Friday, February 6, 2009

Redefining the Stimulus

By Sikivu Hutchinson

What if an economic stimulus package took into account the real cost of living in the United States, the wealthiest nation on the planet with the most raggedy family social welfare net in the post-industrial world? Said stimulus package would acknowledge the reality of working families and the gendered economy of raising and socializing children and working outside of the home. Said stimulus package would include mandatory childcare provisions, paid family leave, universal health care and funding for family planning to ensure that working women remain in the workforce. Said package would include a provision for generating urban jobs where the majority of people of color, segregated from exurban professional networks, must live and work.

With provisions for expanding unemployment and health insurance president Obama’s stimulus package addresses some of these issues. But ever the bipartisan Pollyana, Obama has been furiously courting Senate Republicans, countering a Rush Limbaugh-fueled backlash to the stimulus. In a one hand giveth, one hand taketh away gesture, Obama signed the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill into law, making the kids of working families who don’t qualify for Medicaid eligible for health coverage—then quietly dropped a stimulus provision for family planning after Republicans expressed opposition. Obama characterized the SCHIP bill as a “down-payment” on his campaign pledge to provide health coverage for all Americans. But his massaging of Republicans in Congress makes it questionable whether he will have the political stamina to negotiate the creation of expanded health care coverage in the midst of insurance companies and conservatives hellbent on demonizing health care reform as socialist.

In the wake of a campaign season marked by studious avoidance of poor and working class women and men of color, it was almost otherwordly to hear President Obama publicly assert while signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, that women of color receive even less pay than their white female counterparts. Based on a lawsuit from a 19-year veteran of Goodyear Tires, the Ledbetter Act holds that due process for wage discrimination should extend beyond a 180 day window for filing. Obama’s bill recognized the brutal reality of pay discrimination—namely that it often takes years to discover and document inequities in pay. The years of pay disparities that women suffer not only translate into lost income but lost savings, lost capital, lost resources and lost time.

Single women of color still make the least, work the longest paid and unpaid hours and have the most riding on them if they fail as providers. And the bitter fact remains that single black women are the primary breadwinners in many urban African American families. As job losses and foreclosures continue to ravage urban black communities, the frontline impact will be on single parent families who can’t float on the feel good uplift of the president’s inauguration in place of a real safety net. With community colleges under strain due to the state budget deficit, adult education will be an iffy means of retraining a service-oriented workforce in the skill sets needed for the green jobs the administration has hyped. Then, there is the matter of finding affordable daycare for the children whose parents need retraining. As it is, working black parents must navigate a maze of providers and regulations to find affordable daycare. The recent tragedy of the murder-suicide of a Los Angeles couple terminated from their jobs at Kaiser for falsifying a signature on a daycare application underscores this painful dilemma.

In their “government handouts for Wall Street arrogance,” Republicans and some Democrats are riding the one trick pony of even more individual and business tax cuts as a remedy for the economic meltdown. Despite his concessions to Wall Street, the GOP and the Clinton establishment in his cabinet choices, Obama has signaled a willingness to piece together the social welfare net—now it’s up to us to make sure that his bipartisan Pollyannish-ness doesn’t derail the change mantra he swept into office on.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.