‘It’s the Economy’ ... Once Again

Jeane Anastas, PhD, LMSWFrom the President

I write this column in early August when a weak though bipartisan debt ceiling deal was made in Congress in the 11th hour before default. As a result, one financial rating agency downgraded its rating of U.S. federal bonds from AAA to AA+ for the first time in history, and the Dow Jones average fell steadily over several days.

In the face of these events, I am remembering my professor of social welfare policy in my MSW program asking us on the first day of class, “How many of you have had a course in economics?” and shaking his head sadly when only one or two of us could say “yes.” His point was that macroeconomic policy affects the distribution of income, wealth and other social goods, not to mention the funding of social, health and human services.

We see the truth of that observation again as we now deal with tax policy, social policy and the social safety net while addressing our national debt and deficit problems over the long term.

As social workers, many of us are no doubt worrying about our jobs and earnings in the face of the current crisis, as unemployment and underinsurance remain high. As a profession, we will have to make the case for the cost-effectiveness of social work services when the likely “modest” adjustments in Medicare and other entitlement programs are debated. As individuals, many of us join other retired and working people who are watching wealth invested in the stock market decline again.

What is happening to us as social workers, male and female, is emblematic of how women in the United States overall are affected. Let me explain this observation.

The “debt deal” initially spared key “entitlement” programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and SNAP/Food Stamps. However, many of the discretionary programs that will be cut now disproportionately aid women (especially women of color) and their families, such as low-income housing, child care and family planning clinics, over 90 percent of whose clients are women. Needless to say, social workers employed in these and other similar settings will be affected as well.

When it comes time to address cost-containment in the Medicare (elderly and disabled) and Medicaid programs, we have to remember that in 2007, almost 7 in 10 of the older Americans reliant on Medicaid (usually for long-term care) were women and nearly 8 in 10 non-elderly recipients were women, often low-income pregnant teens and low-income mothers.

In addition, it is worth remembering that more women than men have only Social Security benefits to rely on in old age, and retired women typically receive lower monthly benefits on average, reflecting their lower average lifetime labor force participation and earnings. Any future changes to the Social Security system must take into account that women typically face more income insecurity in old age than men do, and not just because they live longer.

This summer also saw news about the increasing income and wealth gap between men and women that is especially pronounced when race/ethnicity is added into the equation.

Pew Research Center released a study, Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics, that contained sobering statistics about wealth inequality in the U.S.

Between 2005 and 2009, median wealth fell by more than 50 percent for all households of color — down 66 percent in Latino households, 54 percent in Asian households, and 53 percent in black households, while white household wealth dropped by only 16 percent. According to this report, in 2009, the typical white household held $113,149 in wealth, whereas the typical black and Latino household’s wealth amounted to just $5,677 and $6,325, respectively. The Women of Color Policy Network at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service also issued a report titled At Rope’s End: Single Women Mothers, Wealth, and Assets in the U.S. This report reveals that single mothers possess only 4 percent of the wealth of single fathers: on average $1,000 compared to $25,300.

Race matters among single-mother households as well. Black and Latino single mothers have a median wealth of zero, whereas comparable white women report a median wealth of $6,000. Note that all of these figures are well below the averages cited above for all households.

It was social worker Diana Pearce who first coined the term “the feminization of poverty” in the 1970s, and sadly the concept remains relevant today. As the congressional “super committee” develops its plan for further deficit reduction in the months ahead, the social work perspective on social justice must be heard loudly and clearly, and NASW will be working to ensure that happens.