Calling it by its name

Judith Warner of the New York Times blogs a little bit more about the horrific double standard in the way we approach gender and work issues, and the JEC's new report:

This week, Congress issued a report, [that] states categorically that mothers are not leaving the workforce to stay home with their kids. They’re being forced out...

Men, of course, were hit hard by the recession and weak recovery, too; in fact, as Louis Uchitelle of the Times reported earlier this week, the workforce participation rates of men aged 25 through 54 have dropped from 96 percent in 1953 to 86.4 percent today.

But when men in their prime working years drop out of the workforce we don’t say they’ve gone home to be with their kids.

We say they’re unemployed.

The distinction is truly meaningful beyond the neat way it encapsulates our inability to separate ideology from fact when it comes to thinking about mothers and their much-vaunted “choices.” Unemployed people, after all, are entitled to benefits. As a society, we tend to think it’s incumbent upon us to get them working again — for their own good, individually, for the good of their families, and for our collective welfare. Politicians promise to retrain them. Devise policies to retain them. The unemployed still fall under the ever-retracting umbrella of people we consider, to some extent, to be worthy of our care.

Mothers, with their glorious array of post-feminist lifestyle options, have long been seen as something else. They’re individuals, making choices, responsible for the fallout of those choices even if, in point of fact, those choices were made for them by a weak economy, the unaffordability of child care or an inflexible workplace. They don’t need “government handouts” like quality child care, flextime, sick days, family leave and top-notch afterschool programs, because they’ve made their proud choices and, by golly (unless they’re whiners), they’re going to go it alone.

I’m so glad that, at long last, this fiction has been officially acknowledged.

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Offshoring: It's Not (Just) A Dude Thing

Offshoring, downsizing, rightsizing... mention these words, and the image that pops in most people's heads is a hefty Midwestern man grumbling about his economic problems and then voting Republican.

But Lou Uchitelle has a piece today entitled "Women Are Now Equal as Victims of Poor Economy" that shows this view to be fatally flawed:

After moving into virtually every occupation, women are being afflicted on a large scale by the same troubles as men: downturns, layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages or the discouraging prospect of an outright pay cut...

Hard times in manufacturing certainly sidelined Tootie Samson of Baxter, Iowa. Nine months after she lost her job on a factory assembly line, Ms. Samson, 48, is still not working. She could be. Jobs that pay $8 or $9 an hour are easy enough to land, she says. But like the men with whom she worked at the Maytag washing machine factory, now closed, near her home, she resists going back to work at less than half her old wage...

The Joint Economic Committee study cites the growing statistical evidence that women are leaving the work force “on par with men,” and the potentially disastrous consequences for families.

“Women bring home about one-third of family income,” said Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York and vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “And only those families with a working wife have seen real improvement in their living standards.”

Remember all the wage stagnation that we talk about on this blog? Well, what Maloney is saying is that the only reason there's not rioting in the streets is because BOTH parents are now working for low pay. Mix this with the Alan Greenspan admission that American paychecks only look good when seen through the flood of imported cheap plastic gadgets, and if you get drunk enough after your third shift, you might almost think your living standards are rising.

It's pretty rare in this town that Congress would be on the vanguard of a scarcely examined idea (even one that affects large numbers of Americans). And official feminism doesn't tend to focus on these working-class issues. Fifty years from now, when we're looking back on how America developed a comprehensive approach to class and gender issues, Maloney's report will register as one of the foundational steps: admitting that there's a problem, and one that's not going to go away by just putting a few rich women in high-paying positions and pretending like that's a victory for the movement.

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Musings on Spitzer, trade and sex trafficking

The news that Gov. Eliot Spitzer was caught on a wiretap soliciting sex across state lines is shaking the country. If you're like me, the most surprising thing is that politicians think they can get away with this kind of thing, especially when there is a paper and phone trail. My wife informed me at my birthday dinner last night that she would not attend the news conference if I ever attempted something like that!

But the news on this got me thinking about human trafficking, which, as far as I know, is not at all what Gov. Spitzer is being investigated for. No, it's because I recently saw this Kevin Kline movie Trade, which is not the best movie in the world, but which is based on stories of real-life trafficked women in the article "The Girls Next Door" by Peter Landesman. According to estimates in the article, there are as many as 10,000-50,000 individuals kept in sex slavery in the United States every year, mostly trafficked from Eastern Europe and Latin America and then brought across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The whole article is chilling, but this paragraph provided some context:

Donna M. Hughes, a professor of women's studies at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on sex trafficking, says that prostitution barely existed 12 years ago in the Soviet Union. ''It was suppressed by political structures. All the women had jobs.'' But in the first years after the collapse of Soviet Communism, poverty in the former Soviet states soared. Young women -- many of them college-educated and married -- became easy believers in Hollywood-generated images of swaying palm trees in L.A. ''A few of them have an idea that prostitution might be involved,'' Hughes says. ''But their idea of prostitution is 'Pretty Woman,' which is one of the most popular films in Ukraine and Russia. They're thinking, This may not be so bad.''

