Talking to the White House About the Impact of the Recession on Women

BlogHer Original Post

On this past Thursday, the White House hosted a small conference call for online media with senior administration officials to discuss the impact of the recession on women and how the Administration's agenda is affecting women. Led by Cecilia Rouse, Member of the Council of Economic Advisors and 
Jen Psaki, White House Deputy Communications Director, the on-the-record call was grounded in a new National Economic Council (NEC) report. This report describes what it sees as the economic landscape facing women currently. You can read the Executive Summary of the report here and can also find a link to the full report there as well.

Cecilia Rouse

The level of detail in the report resists being repeated here simply due to the plethora of numbers and facts. I would urge people who want to see what was discovered about the status of women vis a vis the economy, the recession and the recovery to review and browse the report on their own.

Although the timing of the release of the information coincides with an intense election cycle that often has included commentary on the importance of women's votes, the data still stands on its own as demonstrating what's been accomplished and what remains to be achieved.

The first batch of information discussed was a quick hit on what has been done to help women since President Obama came into office in January 2009. This rundown included:

  • More than 12,000 SBA Recovery Act loans have gone to women-owned small businesses, a total of $3 billion being driven into lending support with the expectation of growing businesses and creating jobs. 
  • An estimated 2.9 million women who had been unemployed for more than two months were hired by employers who qualified for payroll tax exemptions under the HIRE Act (Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment)
  • The Recovery Act and the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act played a role in saving jobs in the education and healthcare sectors, sectors in which women make up more than three-quarters of professionals. The report indicates that this fall, over one hundred thousand teachers, the majority of them women, returned to their classrooms because of these laws.
  • From July 2008 to August 2010 about 6.9 million women were helped by the extensions of unemployment benefits.

Next, we heard about changes related to women in the labor market. According to the NEC:

  • Women are the majority of college graduates and nearly 50 percent of the workforce.
  • In almost two-thirds of families led by single mothers or two parents, women are either the primary or co-breadwinner. In two-parent families, with the wage gap and the loss of jobs traditionally held by men in this economy, reliance on a woman’s income in their family budget is even greater.
  • As a result of the recession that started in December of 2007, women have lost jobs and seen their median annual earnings fall. Additionally, the report points out that women have faced increased economic insecurity as housing prices declined and states and municipalities have cut back on the provision of social services.
  • The wage gap and female underrepresentation in higher levels of management are seen as long-term challenges with specific groups of women like single mothers, older women and minorities facing additional hardship.

At this point, the host of the call coupled this information with challenges for women in the workforce as they relate to pay and workplace equity. She referred to the Council of Economic Advisors Workplace Flexibility Report which was released early last spring. It is an example of how the Administration is analyzing and tackling the challenges. That report presented "...an economic perspective on flexible workplace policies and practices" and was pursued because of the belief that more productive workers have lower turnover and benefit the bottom line.

Some of the data in the NEC report relates to how women are faring through the recession. Although it is acknowledged that men have lost the majority of jobs during this recession, the report says:

Substantial job losses have occurred in industries where women comprise a disproportionate percentage of the workforce, such as in retail trade, leisure and hospitality, and financial activities. The recession saw more job losses for women than any prior recession in the post-World War II era. During the recession millions of American women lost their jobs.

The report's specific points include the following data:

  • The unemployment rate for women increased from 4.9 percent in December 2007 to 8.3 percent
    in June 2009, the “official” period of the Great Recession. 
  • Since the recession began in 2007, the number of unemployed women has increased from 3.5 million to a total of 6.2 million.  In other words, since the start of the recession in December 2007, women have lost 2.6 million jobs.
  • Almost 42 percent of the long-term unemployed are women. As of September 2010, 2.5 million women had been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer.
  • Women who are single heads of households had an unemployment rate of 13.6 percent during the
    recession,18 their highest unemployment rate in over 25 years

The conversation then moved to a rundown of the role college and training programs (such as Pell grants, tax credits, making student loans more affordable, and investment in community colleges) play in the battle for women to regain, retain and maintain forward motion in the economy.

In general, the philosophy espoused was that what is good for the overall economy will be good for women too. The report points to actions that it found to be particularly helpful for women, deriving from the Recovery Act, health care reform, strengthening of job security in the teaching and health sectors, attention to women-owned small business, and policies that recognize that a majority of social security beneficiaries are women and therefore that program must be protected.

Phew -- if you think that's a lot of information, again, please check out the pdf of the report. It is truly worth reading and, as you'll see, rather difficult to summarize -- in a phone call or a blog post!

Questions from the callers included one from AOL's Carrie Sloan of the 20-30something blog, Lemondrop. With female college graduates in mind, she asked what the Administration's doing for that group. The hosts repeated some of the information noted above, and also referenced with more detail items in the report that pertain to job access. For example, they talked about how the labor market is not as strong as they would like it to be and therefore, they're working to make education loans more affordable. They pointed to having income-based repayment plans and other tools while also continuing to work to "grow the economy so that there are opportunities to get the jobs." They also mentioned how, with health care, students can stay on their parents health insurance and how the Wall Street-related reforms benefit younger people because that demographic is often the biggest target of predatory loan and credit card programs.

The next question turned to thoughts on which workplace practices they'd like to see modeled by employers. They responded by talking about workplace flexibility and cited the example of Snowmaggedon last winter and how the government didn't have to shut down nearly as much as it might have had to otherwise because of the flex programs already in place.

Another programs mentinoed during the remainder of the questions included a $50 million competitive grant in the budget that had not yet been achieved but which is intended to pilot paid leave for pregnant women

I asked about how this data broke down in relation to minorities, and received a document that details the ethnic and racial distribution for the SBA loans -- more than 30% of the 12,000 that went to women went to non-White women. They also acknowledged that minority women suffered disproportionally in the labor market and that unemployment for African-American women was 13.5 percent while it was 7.2 percent for white women in January 2010. They also pointed to efforts such as Pathways Out of Poverty which focuses on disadvantaged communities and job skill trainng, as well ass the extension of unemployment insurance as ways intended to buffet that disproportionate effect.

The final question came from Ruth Martin of Momsrising.org. She asked about progress toward getting paid sick days. Our hosts discussed the Administration's desire that states would take up the issue of paid leave as a general concern but they also stated that it is important, generally speaking, to have paid sick leave as well as other forms of workplace flexibility.  One idea about which I'd never heard before was "results only work environment." Ironically, I actually worked under such an arrangement in the late 1990s but no one called it that!

Again -- although much of the data is just that -- data, the call, being from the White House, closed with the hosts reminding us that the President was raised by a single mother, is married to strong woman, is raising two daughters and has his mother-in-law living with him. In other words, he’s facing the issues just discussed "every day at the dinner table" and believes that it gives us all a sense of how important these issues are to President Obama.

I for one certainly hope so.

More posts about the report:

White House Reveals How The Recession Has Impacted Women at Lemondrop, written by Carrie Sloan

From the Independent Women's Forum, New Report on Women in the Economy is Tone-Deaf and Misguided

White House: Women Disproportionately Impacted by Recession, from Truthout

Jill Writes Like She Talks

In The Arena: Jill Miller Zimon, Pepper Pike City Council Member

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