Are Women Better Off than We Were Four Years Ago?

Last week I confessed that I don’t like presidential election season. I don’t like the trivialized reportage, the horse-race-ification of serious subjects, and the narrowed vision that settles in on policy folks during these months. I especially don’t like the question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This suggests two things to which I object: first, that the president is in charge of how well-off I am, when all of us know that American politics and global economics are far more complex. Second, that “better off” or “worse off” can be reduced to my current income and immediate financial prospects, even if those were dependent on the president. So I’m going to hijack that question for my own purposes and ask: Are women better off than we were four years ago—not just financially, and not just in ways affected by President Barack Obama’s administration, but overall?

Episode one: Show me the money.

Despite the fact that I dislike the reduction of life to finances, finances are pretty darn important. If you can’t feed, clothe, and house yourself and your family, the quality of your life gets much worse. So I’m going to start off this series with the economics. Are women better off than we were four years ago financially?

To answer that, let’s start by examining another question that’s been getting a lot of play lately: Are women surpassing men in our economy? The short answer: Nope. Women are not, overall, financially better off than men. Nor does it appear imminent that we are going to dominate the earth, or even the United States. Historian Stephanie Coontz brilliantly dismantled the idea of “the end of men” in Sunday’s New York Times, explaining how you have to cherry-pick the data to conclude that women are anywhere close to overtaking men in economic or public life. As she notes, over the decades, women’s economics have inched—albeit slowly and partially—toward men’s, after being depressed by discrimination:

Women’s real wages have been rising for decades, while the real wages of most men have stagnated or fallen. But women’s wages started from a much lower base, artificially held down by discrimination. Despite their relative improvement, women’s average earnings are still lower than men’s and women remain more likely to be poor.

And discrimination remains with us: Men still outearn women in every occupation. When women begin to get close to numerical parity with men in a particular occupation—cf: gynecologist, veterinarian, journalist—said occupation’s wages drop. “Today women make up almost 40 percent of full-time workers in management,” Coontz writes. “But the median wages of female managers are just 73 percent of what male managers earn. And although women have significantly increased their representation among high earners in America over the past half-century, only 4 percent of the C.E.O.’s in Fortune’s top 1,000 companies are female.”

Remember, all wage comparisons measure full-time working women to full-time working men; non-working women do not get counted in those statistics. Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, has gotten a great deal of attention for her contrarian hypothesis that women are on the rise, economically, and about to overtake men. But she skews the facts. For instance, after The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt from her book, she told the magazine in an interview that “if you look at total numbers in the working and middle class, men still on average make more than women. … Of course there are older women who have never worked and who will never work and they are measured as part of those statistics.” I’ve emphasized that because the statement is factually incorrect. The wage-gap measurement is apples to apples, full-time worker to full-time worker. Nonworkers aren’t counted.

So why this myth about women becoming, as another author put it, “The Richer Sex”? When I asked Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, she laughed. “There’s a lot of pressure I think to tell the story that’s sexy and counterintuitive, that will sell books,” she says. “Those stories are rare. … In the recession, as men were losing jobs, you saw more married-couple families where he was out of a job and she was working.” In other words, she works/he doesn’t households became a higher share of the labor force than ever before. But that was temporary. “As the recovery has started,” Boushey says, “men have been getting their jobs back and women have continued to lose jobs, especially because of cutbacks in state and local government.”

So let’s return to the main question of whether women are better off than we were four years ago. Both Boushey and Heidi Hartmann, labor economist and founder and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, emphasized the importance of putting that question in context: Given that the country has been staggering back from the Great Recession, the worst economic period since the Depression, women could have been much, much worse off. Four years ago you could smell the fear everywhere; restaurants were empty, public plazas were empty, houses were going unsold, movies were empty. Technically, the recession that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009; even though the economy kept bleeding jobs, that’s the official point where the economy started getting better instead of worse. While we haven’t completely recovered, it feels different out there. Houses are selling. People are socializing in ways that involve spending.

 “Americans are better off now than they were four years ago, if you look at employment, unemployment, job growth, layoffs,” Boushey says. “This time four years ago, the economy was on the verge of going into the free fall of the last half of 2008. Now it’s moving in the right direction.” January, February, and March of 2009, Hartmann points out, saw massive job losses. Then, as the American Recovery Act (ARA) pumped a little money into the economy, those losses halted: Unemployment stayed high, but jobs stopped disappearing. (I do know that there’s been plenty of debate among left-leaning economists about whether the ARA was ambitious enough and am leaving that issue aside for now.)

But what about women? This recession hit women harder than previous recessions did, despite the “mancession” label that took hold early on. Historically, the wage gap has closed during recessions, as well-paying men’s occupations like construction bled jobs while minimum-wage women’s jobs held steady. The gap closed, in other words, not because women were paid well but because a larger proportion of men were as poorly paid as women. (Or as The Onion put it this week, “Newly Unemployed Woman Enjoys Equal Pay For First Time In Career.”)

Not this time. First men lost jobs in construction and manufacturing—and then women lost jobs as pinched state and local governments laid off people in positions like school nurses, teachers, and social workers. Men’s jobs started coming back first; women’s only recently started picking up, say Boushey and Hartmann. “Within each industry, however,” Hartman writes in her paper on the gendered nature of the recovery, “women have either lost proportionately more jobs or gained proportionately fewer jobs than men over the course of the last three years. … As of June 2012, women have regained 38.7 percent of the jobs they lost in the recession, while men have regained 45.2 percent of the jobs they lost in the recession.” Women were hit harder than they usually are in recessions, in other words, but so were men, and their jobs are still coming back.

What’s been especially odd, Boushey says, is that even in occupations that had been held (and lost) equally by women and men, more men have gotten those jobs back. That’s not just in construction or nursing; it’s in management and retail, populated by both women and men. “If the recovery was moving evenly, you would expect half of all new retail jobs to go to women and half to men,” Boushey says. “Instead, men have gained about 400,000 jobs in retail while women have continued to lose jobs. You see that across the board; it’s very striking. Women are half of all managers, and yet women have only gained 9,000 jobs in management [in the recovery] while men have gained about 84,000. Why is that happening? I don’t know.”

Hartmann suggests that the trend probably isn’t mysterious or discriminatory; rather, those occupational categories are too generic to reveal much. Take retail, for instance—hardware stores may have been hiring while department stores haven’t. “Economists,” Hartmann says, “don't know why men seem to have a hiring or layoff advantage in every industry, but the start of a catch-up in year three is good news for women."

So are women better or worse off than we were four years ago? Here’s where the answer gets complicated: It depends on which women. Single mothers who lost government jobs or retail jobs and are still unemployed are in bad shape. Their ARA-extended unemployment insurance is gone, their ARA-expanded food stamps are gone, and they’re living in dire poverty, in their cars, with family or friends, or on the street. Elderly women have fared a little better, because older people who live on Social Security haven’t lost much. They weren’t as affected by the drop in housing prices or the evaporation of pensions, since they hadn’t had jobs to begin with—and of course, as Hartmann points out, most of the elderly are women. 

Young middle-class women who haven’t quite gotten a foothold in the job market are doing a little better, because now they have access to health insurance on their parents’ policies. If they’ve decided to go to school, they’re also in better shape, because Pell grants have been expanded—and as Rosin correctly notes, more women use those than do men.

Of course, our well-being is more than just our incomes. It’s also our health, our reproductive and sexual autonomy, our ability to structure our work lives in ways that make sense for the rest of our lives, and our freedom from sexual assault. So tune in next week for the next episode of Are you girls better off than you were four years ago?

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