In this global economic crisis, there is again an opportunity for political representatives of capital to radically reconfigure class relations. To manage this systemic global economic downturn, which includes a crisis for labor (long periods of unemployment), crisis of accumulation (loss of profits), governments had to find a way to deal with the massive amount of commercial and financial debt in the system.
At the same time that governments began socializing banking and corporate debt (through bailouts and quantitative easing), unemployment rose and government revenue crisis (sovereign debt crisis) began. An effect of the global economic crisis has been that much more people have been left in precarious situations and need to depend on social services, putting additional strain on government budgets. Economic and political leaders have attempted to ‘renew prosperity through austerity’. Instead of prosperity, the cuts to social services, wages, and public sector and social programs have put additional burden on women as families step in to fill the gap.
This attack on the public sector and social services is not new, but has emerged as an economic ideology emerging from the 1970’s global economic downturn. As the global economic stagnation of the early 1970s hit, neo-liberalism, which aimed particularly at what was left of the ‘welfare state’ and public services, attacked the public sector by either completely dismantling; privatizing, or de-funding public services. Because child and elderly care are no longer ‘socialized’ it has meant that it has once again shifted back to millions of women in the home. While at the height of the growth of social democratic and labor governments in the Post-World War II period, political parties along with militant work forces were able to expand the public sector and provide equitable employment opportunities for women and racial minorities; and social welfare programs like subsidized family maintenance care.
Impact on Women
Today, cuts to social services such as social security and health services affect women to the extent that they have to assume the role of head of the family. Women are forced to cover the services cut and somehow expected to carry out their professional lives. Even in two-parent homes where payments for care services can be split between the two parents have to depend on tax benefits and subsidies to be able to fund private day care or have one parent reduce their work hours to care for the child. This situation is perhaps, most obvious in the United Kingdom where families spend on average a third of their net incomes on child care.
Women’s ‘double burden’ has been solidified as well in recent private and public sector pension ‘reforms’ in the United States and nearly all countries in Europe. These ‘reforms’ make the monetary amount of monthly pension payments upon retirement on the salary and years of service while an active employee and becoming privatized with Savings schemes privately managed system using individual savings accounts. With women more likely to have interrupted careers, and more likely to have part-time work and wages lower than male workers , the cycle of women’s oppression and exploitation has become more obvious in the age of neoliberal reforms.
Looking at neo-liberalism as a whole, its economic philosophy and policies specifically target three public sector groups: service users, public sector workers, and unions, but with a deeper analysis, a story emerges that shows the wider impact of austerity. Women, especially women of color, in fact make up the majority of public sector program users, workers, and union members, an effect of a gender division of labor that still assigns most “care work” to women. Care work in fact still remains contained in many public sector jobs.
US and UK
The affects of the attacks on the public sector and its affects of female workers were clearly shown in the United States when comparing the disproportionate job losses starting from 2007, pre-recession, to 2011. Overall women comprise 59.5 percent of employees in state and local government. As the financial crisis hit, and state became further over burden with debt, state governments and federal government agencies began cutting their work forces.
Because women and African Americans constitute a disproportionately large share of the state and local public-sector workforce, the result has been higher jobless rates for women and women and men of color. The Economic Policy Institute’s 2 May 2012 Briefing Paper reported that from 2007 to 2011, 765,000 jobs were cut from state and local governments, with women comprising 70.5% of those jobs cuts. Looking from 2009 to March 2012, Matt Sledge of the HuffingtonPost writes that women in total lost some 396,000 jobs in the public sector. In the United Kingdom, the government’s budget monitor reported the public sector job losses will reach 710,000 by 2017. Women in Britain comprise two-thirds of all public sector employees.
In the UK, the David Cameron and the Tories’ austerity programs are having a similar disproportionate affect on women. The national governments’ £3.5 billion in funding cuts for local governments have forced local governments to cut programs that were previously offered like prenatal checkups, breast-feeding support and day care.
Treasury data complied by the House of Commons Library researchers show that David Cameron and George Osborne's austerity policies targeting tax credits, child benefits and public sector pensions have resulted in £11.1 billion of the £14.9 billion raised from five spending reviews beginning in 2010 coming from women. This is despite the fact that women in the UK earn less than men on average. All of this means a great reversal from the huge women’s rights gains won by women’s groups and social justice activists over the last century in Britain.
In the United States the attack on social services and programs that women depend on been the most ferocious and far reaching in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised 2012-13 budget calls for cuts of subsidized child care to low-income by approximately 20% from the 2011. As Gov. Brown’s proposed budget demands goes state welfare and health care programs for the poor will be cut by $2 billion. Single mother’s employment rate 69.2 percent in 2007 to 58.8 percent in 2010, and child poverty stands at 22% . The series of cuts to California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs), a state program that gives money to counties for job training and work related services, has already been significantly underfunded in the last few years, but the proposed 2012-13 budget calls for the more than $1 billion in cuts.
Following suit, in June Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg released his executive budget which demands cuts for child and after school programs for the fifth straight year, which would leave 90,000 children total without these programs come September. In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick is seeking to fill the $1.3 billion budget gap through cuts to child care subsidies, through cuts of about $8 million.
These cuts in the United States and elsewhere mean that more and more women will force back into the homes. Austerity’s ‘retraditionalizing’ effect is especially seen in Greece and elsewhere. In Greece, some experts predict that joblessness figures could reach up to 30% by the end of the year; coupled with slashed wages and receding public services by the Troika, there has been a co-emerging increase in Greek women’s unpaid work load. As hundreds of thousands of Greeks reach the maximum period for receiving state benefits for unemployment in the coming months, Greek women’s double burden of being both care taker and worker, women’s household and work life will likely get more stressful.
In Spain, unemployment is exceeding 25%, and 1.5 million households are left without a single wage-earner, taking a dramatic effect on families and women. In an NPR story airing on 11 Jul titled “Spanish Families Share Expenses and Tradition”, Lauren Frayer tells the story of the Fernandez family, a family of five children who make ends meet on the father’s unemployment benefits, government benefits for a disabled child and the grandfather’s factory paycheck. The story ends with the father "At least I have time for my kids….I can spend the whole day entertaining them! Many families in Spain live in multi-generational household because of unemployment and high expenses- the highest in Europe. Though there haven’t been cuts to health care, benefits for the elderly and disabled, as the Eurozone crisis continues there is no doubt that there will be cuts. By not talking about how austerity is linked to women’s oppression, it shows media and spokespersons naturalize austerity.
Under capitalism, especially in times of austerity, the family is seen by economic and political leaders as a means to transfer costs. In Greece for example, women’s rights activists in Greece have also reported that domestic violence is on the rise, making many women’s activists feel that austerity a way of hiding the devastation caused austerity behind doors of the home. Politicians and spokespersons for capital attempt to rationalize cuts to programs like health clinic and nurseries arguing that they are women’s work, and non-statuary ‘gold plated’ extras. Marxists have argued on the other hand that so called ‘woman’s work’ are a crucial part of the means in which society use to reproduces its families, citizens and workers.
The struggle for women’s liberation within the age of neo-liberalism would need to stand not for equality of cuts or “shared burden” but for the radical restructuring and transformation of gender and class relations along socialist lines. An economic system based on profit maximization will constantly seek to undermine and challenge victories that benefit all working people, especially women. To assert demands for women’s liberation into the wider struggle, the broad-based anti-austerity and anti-cuts campaigns need to build connections with local community ‘fight-backs’ against the closures and cuts to programs women effect depend on. Karl Marx’s words ring as true today as it did in 1868: “Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment."