Roosevelt House Faculty Forum Posted on Monday, January 13, 2014

Triple Jeopardy: Dismantling of the Public Sector and the War on Women

Mimi Abramovitz Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor of Social Policy, Silberman School of Social Work, Hunter College, CUNY Faculty Associate, Roosevelt House

The current effort to dismantle the public sector is the latest round in the rancorous debate about the role of so-called “big government” that has shaped public policy since the mid-1970s.

There has been much buzz in recent news surrounding the widening inequality gap, the long-term effectiveness of President Johnson’s Great Society programs in combating poverty, and President Obama’s call to increase the federal minimum wage.  While these issues are extremely important, it has been surprising to see the lack of a gender lens in these dialogues, a perspective that is absolutely critical in evaluating potential policy changes.

Since the onset of the economic crisis in the mid-1970s, U.S. leaders have pursued a neoliberal agenda designed to downsize the government, and redistribute income upwards. Its familiar tactics include tax cuts, retrenchment, privatization, and deregulation, among others.  To win public support for these unpopular ideas, neoliberal advocates have resorted to what Naomi Klein called the “shock doctrine”: the creation and manipulation of a crisis to impose policies that the public would not otherwise stand for. Discounting evidence and evoking the shock doctrine, government foes targeted programs for the poor but also popular entitlement programs—once regarded as the “third rail” of politics. Unlikely to pass Congress intact their proposals which fall heavily on women –will set the agenda for months to come.

The current effort to dismantle the public sector is the latest round in the rancorous debate about the role of so-called “big government” that has shaped public policy since the mid-1970s. Initially targeted at program users, the attack subsequently took aim at public sector employees and union members. Since most scholars and activists focus on one group or another, they miss the strategy’s wider impact. Lacking the gender lens needed to bring women into view, they also miss that women comprise the majority in each group. Until the 2012 presidential campaign turned the women’s vote into a hot political issue, few officials paid much attention to women’s issues or did much to end the decades-long “war on women”

Given that women make up the majority of government service users, employees and union members, the cuts constitute a “war on women.” Many of the programs now on the chopping block address the basic needs of women and their families over the life span. Current House budgets proposed to to cut child care, Head Start, job training, Pell Grants, housing, and more by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.

Less spending by Washington translates into reduced federal aid to states and cities. To balance their budgets, states spent $75 billion less in 2012 than in 2011, and 31 states projected a $55 billion shortfall in state budgets for the 2012 fiscal year.  In total, states governments have had to close more than $540 billion in shortfalls over the past four years due to cutbacks on the federal level.  In addition, the right has taken aim on women’s reproductive health services, demanding ever more drastic cutbacks.  In 2012, The Guttmacher Institute reported that legislators in 46 states introduced 944 provisions to limit women’s reproductive health and rights including massive cuts to Planned Parenthood.

Fewer services also mean more unpaid care work. Employed or not, women are the majority of the nation’s sixty-seven million informal caregivers; they pick up the slack when services disappear. From 1935 to 1970, the services provided by an expanding public sector helped women balance work and family life. Since the mid-1970s, neoliberal budget cuts shifted the costs and responsibility of care work back to women in the home. So does the growing practice of moving the elderly and the disabled from publicly-funded residential centers to home-based care, and discharging hospital patients still in need of medical monitoring and nursing services.

The anti-government strategy also decreased women’s access to the public sector jobs. After World War II, as social movements pressed for an expanded welfare state, these jobs became an important source of upward mobility for white women and people of color excluded from gainful private sector employment. In January 2012, women comprised 57 percent of all government workers.  According to the latest available data, women comprise 43 percent of federal, 51.7 percent of state and 61.4 percent of local government employees. Women filled these jobs because society assigned care work to women, their families needed two earners to make ends meet, and social welfare programs benefited from cheap female labor. The public sector also became the single most important employer for blacks, who are 30% more likely than other workers to hold public sector jobs. More than 14% of all public sector workers are black. In most other sectors, they comprise only 10% of the workforce.

The Great Recession and the slow recovery have decimated public sector employment. During the early stages of the recession, men suffered more than 70% of total job loss because “male” jobs (construction, manufacturing, etc.) are particularly sensitive to cyclical downturns. The current “recovery,” by contrast, has been tougher on women, who comprised over half of the public workforce. From June 2009 to May 2012 as the public sector lost 2.6% of its jobs women suffered 61% of the job losses (348,000 out of 573,000). They gained only 22.5% of 2.5 million net jobs added to the overall economy. In 2012, the poverty rate among women climbed to an astounding 14.5%.

Total union membership plummeted from a peak of 35% of the civilian labor force in 1954 to just 11.3% in 2012 — the lowest percentage of union workers since the Great Depression. Private-sector unionization dropped to 6.6 %. Despite the loss of thousands of government jobs, public unions withstood the onslaught, maintaining an average membership rate of more than 35%. It helped that the majority of public sector work cannot be outsourced or automated.

Seeking to weaken the remaining unions, foes of labor and government turned against the public sector –labor’s last stronghold. Some governors demonized government workers as the new privileged elite to convince the public that collective bargaining rather than tax cuts is the enemy of balanced budgets. When governors strip teachers and nurses of their collective bargaining rights but spare police and firefighters, they hit women especially hard: 61% of unionized women but only 38% of unionized men work in the public sector. The loss of union protection sets women back economically. Unionized women of all races in both public and private jobs earn nearly one-third more per week than non-union women, although white women earn more than women of color. Trade union women face a smaller gender wage gap and are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and pension plans than their non-union sisters.

Public sector unions historically pressed for high-quality services, dependable benefits, and fair procedures for themselves and for others. In the 1920s, the teacher’s union stood up for greater school funding and smaller class sizes. In the 1960s, unionized social workers fought for fair hearings and due process for welfare recipients. In the 1980s and 1990s, home care workers sought more sustained care for their clients. The loss of union power will cost public sector program users, workers, and union members a strong advocate. Unions remain one of the few institutions with the capacity to represent the middle and working classes and check corporate power inside and outside government.

The attack on the public sector puts women in triple jeopardy. As the majority of public sector program users, workers, and union members, they face fewer services, fewer jobs, and less union protection. In state after state, thousands of government workers and community supporters have raised up against these cuts, unwilling to take the assault on their well being, dignity, and rights lying down. As the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative reminds us, the current agenda amounts to “attacks on public responsibility, the notion of the public good, and the ability of government to secure economic and social rights for all.”  These cuts pose as fundamental threats to the stability and health of both our country’s economy and our democracy.  We must stand together to demand stronger social policies that support women and their families.

This OpEd was adapted from the longer article, “Feminization of Austerity,” New Labor Forum, Winter  21(1) 2012: 32-41.

Mimi Abramovitz is Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor of Social Policy at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She has published widely on issues related to women, poverty, human rights, and the U.S. Welfare State, including more than 90 articles in scholarly journals and the popular press. Dr Abramovitz is currently writing a book on the history of low-income women’s activism in the U.S. since 1900. Her previous books include the award-winning Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the U.S., Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy From Colonial Times to the Present, The Dynamics of Social Welfare Policy and Taxes are a Woman’s Issue: Reframing the Debate. Dr. Abramovitz is the co-founder of the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College and currently co-leads of the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign (Voting is Social Work). She recently received the Significant Lifetime Achievement in Social Work Education Award from the Council on Social Work Education and was inducted as a Fellow of American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

Recent Awards

  • 2019     Leadership Award, Building an Inclusive Economy in NYC , Labor Market Information Service,  Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center , NYC January 17
  • 2018     Significant Lifetime Achievement in Social Work Education Award CSWE Nov 11, Orlando Fla.
  • 2018      Fellow, American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare 
  • 2015     Top Social Work Leader Award, NASW. New York City Chapter
  • 2015     Social Work Pioneer for contributions and leadership, NASW Foundation

Recent International Conference Presentations

  • The Logic of the Market vs the Logic of Social Work: Social Services in the Neo-Liberal Era. Keynote Address at Conference entitled Social Work and Solidarity: In Search of New Paradigms. University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia., 8/20/18–8/22/18
  • Privatization in the Human Services in NYC: Understanding Managerialism, Keynote Address at Conference entitled Ambivalences of the Rising Welfare State. University of Bielefeld & University of Geneva, Hannover, Germany, May 28–May 30 2018
  • The Logic of the Market versus the Logic of Social Work: Whither Social Work? Street-level Research in the Employment and Social Policy Area, 2nd Conference Aalborg University,  Copenhagen, Denmark. June 21–22.,
  • The Impact of Privatization on the Human Service Workforce in US and Switzerland..  Keynote address International Congress of the Swiss Association of Social Work.  Zurich, Switzerland . Sept 3–4 2015
  • Privatization in the Human Service: Impact on the Ground Floor and the Front Lines at the Conference on Privatization, Globalization, and Social Responsibility,  Invited Paper.. Lund University, Faculty of Law, Lund Sweden, June 14–15, 2013

Recent  National State and Local Presentations

  • 2019        Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Shift to Neoliberalism and Social Work’s Future (with J. Zelnick, J. Toft and L Lightfoot). Annual Program Meeting, Council on Social Work Education. Denver, CO. October 26 .
  • 2019     Looking Backward, Looking Forward, Privatization and the Crisis in Social Work ( with Jennifer  Zelnick) Annual Program Meeting, Council on Social Work Education. Denver. CO. October 25
  • 2019      Revitalizing a Movement for Macro Education and Practice: Historic r Moments, Future Directions ( with Darlyne Bailey), Annual Program Meeting, Council on Social Work Education.Denver. CO. October 26
  • 2019      Managerialism, Gender and Social Justice: Results From the Human Service Workforce Study (with
    Jennifer Zelnick) Global Care Work Summit, University of Toronto  June 9–11, 2019
  • 2019      Residential Segregation & Structural Violence  1940–2019, Society of Society Work Reseacrh (SSWR), San Francisco, CA, Jan 16–20
  • 2018     Persistence of Resident Segregation by Race: Role of Social Policy  CSWE, Orlando, FL, Nov 11. Business as Usual? A Wake-UP Call to the Human Services, Public Forum, Hosted by Human Services Council, Silberman School of Social Work, Hunter College. Oct 11 (with Jennifer Zelnick)
  • 2017     Teaching Social Policy in the Era of Trump, Teaching Institute,. Social Policy 2.0 Conference  Keunoe June 1,  George Warren Brown School of Social Work ST Louis, Mo., June 1
  • 2017     Community Loss Index A New Social Indicator, SAMSHA Grantee Meeting (ReCAST) Rockville, Md. Jan 25
  • 2016     Special Research Panel; Race and Inequality. Influencing Social Policy Conference 2.0; Brown School of Social Work, Washington, University, St Louis. June 2–4
  • 2016      Feminization of Austerity Seizing the Means of Reproduction. Brown University , Rhode Island 2/19/16
  • 2015    Doing More With Less  The Impact of Mangerialism on uman service delivery in the Age of Austerity. Social Policy 2 Conference, Austin, May 29–30