Economic Security Summit: How are we Doing?

By Kyla Bender-Baird

The day is finally here! Today is the Economic Security Summit, Reinvesting in Women and Families: Developing an Economy for the Future. The Council has partnered with the New York Women's Foundation, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Women's Funding Network, the Women of Color Policy Network at NYU Wagner, and the Silver Century Foundation to bring together experts in research, advocacy, policymaking, media, and philanthropy.

We come together this morning to share knowledge on the impact of the economic crisis and economic recovery efforts on low-income women of all ages, especially women of color, and their families. By the end of the day, we hope to gain a better understanding of the intersecting issues in pathways to economic security for women and to propose policy recommendations and innovative strategies as well as build collaborations and partnerships to push forward a progressive agenda. It's going to be a jam-packed day!

We are starting off with a panel discussion on how we are doing. More specifically, how can we understand issues such as job creation, asset building, and poverty alleviation in light of the impact of the economic crisis? What has been the impact of ARRA funds and other legislation such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the FY2011 Federal Budget on women of all ages, working families, and other vulnerable communities?

Joining us to lead this discussion is the Council's Director of Research and Programs, Shyama Venkateswar, who will be moderating the panel. Also on the panel is:

But first, some welcoming remarks from Linda Basch and Ana Oliveira, Presidents of the National Council for Research on Women and New York Women's Foundation, respectively, as well as the Executive Director of the Women of Color Policy Network at NYU Wagner, Nicole Mason. 

Ana: This conversation started with the crumbling of a particular economic system and noticing that whereas we are very aware of the destructive impact…that it’s an opportunity to really look at action. Let’s pretend that we actually had, collectively speaking, power to design an economic system and make it happen that expresses values that we believe in.

Ana: Can we take this opportunity to produce a different result together? Partnerships are the vital part of it. Can we think about what it means to operate in one of the sites of the belly of the monster. Some shifts might not be as far as we think they are.

Ana: I guess what I’m suggesting is that we build a conversation about our work on how we increase our political power and how that can shift the economic system where the economic system in the U.S. is much weaker than it used to be. In some ways, it’s a paradoxical thing. But in other ways, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to look at structural responses and how we can move that. It’s one thing to do have a conversation of “do we dare?” It’s another to do that work together…and we want to!

Ana: I hope that this event is one movement that catalyzes further and we come back to the next catalyzing step. Onward!

Nicole: I’m very excited today about the possibility of generating new and fresh strategies for moving women and families towards economic security.

Linda: We know historically that when there’s a crisis, there’s generally a little toe hole where we can create change. We might feel powerful individually…collectively we really can have an impact. And that’s our charge here. To think through together how we can have an impact on how we reinvest in women and families and create an economy that works for everyone. You are the thinkers and the doers and we are so happy that you have you joined us today. The mindset has been what can we do, how can we do it?

Linda: NCRW promotes rights and opportunities for women and girls, and uses research for action and creating change. It’s only through collaboration that we’ll be able to create change. More than 15 million women are now living in poverty—the largest number in over 43 years. African American women are more than 10% more likely to drop out of high school and miss the opportunity to attend college. I could go on and on about the dire realities that low-income women and their families face. But there is hope—look at the legislation that we can be affecting like ARRA, TANF, Affordable Care Act, and Paycheck Fairness. There are also indicators that many are with us. A recent poll by the Ms. Foundation found that the majority of those polled support getting women the support they need in the workforce. How do we accomplish such an economy? That’s the focus of our Summit. Today we’re going to address four key areas: job creation, social supports, education, and healthcare. We also have a charge for you. We want you to help us to accomplish key goals, including:

  • To identity what we collectively see as elements of a progressive agenda
  • To identity gaps in knowledge that we need to advance the agenda
  • How can we get our messages out and who are the players that we need to influence?
  • To identity policies and programs at local, state, and national levels where we can have an impact in the short and long term.

Although ARRA has largely been successful, it has not been sufficient to meet the needs of vulnerable communities. We need better monitoring, evaluation, and research to discover the impact of the recovery efforts on low-income women of all ages, especially women of color, and their families.

We indeed have a unique cross-section of brain power and problem solving here in this room.

And now, onto the first panel!

Shyama: Stimulus monies showed some process in terms of job creation, SNAP, unemployment benefits, child care and early education, and education. But ARRA monies did not go necessarily into direct investments, especially in healthcare and education, it went to state fiscal relief. They were really stop gaps and band aid measures. What I want this panel to do is to let us know how we are doing. In particular, let’s think about four areas:

  • Priorities
  • Policy recommendations
  • Key messages and frames for the general public and policymakers
  • What kind of coalitions and partnerships are right her ein this room to help us take this agenda forward

