Human Face of Economic Policy

By Kyla Bender-Baird

Starting off their mornings with some light economic policy talk, people crowded into the Drew Room at the UN Church Center on February 23rd. It was standing room only for the jointly sponsored CSW panel, “Left Behind by Economic Policy.” Representatives from the National Council for Research on Women, The Opportunity Agenda, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, and the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center discussed how economic policy has failed to protect the economic human rights of women and in particular, women of color in the United States.

“It’s important to remember the human impact of economic policy,” Ejim Dike of the Human Rights Project said. Too often conversations of the budget deficit remain abstract—faceless. This allows policymakers to not talk about people and their rights. We must shift this conversation to focus on issues such as the right to work. This means ensuring there are an adequate number of jobs (we don’t currently); providing good jobs that pay living wages and offer benefits; and protecting equal access to such jobs. As Dike reminded the room, historically underrepresented groups are the least likely to access good jobs.

To change this trend, researchers, advocates and organizers must find points of entry to the national conversation so that the interests of these groups are brought to the table. One such entry point is the media. Juhu Thukral, Director of Law and Advocacy at The Opportunity Agenda, shared findings from their recent analysis of media content around the economic recovery. The bad news? There was very little coverage of race and class and almost no coverage of gender (except for the notoriously mis-leading “mancession” hysteria). The “good” news is that due to the breadth of the recession, the media no longer covered joblessness as a person-by-person issue but as a systemic issue.

Radhika Balakrishnan, Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, confirmed the importance of using a systemic lens to understand our economic situation. Using frightening statistics illustrating the concentration of wealth at the very tipy top of the economic pyramid, Balakrishnan demonstrated that current economic disparities in the U.S. have been in the works for decades. Furthermore, the accumulation of wealth by the very wealthy (the top 0.1% of the population) is directly linked to economic policy. We need to better understand economic policy so that we can better advocate, said Balakrishnan.

One step is to gain a better understanding of the budget and the deficit. Current media coverage is portraying the government as a person. Right now, the message is that we should only spend as much as we take in. “The government is NOT your paycheck,” said Balakrishnan. In fact, the government will make money by spending money, because government spending leads to job creation, which increases revenue for the government. Over 600 economists have signed a statement about the necessity of the deficit in this current context. Capping the debt ceiling—as some elected officials are currently pushing—would force the government to cut expenditures, effectively pulling the rug out from under the American public. As Balakrishnan explained, blaming the deficit for the recession “is insane.” Rather, we need to look at the regulatory processes, many of which were put in place in place under the Clinton Administration. Again, Balakrishnan emphasized the importance of taking a historic perspective in order to pass better policy.

(By the way, if you’re confused by the current budget proposals before Congress, several organizations have provided analysis to help you out. Check out the National Women’s Law Center, the Women of Color Policy Network, and Women Thrive for starters.)

To bring it all together, NCRW’s Shyama Venkateswar asked the panelists what frameworks are useful in drawing attention to these issues. Dike reiterated that we must look at who is impacted by policies. Thukral said that The Opportunity Agenda’s public opinion polling found that “restoring the American Dream” was a message that resonates with the American public as it combines the values of personal responsibility and community. Balakrishnan encouraged the audience to push the government’s responsibility for protecting its people’s economic and social rights (which are human rights).

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