Op-Ed: Riding the Regression Train of Austerity

Ben Master

Republican solutions for the deficit, manifested most clearly in Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal, threaten to fray the entire American social fabric. By this point, we know how attacks on public sector unions will reduce living standards for one of the last cohorts of securely middle-class workers, and how budget cuts exacerbate the plight of the poor. Yet the impact of austerity extends beyond the amplification of income inequality; government cuts jeopardize the gains made by female workers and workers of color since the 1970’s. If a plan even remotely similar to Ryan’s squeezes through Washington and the national assaults on public sector unions continue, we can expect heightened gender and racial inequality in the years to come.

Attacks on the public sector, fueled by spurious claims of a national debt crisis, endanger some of the historic gains women have made in the last 40 years. Women’s success in the labor market has been abetted by high participation in the public sector. With major cuts at the local and state level, where women comprise 60 percent of the workforce, middle class and professional women stand to take severe hits. Seventy-nine percent of the 327,000 jobs cut in the public sector between July 2009 and February 2011 belonged to women. The economic downturn, once cleverly coined the “Great He-cession” because of tremendous job losses in male-dominated industries like construction, is now causing enormous misery among women, especially those of color. The government employs 25 percent of African-American female workers, who will receive a great share of the pink slips handed out to teachers, social workers and secretaries across the country.

In addition to job cuts, politicians are slashing welfare programs across the board that have been particularly beneficial to women. For example, cuts to state-funded childcare programs will worsen the dual burden of family and work on mothers —especially the growing number who lack support from a spouse. Most working women cannot afford to take time off of work or pay for private childcare, forcing them to choose between a farrago of precarious care options. Attacks on Medicaid and Medicare will also make life more cumbersome for women because they are less likely than men to receive adequate health insurance through their employer.

Public sector cuts endanger African-Americans to an even greater degree. Twenty-one percent of black workers work for the state, and public sector job cuts are sure to increase the already astronomical unemployment rate among African-Americans. While the national average has dipped to 8.8 percent, unemployment has remained well above 15 percent for blacks. The public sector has constituted an essential stepping-stone on the path of upward mobility for many African-Americans. (Just ask Michelle Obama, whose father was a water plant employee for the city of Chicago.)

Unsurprisingly, the government seems to find enough money to feed the prison industrial complex. There are now more blacks in prison than there were in slavery in 1850. Incarceration is one of the easiest ways to soak up labor that the market cannot support, so Republicans won’t look to make major cuts in that department. Instead, they have targeted Pell Grants, an important source of financial aid for many African-American students, and mortgage refinancing assistance for victims of predatory lending, a practice that disproportionately affected people of color.

Even though Wall Street avarice and the myopia of neoliberal economic policies created the shortfall in government revenue, politicians have put public sector workers and welfare benefits in the crosshairs. The only public sector workers who should be on the chopping block are the SEC regulators who turned a blind eye to the $13 trillion bond market Ponzi scheme. While Goldman Sachs, one of the lead culprits in the financial crisis, lavished employees with an average $595,000 apiece in bonuses in 2009, Paul Ryan and company decided that the nation’s most vulnerable need to tighten their belts.

In short, Washington is pointing its collective finger in the wrong direction. Austerity measures threaten to destroy one of the last vestiges of a powerful labor movement, with enormous consequences for women and people of color. By taking a careful look at how public sector cuts will affect the gains made by marginalized groups, we get a better sense of the unlimited potential for American society to regress if Republicans prevail. This is not to suggest that the counterattack should be waged along the lines of potentially fragmenting identity politics. Women, African Americans, Latinos, and all working people have the most to lose from austerity, and we must unite against this onslaught in order to continue taking steps forward.