|NATIONAL | FALL 2009
BY KAREN KORNBLUH AND RACHEL HOMER
In a subtle shift with momentous implications,
women are on the verge of becoming more
than 50 percent of U.S. paid workers.
This landmark should come as no surprise;
labor statisticians are well aware that women’s share of the
paid workforce has been swelling for decades, hitting 48
percent at the start of the new millennium. That means
that this economy depends on women’s strong participation.
Oddly enough, it was the current economic bad
times that helped boost women to the halfway point, as
men have comprised nearly three-quarters of recent job
Since women have long been a near majority of the
workforce, our government must have been developing women-friendly economic policies—right?
Wrong. Despite the demographics, the crucial U.S.
government policies that provide economic security to
American workers and their families were designed initially
during the New Deal to fit that very different era. “Social insurance” programs—which today include Social
Security, employer-provided (and tax-subsidized) health
care and pensions, unemployment insurance and
Medicare—as well as the 40-hour workweek were first established
when only 10 percent of married women were in
the paid workforce.
Fortunately, women are crossing that 50-percent-ofpaid-
workers threshold at the same time that Washington
is recognizing that, rather than privatizing or eliminating these crucial programs—as the Bush administration wanted
to do—we should modernize and strengthen them.
Certainly today’s workers are as much in need of protection
against what FDR called “the hazards and icissitudes
of life” as their New Deal predecessors. Health-care reform
is the Obama administration’s No. 1 priority, but
also on the table for 21st-century reforms are pensions,
Social Security and the income-tax system.
Women should take advantage of this opportunity to
make sure that when new rules are written, they account
for the way women work today. Call it “paycheck feminism”:
As women become the majority of the workforce,
we must educate and mobilize ourselves to demand that
policymakers meet our legitimate needs for security, flexibility
When policymakers back in the 1930s were designing
programs to protect families from economic ruin, they
made a deliberate choice to do so by supporting working
men. Even as families during the Great Depression were
increasingly relying on the wages of a wife or daughter, a
backlash was brewing against women working and potentially
taking “men’s jobs.”
Policymakers wrote the rules so that Social Security,
unemployment insurance and other benefit programs
went primarily to full-time workers with secure long-term
jobs. This was intentional: These programs were designed
to support men who worked 40-hour weeks at the same
job for their whole career. Women were often kept out of
full-time white-collar and blue-collar jobs and concentrated
in domestic labor and clerical work.
Meanwhile, those not in the paid workforce could only
receive benefits for their unpaid but no-less-consuming
work of keeping a home or caring for family members
through a breadwinner, making them dependent. Those
not in the paid workforce could qualify for support under
poverty programs, including what came to be known as
welfare, but did not “earn” these benefits despite many
having worked to raise the next generation of citizens.
The assumption was that breadwinners (presumed to
be men) had caretakers (women, of course) holding down
the home front. Overtime pay for the breadwinner was
mandated, for example, but workers were not given the legal
option to work fewer than 40 hours a week in order to
have time to care for a family. Workers were compensated
for disability or layoff, but not if they left the workplace for
family reasons. And if married women had a job in addition
to their husbands’, their “second” incomes were taxed
disproportionately higher. Little government support
was offered for services that would help working women,
such as child care and after-school or summer-school
Most of these policies linger today, although—as the
ambitious new Shriver Report outlines (see box, page
31)—women (and many men) no longer follow the perceived
work patterns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s or 60s, inasmuch
as they ever did. The company man featured on
today’s popular TV series Mad Men, sustained at home by
his wife, is now mainly a relic. One-third to one-half of all
marriages end in divorce, and 30 percent of U.S. households
are headed by unmarried women.
Yet women still do the bulk of caretaking, even as they
balance it with paid employment. Since women in the
workforce aren’t offered any special dispensation to raise
their children or care for sick or elderly family members,
they’re forced to work part time, take pay cuts and sidetrack
the progress of their work lives. More than twice as
many employed women are part-timers compared to
men (25 percent to 11 percent). And although the Obama
administration is taking action to close the wage gap,
women today continue to earn less than men, on average
(79 cents on the dollar).
Women’s lower-pay, fewer-hour jobs are doubly problematic
because they cause women to subsequently receive
less from the earnings-based programs that are
supposed to soften the harsh edges of the marketplace.
Women who lose their jobs are about 10 percent less likely than men to receive unemployment insurance, and
women overall are also 12 percent less likely to have
health insurance through their own jobs.
