February 25, 2012 in City

Mothers, children hurt the most from painful budget cuts

By The Spokesman-Review

Remember the “mancession”? That dumb name for the fact that unemployment among men was extra high?

Well, a few years later, it turns out to be a misnomer. Unemployment among women has overtaken that of men, due largely to cuts in the public sector where women make up a large part of the workforce. Billions in cuts to social services affect women – and children – a great deal more than men. And with each new budget cycle, more programs that give women a paycheck, provide cash assistance, train them for jobs, help them get health care or child care and protect them from violence get nibbled away.

There’s no cute name for it. But a new report from the Washington State Budget & Policy Center makes it clear: We are planting and watering a nice, big poverty garden.

“These budget cuts are having a disproportionate impact on women,” said Lori Pfingst, a policy analyst with the Seattle center. “We need to pay attention to them and their well-being as we look to the recovery.”

Pfingst researched and wrote the report “Women, Work and Washington’s Economy.” In it, she surveys a range of statistics that showcase the effect that state budget cuts have had on women and children, and argues that we should be looking to raise taxes on “those who can best afford it” in order to invest in programs that will help lift women and families out of poverty.

In the long run, she argues, that’s good for everyone.

In the past several years, Washington has cut some $10 billion – or depending on your accounting preferences, not quite $10 billion – from its budget. More than 90 percent has come in the categories of health, education and economic security. Those cuts hit women more than men, generally, in two ways: job losses and cuts in service, the report says.

Women represent about three-quarters of the state’s teachers, and most workers in health care, social work and other public service jobs that have been eliminated during the recession, Pfingst says. The loss of these kinds of jobs – here and nationwide – has kept our unemployment rate high despite gains in private-sector jobs since 2010.

Meanwhile, cuts in programs that help the jobless have been cut – cash assistance to poor families now covers 27 percent of their needs, the report says. Thousands of families were cut off by new time limits on benefits – limits that may be shortened yet again.

Those cuts land directly on women and children. You can imagine all the welfare fraud in the world; envision all the strip-club chicanery you like, but the fact is that 70 percent of money in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs goes for children. Of the adults receiving benefits, 78 percent are women.

Combine these populations, and you hit a crucial place in terms of poverty: single mothers and their kids.

Out of all families, single mothers and their kids are the most likely to live in poverty – at 37 percent. That’s more than three times the poverty rate for single men and about twice the rate for single fathers. Those households are the place where we can make strides against poverty, by providing help for moms and kids to rise up, and for kids to get access to the education they need to get out of the generational trap.

They’re also the place where we can do the most damage, and can do damage that can stick for more than a generation.

“If you are going to make a dent in poverty at all, we need to provide better support for single parents and especially single mothers,” Pfingst said.

We grow as a society – as a people – from families. This truth is often used as a political cover for very different kinds of arguments. It’s not all that often that you hear the term “family values” applied to the value of food to a family.

Pfingst has argued persuasively in the past that, if we can’t find it in ourselves to care about poverty’s effects on the impoverished, we should consider that poverty affects us all.

One analysis of census figures from 2006, before the recession, estimated that child poverty costs the country $500 billion a year in crime, “forgone earnings” and health care.

It seems like we’re looking at more of the same. Budget proposals in this legislative session so far include cuts to domestic violence programs – just as the number of women seeking protection is increasing, Pfingst said.

She says we need to look at some form of tax revenue to invest in women and children. Will we? It seems to me that we won’t. It seems to me that the last few years have shown us where our priorities lie. Pfingst is more hopeful. She notes that we have three pretty good tools the state could use to collect more revenue, if we could only find the will: a capital gains tax, a sales-tax increase with a rebate for low-income families and closing loopholes.

“We have a choice,” she said. “It does not have to be this way.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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