29 January 2009

New Connections Will Pave the Road to Economic Recovery

In an effort -- as of this morning unsuccessful -- to generate more Republican support for the economic recovery package, President Obama has conceded a provision that would have made it easier for states to extend Medicaid coverage for family planning services to low-income families. Yet, just last week on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he issued a stirring statement that proclaimed:
"…..(W)e are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make. To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services."

Why, within days, has President Obama violated his own pledge?

Part of the answer is that our country's approach to economic policy simply ignores meaningful connections between the issues we face in our everyday lives. Because we allow abortion to be debated solely on ideological grounds, we repeatedly ignore the real-life connection between women's reproductive health and their economic security. How else could it go unnoticed that as more and more women lose their jobs, their economic well-being will be further jeopardized by limiting their access to contraception (through Medicaid or through private insurance), thus increasing their chances of an unintended pregnancy?

Making this connection visible would make it much harder for Representative John Boehner, the Republican House leader, to declaim, "How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?"

A second part of the answer is that we still do not consider women's economic participation vital to our nation's economic advancement. Witness the lack of concern for the absence of decent-paying jobs for women in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. How can this be when women account for nearly 70 percent of minimum-wage and below-minimum-wage workers, and when most poor Americans are women and children? Why do we not take action to realize the potential economic contributions of half our population as we prepare to spend billions of dollars to stimulate the economy and lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to criticism of the Medicaid family planning expansion by stating that it would "reduce cost." This is absolutely true. In 2007, the Congressional Budget office found that such a measure would save the federal government $200 million over five years by giving women the option to prevent unwanted pregnancies that would result in Medicaid-funded births.

But what Speaker Pelosi -- and President Obama -- didn't do, and must do, is make the connection that women's health is fundamental to our country's economic health. If we don't work quickly to ensure the economic security of women, particularly low-income women and women of color -- by increasing their access to contraception, decent-paying jobs with benefits, and quality and affordable child care -- our nation will forego the full benefit of their economic contributions now and in the future. Surely we can agree that this would be an enormous step backward in our quest for economic "recovery."

Sara K. Gould
President & CEO
Ms. Foundation for Women

25 January 2009

Inauguration Ceremonies 2009: The Day Of and Braving the Icy Currents

I have significantly defrosted. I am walking with a slight limp. I have finally caught up on sleep. I have survived the inauguration ceremonies of President Barack Obama.

To say that Tuesday was an exciting, moving day or a test of true endurance would not do justice to either. Those that were there know that it took more than a few days to recover from the extreme cold, the nine-plus hours of standing and the crushing crowds. However, most that attended inauguration would also adamantly tell you that they wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything.

My Tuesday morning began at 4am, strategically bundled in layers and riding an already-full Metro into the Capital area of DC. Between 5:30 and 8am, I shuffled forward with the other Silver ticket holders on a haphazard line, watching thousands of people pass by in a stream. In speaking to those around me, there were those from Minnesota, Italy, Florida, Nebraska, Canada and California, there were high school student groups, families, friends, grad students, and there were those that had supported Obama in the election and those that hadn’t and just came to witness history. Silver ticket holders, (and yes, every time I peeked at it, the ticket still felt Willy Wonka-esque) as I had suspected, were the non-celebrities that had stumbled upon this chance due to dumb luck.

As such, we were a relatively rowdy bunch that rose up frequent Obama chants and brought down a barricade once we were actually admitted into our area. Being situated on the edge of the small reflection pool in front of the Capital, I think the proximity of it all was just too much for some – after about an hour of deliberation, around two hundred spectators in the Silver section burst through a gate and ran up and around the reflection pool. In an attempt to get even closer, some then climbed into trees, onto statues or on the frozen reflection pool itself. Staying around the pool area, I opted for the far more boring approach to waiting out the next four hours: stomping my feet, chatting with fellow enthusiasts, and sharing snacks.