Avis: I call this talk the female face of the “mancession.” But this has been largely invisible in the public eye. Which is why this gathering today is so important. Much has been made of the disproportionate impact of the recession on men. Much has been made of the growing proportion of women in the labor market. Yet the views of the women who have fallen prey to these tough economic times are woefully missing. The latest poverty numbers now suggest that over 43 million of the U.S. citizens live under the poverty line. We know this breaks down unevenly around race and gender lines. We know all this is taken place in a shattered safety net with the 1996 welfare reform. What we don’t know, though, is what has happened as a result, especially in the lives of those most ill-equipped to weather the storm. In the mid-1990s, in the time of plenty, there was a belief that those in need just needed a push to get up and out of welfare. The language of welfare reform is very important. No longer Aid to Families with Dependent Children, now referred to as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The reform implemented lifetime caps. Concerns of there not being enough jobs were not present in the healthy economy of the 1990s. Today, that thinking seems worlds away from the practical reality. Instead of broad scale expansions of welfare rolls, which would have been logical considering the economic downturn, we in fact saw cuts in many states. We also see the rampant sanctioning of families on welfare. In 2005, the most recent data, only 40% of eligible families actually received it. Down from 84% prior to welfare reform. What this means is there is a lot of unmet need out there. Families have fallen on desperate times. Today’s poverty numbers, today’s discussion of the wake of welfare reform, is critically important. Because these are the issues that need to improve the lives of millions out there who just need help. First, we must put an end to the 5-year lifetime limit on cash assistance. In addition, we need to ban full family sanctions…and we should rethink the use of sanctions, period. It provides a negative incentive to case works. Instead of getting to the heart of the issue, automatic sanctions kick in. These are the two quick and dirty things that need to be done to at least start to rectify the situation.

Mariko: We’re used to thinking about how well families are doing in terms of income. But I’m arguing that we also need to look at wealth, assets, and liabilities. Wealth is someone’s assets minus their liabilities. Wealth inequality is so much greater than income inequality. The top 1% of the population held 17% of income but 34% of wealth. Compared to the bottom 60% who held 22% of income and 4% of wealth. Why should we care about the women’s health gap? For starters, half of all households are non-married households. And contrary to popular belief, widowhood is not lucrative. One in 5 widows live in poverty. The numbers I’m presenting today were collected before the crisis. Therefore, they are most likely painting a rosier picture than is the reality today. What we find is that married households and co-habitating households are by far the most well-off. But there is an obvious gender and racial gap. The typical black single man has a median wealth of $8K compared to his female counterpart who has $100. The wealth penalty is particularly severe for women of color—nearly half have zero or negative wealth. Even with the same incomes, women have less wealth. First, they are more likely to be custodial parents and support people on one income. Second, women have less access to “the wealth escalator” where they translate their income into wealth. For example, fringe benefits. Women are much more likely to work part-time and part-time workers are typically excluded from fringe benefits. ARRA had several implications for wealth building, including modernizing unemployment insurance, extending benefits to those who left the workforce due to dependent caregiving. We should also be thinking about care giver credits for Social Security. IDA’s and independent match savings systems have also been very successful in helping women build their wealth. We need to think beyond immediate needs—to think of policies that help women build their assets so that they are more secure over the long run.

Randy: Income and wealth (as concepts) don’t work that well for women. It’s better to think about resources and investment. Our lives are marbled with both private and public resources and investments. One is wages. And also time. Women spend a lot of time caring for families in an unpaid way. Public resources include Social Security, unemployment insurance, income tax credit, TANF—although TANF is now completely dwarfed by all these others—and food stamps. We don’t all have the same access to wages and resources. Private investments include buying a high quality K-12 education, purchasing high-quality healthcare, buying a house in a safe and secure neighborhood. Public investments include physical infrastructure (roads and bridges) and human infrastructure (healthcare, education, caregiving). In report last spring on women in Massachusetts, I found that women and men probably equally benefits from ARRA. Like everything else in our economic lives, it was very segmented. Women got the poor people’s money and men got the other money. The spending was very bifurcated. Men more likely to get unemployment insurance not only because they’re more likely to be unemployed but also because they’re more likely to qualify. Fiscal money to the states went to Medicaid and education. It was very important money—it wasn’t enough. ARRA helped families. It didn’t stimulate enough. It wouldn’t call investment in human infrastructure that—it was called state aid. As for what it won’t do—well, it’s done. That’s going to be a big problem for states in 2012. We’re going to have to think long and hard about low-wage work. Low-wage equals earning less than 2/3 of the state median income. One of every three female workers are in a low-wage job, as of 2008. We need to lift the floor. For instance, higher wages. The only way we can do this is unions and shame. We also need more employer supports (fringe benefits, family medical leave, employer sponsored pensions, etc.). We should improve employee flexibility so that people hold onto the jobs they have. There is a high-cost of low-wage work in the United States for those families and also to their communities, education, and healthcare. We need research to prove this. We spend an enormous amount on education reform when we don’t address poverty. I worry a lot about the state budget meltdown. What I see is a dis-investment in terms of Medicaid and eldercare cuts and other key areas for our past, present, and future. 57% of MA state and local budgets went to support care work in the state in 2007. Budget cuts will mean a complete dis-investment in the care sector, which will make all our work much harder. We have to push the states by calling it investment, by calling it infrastructure, and by calling it what it is. You dis-invest in education and healthcare and you dis-invest in every single community. Close to half of the households who are poor are headed by single-women.

