Spending cuts and the 'womencession'

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any. — author Alice Walker

By most accounts, the economy is improving. Yet the jobless rate across the state continues to hover at around 10 percent.

Why do so many people in Kentucky seem to be suffering even more today than at the height of the recession?

Today, 814,000 Kentuckians participate in the federal food stamp program; more than 1,000 homes face foreclosure in our state every month; and 576,500 Kentuckians lack health insurance.

A new national poll for the Ms. Foundation for Women confirms what has been clear for some time to Kentucky residents: The so-called economic recovery is taking place far from our doorsteps, with women and children increasingly paying the heaviest price.

Government cutbacks at the federal, state and local levels have had a particularly severe impact on women and children. Women across all groups are suffering, but for low-income women the situation has gone from bad to worse.

According to the poll of 1,515 adults conducted this spring by Lake Research Partners for the Ms. Foundation, the number of low-income women living paycheck to paycheck rose to 77 percent — a staggering 17-point increase over results from a similar 2010 poll.

Without quick and effective government action, we are likely headed toward a full-blown "womencession" with potentially dire consequences for our long-term economic recovery.

The Ms. Foundation poll found growing economic hardship across the population, with the number of people living paycheck to paycheck up by five points from 2010 to 49 percent.

But women in every category reported the greatest difficulties. The percentage living paycheck to paycheck jumped five points for Latinas to 63 percent, eight points for African-American women to 61 percent, eight points for single women to 58 percent and four points for blue-collar women to 59 percent.

These numbers should come as no surprise given recent government cutbacks and growing attacks on women's health and well-being in Congress and state legislatures, including Kentucky.

Funding decreases in areas such as education, health care and social services hurt women most since they hold a majority of jobs in those fields. Ongoing battles over collective bargaining rights are more likely to affect women who make up a majority of state and local public-sector workers. And cuts in social services take the greatest toll on women because they are more likely to be living in poverty and caring for children or other relatives.

Proposed funding cuts in programs that help families — including the Women, Infants and Children feeding program, the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant (benefiting 337,171 children and women in Kentucky) and the Women's Educational Equity program — have the potential to set women's progress back decades, and make it nearly impossible for low-income women and their children to move ahead.

Our own Rep. Hal Rogers chairs the Appropriations Committee proposing cuts to programs benefiting children and pregnant women.

For these women and their families, government programs provide a lifeline to a better future. Today, that help is needed more than ever. In fact, the Ms. Foundation poll found that the desire for a stronger government role in fixing the economy is actually up four points this year to 56 percent.

Likewise, the poll reinforced what is obvious to most struggling Kentuckians: Creating jobs and helping families is more important than reducing the deficit. Both women (66 percent) and men (57 percent) agree the government should focus on creating jobs, even if it means increasing the deficit in the short term.

And most people, including a significant majority of women, do not want deficit cutting to come at the expense of women, families and children. Fifty-five percent of women say they would be extremely or very concerned if spending for children and families was cut significantly.

Kentucky Jobs with Justice is an organization that fights for economic justice, global justice, health care for all, immigrant rights and workers' rights. It is clear that the path we are on is unsustainable. Our economy will not grow if women cannot find jobs that pay enough to provide for their children and families.

Political leaders need to stop squabbling over the deficit and start paying attention to what Kentucky residents and folks across the United States want most: jobs that allow them to build a better future for themselves and for our country.