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Economic Security: A Woman-Centered Perspective

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Message Elayne Clift
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Just about everyone knows by now that poverty is a women's issue.  "The feminization of poverty" derives from the fact that the poorest of the poor everywhere are women. In the U.S., women are disproportionately represented among the 37 million people living in poverty.  According to the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW)--  one of the organizations most actively charting a course for economic reform – over 14 million women in this country (one in eight) live in poverty.  Of those families headed by single mothers, nearly 29 percent (four million), live below the poverty line.    In a country as advanced and wealthy as this one, those figures are a disgrace.

That's why the NCRW has developed a Platform for Progress aimed at "building a better future for women and their families."  The priorities they are pushing include ensuring access to high-quality, affordable child care, strengthening income and work supports, providing a secure retirement and creating a fair tax system that raises adequate revenue.

Child care is essential if women and families are going to make it.  It also contributes to productivity and competitiveness if parents don't have to be worried sick about where their kids are and how they are doing.  Most other industrialized nations get this; we don't seem to yet.  High quality child care is still inadequate and far too expensive in this country, despite the fact that we all want assurances that our children are safe and can reach their future potential.  Why, then, have we been reluctant as a nation to promote and fund high quality child care providers?  Over the past seven years, says the NCRW, hundreds of thousands of children in low-income families have lost child care assistance because federal funding has been essentially frozen.  Congress simply must increase the supply of high quality care and it can start by raising reimbursement rates paid to child care givers who look after kids receiving federal child care assistance.  While we're on the subject, it wouldn't hurt if businesses, organizations, and other entities in the private and public sectors kicked in to create crèches either.

When it comes to strengthening income and work supports, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit are a good place to start.  The EITC, passed by Congress in 1975, is a refundable federal income tax credit for low-income workers and families.  The program reduces the federal tax obligations of low-wage earners and provides tax refunds to the lowest-paid workers.  Created to supplement wages and counterbalance the burden of social security taxes, the EITC has helped to lift millions of low-wage taxpayers above the poverty line.  The NCRW and others are calling for this program to be expanded to include workers without children and to increase support to larger working families.  They are also calling for an expansion of the Child Tax Credit, worth up to $1,000 per qualifying child, to cover all low- and moderate-income families.

While women have increased their participation in the paid labor force, they still have substantially lower lifetime earnings than men.  That translates into lower retirement income and smaller savings.  At the same time, women live longer than men and face higher health care costs.  It therefore makes sense to protect and strengthen social security, the mainstay of women's retirement income.  The NWLC counters fears of empty Social Security coffers by saying that while [Social Security] faces a "manageable long-term shortfall," it is "not a crisis."  Reserves in the Social Security Trust Fund, NWLC says, "can pay 100 percent of promised benefits for the next three to four decades, and 75 to 90 percent of promised benefits after that."  Congress needs to protect and strengthen Social Security finances by rejecting proposals to divert revenues into private accounts and by raising additional revenues. One way to do this is to dedicate revenues from a progressive tax to Social Security.  Other reforms in this area detailed by the NWLC include improving Social Security benefits, expanding access to employer-based retirement plans, and ending gender discrimination in the pricing of annuities.

As for creating a fair tax system that raises adequate revenues, organizations like the NCLW are calling for an end to tax breaks skewed to the wealthiest Americans, an end to preferential treatment for income from investments over income from work, and an end to unnecessary corporate subsidies.  They also advocate collecting taxes owed by businesses and investors which go unreported and uncollected each year and ending tax breaks for special interests.  (We all know about those insidious tax loopholes that get the obscenely rich and powerful industries off the hook.)

The collective call for a new Congress to act quickly and decisively to improve the lives of women and families is not a feminist diatribe.  The policies being proposed have not been construed suddenly for organizational or political gain. Rather, they are part of a long, well-developed, respectful and intelligent analysis and discourse that has been taking place between organizations like the National Women's Law Center and government for decades.  In this time of crisis, and of opportunity, there is new hope that reform can get real and can really serve those most in need.  I am among those who are grateful to organizations like the NWLC for putting their shoulders to the grind to continue the dialogue and to press for meaningful change at this time of possibility.

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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)
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