Despite the impressive show of crowds beforehand, it would only be after the ceremonies that the sheer number of people in DC would become truly apparent. The thousands of cops that had come to help from all over the country -– Ohio, Texas, Florida, etc. -– could only help so much, as the city took on all 1.8 million celebrants at once in a scene of good-natured chaos. The swamped streets, clogged Metro stations, and the random road-blocks pushed a great deal of people out onto the highways, which soon became flooded with pedestrians. It was out on one of these highways that I finally found a friend that I had been trying to meet up with for an hour and a half. Amongst hundreds of others, my friend and I walked the highway, attempted to enter some Metro stops, returned to the highway after several failures, and took it down under the Capital. After three hours of attempting to exit the area, we finally found success at a Metro station to the north of the Capital. Our apocalypse-like experience wasn’t quite over yet, however, as the escalators in this station were still only running downward to accommodate all of the crowds. As a result, anyone trying to exit the station had no other choice other than to climb the ramps next to the escalators up and out of the station.

As entertaining as all of this may be, it points to something far deeper that was going on on Tuesday. It is a testament to how meaningful this moment was that a record-breaking number of people were willing to travel to DC to stand for hours in freezing temperatures for a ceremony that lasted a little under an hour. And, despite all of chaos and physical discomfort people endured, it was clear that the general feeling was one of unshakable joy and tolerance, especially since not one arrest was made. For these people, the experience had less to do with the images that anyone could watch later on YouTube than the physical space they occupied by being there. The mass of people- enthusiastic, elated, emotional and excited to be a living testament to what was actually occurring- is what will resonate with me whenever I think back on my experiences. In trying to anticipate who exactly would be best represented at the inauguration ceremonies, I had always assumed that the candidates would be corporations, grassroots organizations or political groups, with the average visitor dodging around or caught up in whatever they had to say. It had never crossed my mind that all of the above would be so distinctly absent and so wholly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, just celebrating.

The day, to me, became about the people. It became about the millions of black dots that faced a small stage with only a few black dots. In the surreal moment in which I realized that some of the world’s most important leaders were just people on a stage not terribly far away, I also realized the overwhelming power in the numbers facing them. It truly solidified for me how amazing this country can be in its strange, passionate, peaceful turnover of who gets to stand on that stage every four years. And, as mature a process as this is, President Obama’s call for an end to the childish tendencies we’ve developed (including the deafening roar of “boo’s” when George W. Bush was announced) seemed more relevant than ever. In his speech, he alluded to the fact that analysis, accountability and action, all of which define a mature nation, truly need to be adopted by our mass of inspired people if the amazing momentum we have created is to keep going.

It seemed relevant that we were being told this on such a cold day. In referencing the almost certain defeat Washington and his troops faced on the shore of the Delaware river, Obama said, “With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.” Our endurance, I’m sure, will have to be for far greater things than 22 degree weather, although it was a symbolic start. Looking around, speaking with others, and listening to what they had to say, I was filled with the hope that, working together, we will make it to the other side. And, afterward, as we walked the apocalyptic-looking highways, I couldn’t help thinking that, just like Washington on the Delaware, sometimes we mistake the bleakest-looking moments in our history as the end, when we are really at the beginning of something great.

[See Caitlin's first inauguration post: Inauguration Ceremonies 2009: Being Here.]

20 January 2009

Center for Community Change: "Stimulus for All?"

Last week, Sally Kohn of the Center for Community Change put it plainly: "The staggering gulf between the rich in America and everyone else is the root cause of our financial crisis. We can only stimulate the economy if we solve inequality." Yet, she continued, "Few have talked about the financial crisis in terms of rich and poor. Most of the focus is on the 'disappearing middle class.' But where do you think the middle class is disappearing to? They’re not sailing their yachts to Hawai’i. The middle class is rapidly joining the ranks of the poor, reeling from the inevitable, gravitational, polarizing pull of inequity."

So, how to halt this steep slide and ensure a democracy and an economy of equity and inclusion? First stop: make sure that the economic recovery package addresses structural inequities and meets the urgent needs of poor and low-income individuals and communities most affected by failed economic policies and economic insecurity, including women and people of color. The Ms. Foundation for Women and the Center for Community Change both call for significant investment in human and community infrastructure as a necessary prescription.

Kohn continued:
Barack Obama himself said that, in addition to providing “a jump-start to the economy” we should use the stimulus package to “put a down payment on some of the structural problems that we have in our economy.” What might that look like?

