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Living Up to “The New Deal”: Half the Nation Is Still Waiting

FDR realized that the nation’s future well being would be undermined if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

The bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in front on his presidential library in Hyde Park, New York. (Photo: John Morton / Flickr)

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his fourth and final State of the Union Address in 1944. Because the defeat of fascism in Europe was in sight, FDR could frame a peacetime vision for the nation. He saw that the full realization of political freedom depended upon the elimination of material deprivation. FDR realized that the nation’s future well being would be undermined if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

Roosevelt understood that true individual freedom can not exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. He saw these economic truths … as self-evident and called for an Economic Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.

Back then the nation’s emerging safety net was blatantly discriminatory. The progressive New Deal legislation did not cover the occupations open to Americans of color. Agriculture workers and domestic servants were exempted from social security, fair labor standards, minimum wages and the prohibition on child labor. Because some of these programs only covered full time workers, women (who were then and are now concentrated in part time work) were functionally excluded. Our inclusion in full-time paid employment was only tolerated while the war machine was marching along 24/7. Such overt discrimination is no longer tolerated. But we’ve made far less progress — if we’ve made any at all —on women’s fundamental economic rights.

Let’s examine the eight economic rights enumerated by FDR in 1944 in light of women’s contemporary economic situation.

1. The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.

Since the beginning of the so-called economic recovery (June 2009), women’s share of new jobs has been just 20.7 percent. Of jobs lost during the Second Great Depression (that is, now, with 20 million people still without full-time work), women have regained only 26.7 percent while men have regained 40.6 percent of the jobs they lost in the same period. The excruciatingly slow growth of women’s jobs is due entirely to the ongoing attack on the public sector, where far more women than men are employed. Of the 3.4 million private sector jobs created since 2009, only 970,000 (28.7 percent) have gone to women. In short, women’s public sector job losses outweigh their private sector gains by more than 40 percent.

2. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.

Jobs in which women are concentrated — secretaries and administrative assistants; elementary and middle-school teachers; retail salespeople; nurses; maids and housekeepers — pay less than male-dominated jobs and the Department of Labor projects these jobs will grow faster than other occupations. Consequently women’s earnings will continue to lag behind men’s. The consequences of this occupational segregation are worse for single women and mothers. Single women’s earnings are 78.8 percent of married women’s earnings (and 57 percent of men’s) while mothers earn about seven percent less than childless women.

3. The right of every farmer to raise and sell his (sic) products at a return that will give him (sic) and his (sic) family a decent living.

Since October 2000, women farmers have battled the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a landmark gender discrimination case. Although women are the fasted growing group of farmers, it may take another year or more to finalize the settlement process. There may be as many 300,000 individual women farmers eligible for claims against the $1.3 billion the USDA has allocated to the suit. This is far less than the $2.25 billion available to Native American and African American farmers.

Additionally, while their claims were processed, they were protected from bankruptcy. Women and Hispanic farmers will not, however, enjoy bankruptcy protection during the claims process. Attorneys for the women farmers in the suit, Love v. Vilsack, reported that agents for the USDA refused to give women farmers application forms, while the men standing in line with them were able to get the forms; women were told by USDA officials that farming isn’t women’s work and to leave it to their husbands, brothers or fathers; women who were as qualified as their male neighbors were denied loans; and, women who initially received loans through male relatives were denied subsequent loans or servicing on their existing farm loans.

4. The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.

Women-owned businesses are almost always small businesses. Only 3 percent of firms owned by women have revenues of one million dollars or more, while 6 percent of firms owned by men hit this mark. The largest corporations, in turn, are not exactly woman-friendly places: of the Fortune 500 firms, only 40 have female CEOs. Women are only seven and a half percent of top earners in these firms, they hold a mere 16.1 percent of board seats and comprise just 14.1 percent of executive officers. That helps explain why the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the Business Council, organizations representing the nation’s largest corporations, played a pivotal role ensuring the defeat of The Paycheck Fairness Act. According to the business magazine, Forbes, women comprise only eight percent of personnel in venture capital firms, a leading source of start up money for new companies. Venture capitalists rely on friends and networks to discover prospects, so the gender imbalance in these firms amplifies the gender imbalance in business ownership. The discovery that women-owned firms face “unfair competition” would actually be a sign of progress.

5. The right of every family to a decent home.

Women, including those with children, are the fastest growing category of the homeless. Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women. Other contributing factors include poverty, wage inequality and the lack of affordable housing. The financial bubble created by the banks and other speculating parasites was especially harsh on women: women were far more likely than men to receive a sub-prime or other predatory loan product, regardless of their income or earnings history. In consequence, the market crash imposed larger equity losses on women, and female homeowners have experienced disproportionate rates of foreclosure.

6. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

Fewer than half of all working women receive health insurance coverage from their employers. The coverage that they do have comes with higher deductibles and co-pays, and higher annual fees. Cost is why 52 percent of women report delaying or going without needed care, for example by not filling prescriptions or skipping tests, treatments, or follow-up visits, compared with 39 percent of men. At the same time, women comprise a disproportionate share of health care consumers because they are more likely than men to manage multiple chronic conditions, including those related to reproduction. Adding insult to injury, many states have allowed insurers to outright deny coverage based on such “pre-existing conditions” such as having had a C-section, breast or cervical cancer, or receiving medical treatment for domestic or sexual violence. Thankfully, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) remedies some of the worst defects of our current for-profit health care mess.

7. The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.

Where to begin? Elderly women are far more likely to be poor than elderly men. Women, because they are poorer on average than men, experience more stress from financial insecurity with negative consequences for their cardiovascular, immune, metabolic and nervous systems. Add to this poor dietary practices linked to low incomes and you’ve explained women’s greater vulnerability to ill health. One bright note: women experience much lower rates of work-related injuries. But watch what you wish for. According to the Centers for Disease Control “homicide accounts for 27 percent of work-related deaths in women — it is the second leading cause of death for women in the workplace.”

Unemployment is a significant problem too, with women’s long-term unemployment rising from 29.3 percent in June 2009 to 45.0 percent in December 2011 — which is why record numbers of women and children now live in poverty or extreme poverty.

8. The right to a good education.

Data on gender differences in earnings when categorized by educational attainment show that income gaps more than mitigate the fact that women have higher educational attainment (earn more degrees at all levels) than do men.


Seeking a New Deal for Women

FDR closed his 1944 State of the Union Address with these prophetic words:

All of these rights spell security. … [W]e must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well being. America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

For U.S. women — fully half the nation — these economic rights, and the freedom they engender, remain an unrealized dream.

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