- The Feminization of Austerity
The current attack on public sector unions is the latest step in a long-term effort to “end big government” through a three–pronged strategy that falls heavily on women. The strategy targets three public sector groups: service users, workers, and unions. Yet most of the prevailing analysis focuses on one group or another and thus misses the whole story and the strategy’s wider impact, particularly on white women and women of color—the people who comprise the majority of public sector program users, workers, and union members.1 This is largely a result of the gender division of labor that still assigns most “care work” to women, including the type of care work that remains embedded in many public sector jobs.
The Wider Context: Thirty Years of Neoliberalism
The strategy to dismantle the public sector is not new or accidental. It emerged as part of the wider neoliberal response to the economic crisis of the 1970s, and relies on the calculated use of what Naomi Klein has called the “shock doctrine” to win support for otherwise unpopular ideas.
Over the course of the last thirty years, U.S. leaders have pursued a policy agenda variously referred to as Reaganomics, supply-side economics, or neoliberalism. Designed to redistribute income upwards and shrink the state, the now familiar tactics include: reducing taxes paid by corporations and wealthy individuals, and otherwise eviscerating the progressivity of the tax code; slashing the budgets of public programs that served—and, at times, emboldened—the poor and the working class; shifting government services to the private sector; and deregulating businesses, banks, and labor markets. At the same time, the “reformers” worked to end consumer, workplace, and environmental protections; devolve federal responsibility for public programs to the states; and weaken the power of social movements by reversing their gains. Meanwhile, the right called for the restoration of family values and a color-blind social order.
More recently, conservatives have drawn on the shock doctrine to invigorate their [End Page 30] anti-public sector campaign, buoyed by the 2008 economic collapse, conservative electoral victories, and the Democrats’ failure to present an alternative narrative. Having created a budget crisis by refusing to raise taxes for more than a decade, elected officials knowingly exploited deficit fears to win support for more tax and budget cuts and for highlighting deficit reduction rather than job creation. They sealed the deal by using the race, welfare-queen, gay marriage, and/or immigration cards to convince people to vote for measures that undermined their economic security and the common good. The politics of fear and hate have kept people divided, blinded to their shared interests, and—until recently—demobilized.
In 2011, federal spending rose to 25.3 percent of the GDP—the highest level in any year since World War II. Meanwhile, tax cuts and unusually high unemployment rates caused federal revenues to fall to 14.4 percent of the GDP—the lowest level since 1950.2 From 2001 to 2007, the share of the revenue gap stemming from tax cuts (48 percent) far exceeded the share due to entitlement (10 percent) and discretionary spending (7 percent).3 Although critics like to blame future deficits on Obama and Congress’s current policies, budget analysts report that over the next decade the deficit will largely be due to “the economic downturn, the Bush tax cuts, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”4 Ignoring this fact, in February 2011 the House of Representatives voted for draconian public sector budget cuts (H.R. 1, The Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011). In August 2011, House leaders demanded still more spending cuts, but no new taxes in exchange for agreeing to lift the debt ceiling.5 In October 2011, Congress defeated the American Jobs Act—Obama’s plan to create employment opportunities for teachers and other public sector workers, and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.6 These legislative actions have established a template that many regard as representing a “war on women,”7 not only because women comprise the majority of public sector program recipients, workers, and union members, but also because government services underwrite women’s unpaid labor...