Well, while construction jobs are valuable and important, those jobs don’t usually go to those at the bottom of our economy. And communities like Detroit and Youngstown have infrastructure needs that go far beyond buildings alone. They need early childhood education programs and health clinics and better schools — which happen to be areas more likely to employ women and people of color and low-income communities. In addition to physical infrastructure, the stimulus package should invest in community and human infrastructure — and related jobs — as well.
Read Kohn's full commentary.

19 January 2009

Inauguration Ceremonies 2009: Being Here

I have in my possession a ticket to the inauguration ceremonies of President-elect Barack Obama. I know; I was just as surprised. It still hasn’t quite computed for me, either.

I have no connections to speak of. I was not born under a lucky star. But, perhaps this is what this election is about — being able to attend a significant historical moment simply because my name was chosen at random from a lottery of residents of the 12th congressional district of New York. Maybe this entire election has felt so momentous because it has made people feel that they could be a part of their own government again, simply because they are Americans.

I’ve felt a range of emotions since I found out that I was going to be able to attend the ceremonies: the obvious excitement, the disbelief that I was given the chance, the numbness of the DMV experience required to actually proved that I am a member of the 12th congressional district, the overly hot and overly cold bus out of Chinatown, the just plain cold weather, the half-pride, half-frustration with the push of the crowds that are only expected to get much, much worse. And, for what? No one is entirely sure. What the actual day of Obama’s swearing in will be like has been predicted from various angles.

Will it feel like the national emergency that it’s been declared? Or will it feel closer to Woodstock, or New Year’s Eve in Manhattan? Will it be an empowering experience that confirms the kind of change-centric administration we are promised, or will it mostly be an overwhelming display of memorabilia? Will it allow for an impressive display of grassroots fervor and real community connection? Will what over a million Americans experience first-hand be a kind of reflection of what the next four years will be like?

It has already felt a bit like a combination of all of this. There was a general buzz on the bus down among people of all ages, with discussions that included, “We’ve waited for so long, this is now our time,” and, “I think my Mom is becoming a Republican after this.” The first sign any of us saw as soon as we entered DC was a giant “OBAMA HEADQUARTERS” banner that definitely wasn’t the headquarters for anything other than shirts, mugs, flags, thimbles, and plates. Since then, I’ve also been offered Obama condoms, Obama chocolate, and Obama tattoos by sellers lining the streets in the Capital area. But, the nature of everyone: crowds, Metro employees, bus drivers, memorabilia hawkers, has been of general excitement and amusement at the sheer number of people that have come for this event and the inevitable commercialism that is involved. Even when my good friend Elliot and I waited for almost two hours on a line to get into the “We Are One” concert, only for our orderly, snaking line to crumble into a mass of enthusiastic people, we walked a few blocks down, gave a friendly wave to the anti-gay protesters, and joined the hundreds of thousands of people standing out in front of the JumboTrons around the Washington Monument. As everyone else had figured out, being close to the event wasn’t nearly as important as just being there, Obama hats, pins, flags, and all.

Some people have asked why being here is important to me at all, when I could just as easily be far away from crowds and cold, watching it all on television with the rest of the Ms. Foundation for Women staff (where I currently work as a Development Associate). The truth is, before I even found out that I had a ticket to the events, I was planning on coming to DC anyway, for several reasons. Besides wanting to be part of a very important historical moment, there is also the thrill of millions of people being gathered for the same reason and the mystery of what could possibly emerge from such a gathering. Additionally, as I pointed out to the shock of my parents, I have known a Bush administration for 1/3 of my 24-year-old life. Since I was 16, when I was first really putting together my own inkling of social justice interest, I have known a presidency of snap-reactions, fear, and a silence on some of the most important issues, disguised by a roar. As a young woman, it is so empowering to know that for the next four years, my President is a self-identifying pro-choice, feminist individual that is willing to tackle and name the issues of race, class, and gender. The prospect of all of this is exciting enough that I want to be here to celebrate and share.

As such, I’ll be waking up at 4am on Tuesday morning, moving along with the crowds, trying to stay warm. I’m not sure what to anticipate other than that. But, just as millions of people will be watching, talking, experiencing, and totally present for this event, so I think this should be a reflection for this entire administration. Now that we finally feel a part of it, whether or not you are here on Tuesday, we should actually be here: watching, talking, experiencing, and being present for all of it.

[Update: See Caitlin's second posting: Inauguration Ceremonies 2009: The Day Of and Braving the Icy Currents.]

