the body politic

Identity Issues Don’t Distract From Economic Issues — They Are Economic Issues

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The postelection period has seen an enormous amount of pushback against so-called identity politics — specifically the campaigns for social justice and representation for women and people of color — as a frustrating distraction from the serious economic concerns that affect a broad swath of Americans. If only we could get away from divisive “social issues,” goes this line of thinking, Democrats could win elections and be able to enact progressive economic policies that would help far more people. But the idea that fights over reproductive freedom, sexual assault and harassment, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, criminal-justice reform, and gender and racial bias can be somehow separated from larger progressive economic stances is a fiction. As most people engaged in this argument know perfectly well, economic inequality is deeply wrapped up with gender and racial bias. The impending rollback of social progress in a Trump administration will have a staggering economic impact on this country’s women, especially women of color, and regressive economic policies will take a disproportionate toll on those same populations.

It’s worth remembering that two-thirds of all minimum-wage workers are women, along with 67 percent of all tipped workers — a fact that makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment by customers as well as employers. Women also dominate the home-health-care and child-care industries, in which wages are low, benefits anemic or nonexistent, and job insecurity, poor working conditions, and wage theft endemic. And women are especially reliant on government protections to keep them working safely and fairly.

“Start with the basics,” says Heather Boushey, the chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s transition team. “Will there be enforcement of laws that make it illegal for business to discriminate against you, not hire you, or pay you less because you’re a woman or a person of color or gay? It really comes down to the question: Is the government on your side? Is the government enforcing your basic rights as a worker?” That seems unlikely, given that the government will be led by a man who has said we should abolish the federal minimum wage, who has been sued by hundreds of former employees and contractors who claim he never paid them, and who has been accused of sexual assault by 18 women.

Progressive economists point to Trump’s appointments thus far as troubling evidence of just how bad the next four years could be for the lives and livelihoods of women and people of color: For secretary of Labor we have Andrew Puzder, CEO of the company that manages the fast-food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, which have been repeatedly investigated for wage theft; Puzder has also been a critic of minimum-wage hikes and the Obama administration’s expansion of overtime-pay protection. For secretary of Housing and Urban Development, we have Ben Carson, who criticized the Obama administration’s push to bolster an element of the Fair Housing Act that addresses racial segregation and concentrated poverty as “mandated social-engineering schemes.” Sarah Edelman, director of housing policy for the Center for American Progress, points out that “for a woman looking to buy or rent a home, the FHA is her greatest shield against a discriminatory landlord or mortgage lender.” For attorney general, we have Senator Jeff Sessions, a former prosecutor who aggressively pursued drug cases and has voiced his concern that drug prosecutions were down during the Obama administration. We know that African-­Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at a rate six times greater than that of whites (even though black and white Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate), and a study published this month shows that “incarceration is negatively associated with ownership of a bank account, vehicle, and home among men and that these consequences for asset ownership extend to the romantic partners of these men.”

Then there is the choice of Georgia representative Tom Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Price has a perfect record against reproductive rights. In 2005, he co-sponsored a bill that would define life as beginning at conception, which could have outlawed many forms of birth control. He also opposed the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of birth control, claiming that there is not one woman who can’t afford her own contraception. Price has company in his extreme stance in Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana introduced some of the most punishing anti-abortion measures in the country and is the lawmaker who first floated the notion of stripping Planned Parenthood of federal dollars (which Republicans voted to do nine times in the last Congress alone).

The economic impact of dismantling women’s health-care options cannot be overstated. In the first year that Obamacare covered contraceptive co-pays, women saved $1.4 billion on birth control alone. “If we reverse it,” notes Planned Parent­hood spokeswoman Erica Sackin, “that’s a huge price tag women would now have to cover.” But the ACA’s advantages for women aren’t just about contraception. “It’s also a nondiscrimination measure so that women can’t be charged more for health care,” says Sackin. Before the ACA, it was legal for health-insurance companies to charge women more to exclude maternity care from health-care packages; meanwhile, in some states, insurance companies had been permitted to deny coverage to women who had been the victims of domestic violence or had had C-sections, since those could legally be considered preexisting conditions. All of those protections are now vulnerable; Price has voted to repeal Obamacare more than 60 times. This push to keep American women from accessing birth control and services that would permit them to exert control over their reproductive — and hence professional, personal, and economic — lives would be devastating, especially to economically vulnerable women.

What makes this all the more heartbreaking is that it stands in stark contrast to what could have been. After decades of work by progressives at the state and local levels, a spate of new federal protections and economic policies seemed, for a moment, possible with a Democratic Party that was leaning further left than perhaps ever before. On the Clinton campaign’s agenda was a plan to mandate paid family leave and paid sick leave, to cap child-care costs at 10 percent of families’ income, and to raise the wages of caregivers. Of course, a Republican Congress would have impeded the implementation of these ideas and reduced their scope, but now they will likely not even get an airing. Economists working on the Clinton economic agenda had hoped to redefine infrastructure spending to include a kind of human infrastructure as well. “We need bridges and tunnels, and we need our elders and children well cared for,” Boushey explains. “These are both pieces of American infrastructure, and both create good jobs.” It is also a notably gender-balanced approach. Trump has said that infrastructure will be a priority for him too, but a traditional infrastructure bill will create jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields. To do this while at the same time moving away from equal-pay protections and paid-leave policies that would help women is to once again make women far more dependent on male earnings than they have been in the recent past. As became clear in the campaign, to Trump, Making America Great Again means taking it back in time, to a period of draconian restrictions on reproductive autonomy, enormous economic inequality for women and minorities, and fewer protections for women and people of color in the workforce.

*This article appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

Identity Issues Are Economic Issues