Advocate
Public sector unions historically pressed for high-quality services, dependable benefits, and fair procedures for them- selves and for others. In the 1920s, the teachers’ unions stood up for greater school funding and smaller class sizes. In the 1960s, unionized social workers fought for fair hearings and due process for welfare recipients. In the 1980s and 1990s, home care workers sought more sustained care for their clients. The loss of union power will cost public sector program users, workers, and union members a strong ad- vocate. Unions remain one of the few institutions with the capacity to represent the middle and working classes and check corporate power inside and outside government.
The attack on the public sector places women in triple jeopardy. As the majority of public sector program users, workers, and union members, they face fewer services (and more care work), fewer jobs, and less union protection. In state after state, thousands of government workers and community supporters have stood up to say that they will not take the assault on their well being, dignity, and rights lying down. Occupy Wall Street’s championship of the 99 percent has made mounting inequality and the need for a more robust public sector front page news for the first time in many years. As the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative reminds us, the current agenda amounts to “attacks on public responsibility, the notion of the public good, and the ability of government to secure economic and social rights for all.” t
Mimi Abramovitz is the Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor of Social Policy at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, CUNY. She is also on the faculty of the CUNY Graduate Center and the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.
This essay was published in DSA’s Democratic Left. Fall. 2012