Women also lose out in retirement: The average annual
Social Security income of those 65 years and older is
considerably less than men’s: $10,685 versus $14,055. Not
surprisingly, then, the poverty rate for women over the
age of 65 is almost twice that of men’s: 12 percent versus
The challenge that lies ahead will be to upend Americans’
outdated assumptions about what constitutes “important”
work. The system of rewarding only paid work
with government benefits may seem gender-neutral, and
even good policy, but it’s not. It penalizes women who
work, and harms families. We must recognize that unpaid
caretaking is equally important, not just on a moral level
but also in terms of investing in our nation’s intellectual
capital. In addition, we need to stop treating as secondclass
citizens the women and men who work in lower-paying
jobs, who have to change jobs or who must work
Here are five specific suggestions for revamping U.S.
work/life policy to take into account women’s lives, the variety
of ways they work and the value of that work:
1. STOP MAKING UNEMPLOYMENT, RETIREMENT AND OTHER
BENEFITS CONTINGENT ON STEADY, FULL-TIME WORK.
We need to provide more security for those who have
lower earnings or who have sacrificed earnings for caregiving,
not less. A fairer safety net would treat all work—
part-time, full-time, sporadic, steady, high-paid, lowpaid
and even unpaid caregiving work—as grounds for
What would such a safety net look like? It would provide
a caregiving credit for women looking after sick family
members, raising children or caring for elderly parents—
the same way paid workers get credit toward Social Security
for working. It would provide flat benefits as well as
earnings-related benefits, so that a woman who worked asa janitor could stay out of poverty in old age even though
she didn’t earn as much as the corporate lawyer whose office
she cleaned. It would make unemployment insurance available to temporary and low-paid workers as well as
those who lose a job for family-related reasons.
Women often find that the “three legs” of the retirement
stool—personal savings, Social Security and private
pensions—are wobbly. Social Security, instituted in 1935,
has been enormously successful in reducing the poverty
rate for those over 65: from 35 percent in 1960, the first
year data was kept, to less than 10 percent in 2007. However,
women who earn less or sacrifice earning to care for
family members receive lower retirement benefits.
Although women now make up almost half of the workforce,
the average woman spends 12 years out of the paid
workforce, often to care for children or elderly relatives.
Since workers’ benefits are calculated based on their 35
highest-earning years, that means seven more years of zeros
to figure into the benefit calculations of a woman
whose worklife spans 25 to 65—which substantially lowers
her Social Security benefits. Instead, caregiving years
should not be entered as zeros, and either be taken out of
the equation or given a dollar value.
2. DON’T MAKE FLEXIBLE HOURS A BARRIER TO HEALTH
INSURANCE, AND DO STOP CHARGING WOMEN MORE
FOR HEALTH INSURANCE.
Women are more likely to be uninsured, to be underinsured,
to have difficulty accessing and paying for needed
medical care, and to forgo needed medical care due to cost.
Women tend to pay more for individual health-insurance
policies, even if they don’t include maternity benefits. Some
insurers charge women as much as 50 percent more, while
employers pay more per individual in their group health
plans if their workforce is predominately women—a system
known as “gender rating.” Employers can provide health
insurance at their discretion, and they’re also able to determine
how many hours someone works so that they won’t
have enough hours to qualify for the group insurance plan. Part-timers, then, often don’t receive health coverage.
These policies tend to lock in the gender division of
work: Instead of both partners in a couple working a flexible
schedule, it makes more economic sense for one to
work 9-to-5 to keep the health insurance, while the other
shoulders the bulk of caregiving. Not surprisingly, it
turns out that women are more likely than men (24 percent
versus 13 percent) to have dependent coverage through
their spouses rather than on their own. The nondependent
partner, more often the man, loses the flexibility to
spend time caring for kids and ill family members, while
the “dependent” partner, often the woman, can lose the
economic security and personal independence of a good
job with benefits. She also risks losing health coverage in
These problems demand a twofold solution. First, as
President Obama is proposing, make insurance available
and affordable to all even if they don’t receive it through
an employer. This should be implemented to mean that
part-timers should also gain access to group health insurance.
As well as giving more women access to health-care
insurance directly, affordable insurance could open the
door to more gender equity in parenting by allowing both
parents flexible work schedules.
Second, reform health insurance, as President Obama
is also proposing, to prevent discrimination on the basis of
pre-existing conditions or gender. Many of these exclusions
apply only or predominately to women, such as being
a victim of domestic violence or having a Cesarean
section. Hopefully, health reform can remove such unwarranted,
punitive insurance rules.