Shyama: Through these presentations, I have seen a push for more investments and less sanctions from the state. Let’s keep in mind how we can achieve that through the lens of partnerships and coalition.


Rita Henley Jensen from Women’s eNews: What is the cost to the economy of the disinvestment of these benefits, especially as we know women spend the majority of their money in their community?

Sara Gould, Ms. Foundation: We are probably facing an economic situation that probably isn’t getting better, but will we have a political structure that promotes change?

Laura Lein: How do we coordinate ourselves around the fact that states have been given increasingly amounts of freedom? For example, Texas sanctions on TANF and Medicaid are rather draconian. Does child use of TANF impact the woman’s access to TANF later in life?

Taja Linely, Community Voices Heard: TANF requites people to spend down their assets to quality. What are ways that asset building can be incorporated into TANF reform?

National Crittenton Foundation: What is the scale of the problem for young women? If we don’t collect the data, they remain invisible.

LIFETIME: GA 60% of TANF is spent on adoption services. State encouraged welfare recipients to give their children up to the system.

Shyama: What are the punitive visions of these pieces of legislation? I’ll turn to Avis first.

Avis: All these investments—people don’t hoard, they spend and they have a stimulative effect. But we are in an era where people are overly worried about the deficit and cutting services, which effectively counters the stimulative of benefits. The question is, what is politically feasible through embarrassment or any other means? One of the best ways to get out of the mess we are in is to invest in our citizens who will then stimulate the economy. Since when has this nation said that in order to be a mother, you have to be wealthy? Are we really going to come to a point in this nation where we tell a woman you are too poor to be a mother? Through research, we need to quantify what’s going on at the state level and get those stories heard. It’s worth the investment to uncover those injustices and then rally around doing something about it.

Mariko: We can’t fix what we can’t see. We need better collection, around young women, racial and ethnic minorities, etc. We don’t want to sacrifice people’s future so that they can qualify for immediate assistance now. Investing in women is an economic stimulus! We need to speak a lot louder.

Randy: People don’t care what the economic argument is for poor women. They have their own ideas. We know that giving to rich people doesn’t trickle down. Getting to the political argument, this is why I emphasize that every community has education and healthcare. Calling infrastructure infrastructure is vital. We must go hand in hand with our brothers, making the argument that these are things important to all our lives. Get young women we work with do the surveys on their own lives, if they’re getting left out of federal data collection.

Avis: If we’re going to have work requirements, building their own business should count as work. It’s asset building plus entrepreneurship. We are living in a global economy. Do we really want to be in a situation where half of our workforce is unable to compete on a global scale? This is how we might get the attention of some corporations who might be interested in partnership with us.

Shyama: The frames surrounding poor women’s lives are so bleak. People don’t want to deal with it. So how do we message and create an agenda that leads to greater investment? Is it “worker for the 21st century?”

Jacqui Ebanks: I want to look at the issue of fringe benefits when we talk about corporate America. How do we make the argument so that we can get allies in the corporate community?

LIFETIME: We keep talking about workforce and accessing to a new type of worker. But I’m a TANF mom and it wasn’t until I got a degree that I knew I had access to these type of services. Bring the people you serve to the table! You want to see more informed workers? Education! It really begins there. Why isn’t the federal government more active? Why do the states get to divvy up what the benefits are? Why aren’t people held accountable? You need to give people the opportunity to understand what that education means. Having access to spaces like today is key.

Sara Manzano-Diaz: Regarding framing, it’s critical in a 21st century global economy that we are now behind 20-25 countries in math and science achievement in an economy that is growing and changing rapidly. If you’re not educating your future workers, then you’re doomed! We are so short-sighted that the issue of how to move forward—we have to make the business case of global competitiveness. President recently brought in 100 CEOs to talk about STEM.

Mimi Abramovitz: Corporations as partners—we do need them but we also have a problem. They are taking out loans with low interest rates but not hiring. Are they investing in machinery that replaces people? Will they hire people after the election because they want to bring the President down by keeping people disillusioned? The other side has done a very good job of demonizing the government. Our side has not done a good job of explaining how important the government is. I critique the Democratic party for not doing this in the past 30 years. I don’t think the government does everything right all the time. Unless we build that into our framing, people will cry out “big government” and discredit it. We must find a way to talk about this in an educated way.

Shyama: Final comments from the panelists?

Avis: We need to redevelop the sense of collective responsibility and invest in media savviness.

Mariko: A report showed that cities with paid sick days had economic growth. Emphasize the economic benefits to employers. That’s the way to get people on board.

Randy: We have to start talking about the public sector as OUR public sector.


<< Back to the Full Blog