16 January 2009

Obama Recovery Plan Can’t Leave Women and Families Waiting in the Wings

As Congress prepares to debate President-elect Obama’s economic recovery proposal, they must consider how to reshape it to ensure the economic well-being of all people, particularly those facing the greatest amount of economic insecurity. Women, particularly low-income women, women of color and single mothers, who are overrepresented among those bearing the brunt of the economic and foreclosure crisis, should be a primary focus of the plan, and not left to wait for the indirect benefits of a recovery that privileges men.

We know that the Obama Administration’s proposed economic recovery package includes considerable investment in physical infrastructure and green jobs. We agree that rebuilding our decaying infrastructure to 21st century standards is absolutely necessary and that building up a “green” economy is long overdue. But this approach will create jobs in fields like construction and engineering that are typically dominated by men. When President-elect Obama first released details of his plan, women’s groups and experts asked how women—who make up nearly 50 percent of the workforce and are overrepresented among low-wage workers and people living in poverty—would benefit from such a male-oriented “recovery.” How can we create a sustainable, healthy economy without lifting up women alongside men and low-income people alongside those with higher incomes?

Last month, the Ms. Foundation and a number of our colleagues advocated for remedial prescriptions [pdf] to address the urgent needs of women, particularly low-income women and women of color, including: the inclusion of specific goals for women’s hiring and retention in nontraditional jobs; funding for programs that would create and improve the quality of jobs in fields that currently employ large numbers of women like education, child care and domestic violence prevention; and increased funding for, expansion and modernization of a range of safety net and education programs—from unemployment insurance [pdf] and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) [pdf] to child care, housing and health care.

The Obama Administration seems to have heard some of these concerns, but perhaps not clearly enough, judging by a recently released document, “The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.” [pdf] The report sets out in part to justify (to women, in particular, it seems) why the current proposal skews towards male-dominated industries and how, particularly through tax relief and indirect job-creation, it will have a trickle-down effect for women and women-dominated fields. They claim that “the total number of created jobs likely to go to women is roughly 42% of the jobs created by the package.” Really?

Not so fast, Linda Hirshman points out: “Regardless of how you measure it, most of those promised female jobs are only the projection into next year of ‘indirect’ results of government spending this year. By contrast, the report recognizes that the jobs the program creates directly and immediately are overwhelmingly concentrated in the male categories of energy and infrastructure.”

Last month, Hirshman took the Obama administration to task for denying women equal access to jobs and economic recovery in its stimulus package in a much-circulated New York Times piece warning, “There are almost no women on this road to recovery…. A just economic stimulus plan must include jobs in fields like social work and teaching where large numbers of women work.”

It’s not too late for the incoming administration and Congress to fix the plan. The plan must include minimum standards for recruitment, employment and retention of women in non-traditional trades including funding for workplace supports like child care and paid sick leave that help women access training and stay employed. And alongside jobs, it must incorporate a strong emphasis on investing in social and human infrastructure—community infrastructure—and services such as health care and education that will create jobs and provide more help to address the needs and solutions of those most affected by this spiraling crisis: women, low-income people and people of color.

Sara K. Gould
President & CEO
Ms. Foundation for Women

05 January 2009

Reproductive Justice Organizations Share Experience Defeating California Parental Notification Initiative

A coalition of reproductive rights organizations -- including five Ms. Foundation grantees -- has shared its experience in defeating California's Prop 4, the third "parental notification" ballot initiative to hit the state in four years. Produced by Ms. Foundation grantee Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, the report, Reproductive Justice at the Ballot Box [pdf] highlights the actions of reproductive justice organizations, including Ms. Foundation grantees ACCESS/Women's Health Rights, ACT for Women and Girls, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ), California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

In introducing the report, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice noted:
While no one wishes defensive ballot measure fights upon themselves, Prop 4 was a catalyst for increasing our efforts to engage communities of color in critical voter education strategies while simultaneously supporting new leaders and building new coalitions that will serve our communities over the long term. Our organizations emerged from the elections stronger and better equipped to move a proactive agenda for reproductive justice.

The report is part of the Momentum Series of EMERJ (Expanding the Movement for Empowerment and Reproductive Justice), a national movement-building initiative of Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice.

Read our December posting on Ms. Foundation grantee electoral wins.