This recalls the 14 years of Juarez murders, where women that were thought to be trafficked were murdered. A lot of advocacy groups on the border relate this to NAFTA, because of the boom in border maquiladora activity, at the same time of a general decline in rural employment and developmental state strategy in the 1980s and 90s locked in by NAFTA. This of course parallels what has been happening generally in developing countries and the former Soviet Union, where NAFTA-WTO like policies have been adopted over the last several decades.

Mainstream media editorial boards might not have a problem ignoring the men who lose manufacturing jobs as a result of economic restructuring. But these trafficked females are the other side of a move towards more precarious social structures in the NAFTA-WTO period. As everyone from Karl Polanyi to Saul Alinsky recognized, anyone concerned about the majority's economic welfare has an interest in trying to mediate the pace of even otherwise benign economic change. How much more so with our trade policy, which is plainly not benign for the majority? When you read the stories of desperation brought on by restructuring, the call for global full employment and industrial democracy becomes all the more pressing.

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Divorced from reality

(Disclosure: Global Trade Watch has no preference among the candidates.)

With last night's win for Obama and Huckabee, there will be increased scrutiny on the record of these candidates. (This has already begun over at IELP and the Custom House and here in the press.)

Huckabee has some comments on globalization and is perceived to be running an economic populist campaign. People will be looking for more detail. As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee was one of only 8 governors to explicitly put their state onto the procurement chapters of pending trade agreements including CAFTA (in 2004) and the NAFTA expansions to Peru and other Andean countries (in 2005).

Regular readers of this blog will know that there's a great deal of opposition to these procurement and other harmful trade pact provisions. Common state economic development and environmental policies are prohibited by trade agreement procurement rules. Such policies include:

  • Measures to stop the offshoring of state jobs;
  • "Buy Local" or "Buy America" policies;
  • Preferences for recycled content, renewable energy, alternative fuel vehicles and more.

Obama, for his part, has been further articulating his trade position over the last few months, after supporting the Peru FTA, and another past vote on a NAFTA expansion. As we've reported here, Obama has been taking increasingly specific positions on product safety, and made other comments in a note to the Iowa Fair Trade Campaign. All in all, trade is playing a major role in this race, as it did in 2006 as well. (For more on this argument, see David Sirota and John Nichols.)

But aside from some of the insightful analysis that's taken place, there's this from David Brooks in today's NYT:

Huckabee understands how middle-class anxiety is really lived. Democrats talk about wages. But real middle-class families have more to fear economically from divorce than from a free trade pact. A person's lifetime prospects will be threatened more by single parenting than by outsourcing. Huckabee understands that economic well-being is fused with social and moral well-being, and he talks about the inter-relationship in a way no other candidate has.

Stumo already took a jab at Brooks, but I asked an economist friend who specializes in labor and family economics to break it down a little more for me. Here's what she had to say:

Middle class families fear divorce because it put them at risk of poverty and bankruptcy. The problem, however, is not the failure of families to stick together, it's that the it now takes two incomes to raise a family. A generation ago, a single breadwinner could support a family, but this is no longer the case. The overwhelming majority of children living in married-couple families have no stay-at-home parent. This means, that today when a family gets divorced, the incomes are cut in half, whereas a generation ago, the mother could enter employment and thus the income fall would not be as large. Families with only a
male-breadwinner have incomes that are the same, in inflation-adjusted terms, as they were in the mid-1970s, whereas it is only families with a working wife who have seen their incomes rise. Trade policy certainly plays a role here, as median male wages are currently barely above their 1973 level.

And if you don't believe her, here's a nifty graph to prove it.


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Women's groups' on Peru and Panama deals

In the bustle of the last week we didn't get a chance to point out a statement issued by the U.S. Gender and Trade Network (USGTN) to Congress voicing rejection of the fast track process and concern about the May 10 trade "deal." But despite our delayed reaction, it is worth noting. The Gender and Trade Network, members of which include the Center of Concern, International Labor Rights Fund, and the American Friends Service Committee, among others, was joined on this letter by fourteen additional groups including the National Organization for Women (NOW), who took the opportunity to highlight the price that women and those they support are paying for our current, misguided policies.

The current trade framework provided in TPA and realized in the proposed agreements with Panama and Peru will continue a trade agenda that assaults women’s economic, social and political rights, supporting unequal structures of power, loss of livelihoods, deterioration in public health and shrinking policy space.

We, and our allies, seek a trade policy that puts social well-being and human rights at the center. Trade is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for social and economic development. Trade agreements in service of development foster sustainable livelihoods and decent work for all members of society, social cohesion and authentic democratic processes that enable all people to be social, political and economic subjects of their own lives and the life of their societies.

Threatening public health, increasing unemployment and worker exploitation, limiting access to essential services, and destroying local farm economies are just some of the grievances addressed in this gendered account of the shortcomings of our current model. Each of these recurring problems is an atrocity in and of itself. Together, they represent a system which is in danger of reversing myriad landmark achievements that have reinforced both women's rights and human rights the world over.

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