3. GUARANTEE WORKERS PAID FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE.
We need to assure all workers at least seven
paid sick days a year for their own illnesses or to care for
an ill family member. Even today, with the swine flu looming,
nearly half of women workers in the private sector do
not have a single paid sick day to recover from illness or
care for a sick family member. Three of four low-wageworkers—those least able to afford to take unpaid time off
or risk losing their jobs—do not have a single paid sick day.
Also, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does
not guarantee paid maternity leave. States have begun experimenting
on their own: Five now require employers to
offer temporary disability programs, which pay benefits to
pregnant women, and a few others offer low-income families
subsidies for infant care. In 2004, California became
the first state to expand its state disability insurance system
to provide paid family and medical leave, and New
Jersey and Washington have followed suit.
True reform of our safety net would mean that American
families are assured that their income will be replaced
not only as a result of retirement, disability or unemployment
but also when they have to care for a new child or an
ill relative. Paid family and medical leave—call it “family
insurance”—could be implemented on the state level (like
unemployment insurance and, in some states, disability
insurance) or at the federal level (like Social Security).
4. PROVIDE HIGH-QUALITY CHILD CARE.
The U.S. is practically alone among developed countries in leaving day care almost entirely to the private
market. And this is no small issue: In two-thirds of
American families, the single parent or both parents work.
Child care in the U.S. is a mishmash of arrangements,
from partners working different shifts to grandparents caring
for children to unlicensed neighborhood care to
organized child-care facilities (only a quarter of U.S. children
with a mother in the workforce are placed in the latter).
About 14 million children in the country are “latchkey kids,” who return home after school with no
parent to supervise them.
The Obama administration has increased funding for
early education dramatically, especially for the most
needy families, in the Recovery Act. But there is still
more to do. We need to expand the measly dependentcare
tax credit and make it applicable as a refund to those
who don’t have to pay taxes, for one thing. Pens, paper
and gasoline are considered business expenses—but not
a babysitter who enables a second parent to go to work.
After-school and summer-school programs should be
universally available, and child-care facilities must be
held to higher standards.
5. STOP TAXING WOMEN’S INCOME UNFAIRLY/
It’s enough to make women throw their own Boston Tea
Party: Our current tax system, while seemingly neutral,
Payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare are flat
taxes: They kick in on the first dollar earned, and they
stop at $106,800. This means that low-income workers—
a bracket in which women predominate—pay a higher
percentage of their income toward Social Security taxes
than do high-income workers.
A married person (or a divorced person who was married
at least 10 years) can receive a spousal benefit—half of
what the earner would have received—even though that
married person was never employed a day. And that
spousal benefit may be larger than the benefit received asa paid employee. That can lead to the paradoxical outcome
that a married couple, both of whom are paid workers,
can actually receive less Social Security benefits than
a couple in which only one is in the paid workforce. According
to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, a leading
Social Security expert, the total lifetime benefits for a
dual-working couple in which each earns $15,000 a year
will be $177,000. But if one partner did not work and the
other earned $30,000, they would receive lifetime benefits
of approximately $273,000—an astonishing 54 percent
more despite the same total income.
Additionally, our system of taxing married couples’ combined
incomes—rather than each partner’s individually—
pushes the lower earner (often a woman, thanks to the
wage gap and caregiving responsibilities) into an artificially
high tax bracket. That’s because her wages—her “first”
dollars earned—are added to those of her spouse rather
than treated separately. This “secondary earner penalty,”
plus the fact that all workers pay payroll taxes on the first
dollar earned regardless of whether they draw benefits or
how much they make, means that a low- and even middleincome
woman—after paying child care and transportation—
may not break even. Many are forced to rely on
substandard child care or take a second job while others
forgo marriage to prevent the secondary earner penalty.
These are take-it-or-leave-it choices women shouldn’t be
forced to make.
As we reform the social safety net for the 21st-century
economy, we must make sure that women are not
left behind. We are at a time of opportunity—the country
as a whole is realizing the need to reform many of our
New Deal programs that are so important to our economy
and to American families. We cannot let this opportunity
to increase the economic security of all women—now
50 percent of paid workers—pass us by once again.
Special thanks to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
To view PDF version click here.
KAREN KORNBLUH is a visiting fellow at the Center for
American Progress. She served as policy director for then-
Senator Barack Obama and founded the Work and Family
Program of the New America Foundation.
RACHEL HOMER has interned for the Feminist Majority
Foundation, as well as worked for the Democratic National
Committee on the 2008 Democratic Platform.