Millions of women and children live on the edge of a fiscal cliff every day. More than one in seven women live in poverty and over half of all poor children live in families headed by women. For them, these statistics aren't just numbers on a page. Parents are forced to choose between rent and utilities, food and medicine.
Meanwhile, Congress is about to choose between protecting programs for these struggling families or extending tax cuts for millionaires. For anyone who cares about Americans living on the edge, that choice should be easy.
And yet, there's a stalemate in Washington over what to do about the "fiscal cliff."
Some policymakers insist that protecting low tax rates for the very wealthy is necessary to create jobs, even though we had much stronger job growth after President Bill Clinton raised tax rates on the wealthy than after President George W. Bush cut them. But they are targeting the very social safety-net programs that are vital to the economic security of women and their families. The truth is that sound fiscal policies are those that create good jobs for both women and men, protect programs that support vulnerable people, strengthen the middle class, and restore fairness to our tax system.
Here's how to propel our economy forward:
Step 1: Invest in creating more good jobs. When more workers find jobs, their families are more secure. They have more money to spend, increasing consumer demand and promoting business growth. They need less assistance from public programs and pay more taxes. In short, promoting job growth helps families -- and shrinks the deficit over the longer term.
But instead of increasing investments in education, infrastructure, and other areas that strengthen the economy and create jobs, we've reduced key public investments, slowing the recovery. And women have paid a particularly high price. They are the majority of public sector workers -- teachers, health care workers, social service providers. Since the start of the recovery in June 2009, women have lost three jobs in the public sector for every 10 jobs they gained in the private sector.
A new report by my organization, the National Women's Law Center, shows that Medicaid supports more than 3.7 million jobs -- nearly 3 million of which are held by women. In New York State alone, women hold close to 400,000 Medicaid-supported jobs. Cuts to Medicaid threaten these jobs, as well as health care coverage for millions of women and children.
Step 2: Protect programs that support vulnerable women and families and strengthen the middle class. Lower pay and greater responsibilities for unpaid caregiving put women at greater risk of poverty and economic insecurity than men at every stage of their lives. As a result, women are more reliant on public programs to protect their own and their children's health, obtain quality child care, access higher education, and meet their basic needs.
In the current fiscal debate, every program women depend on is on the chopping block: far-reaching cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and across-the-board cuts to child care, Head Start, education, family planning, services for frail elders, domestic violence prevention -- and much more.
One proposal to cut spending reduces the annual cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits by switching to a new, lower measure of inflation known as the "chained consumer price index." The cut in the value of benefits is small at the beginning, so at first glance it appears benign.
But that cut deepens every year. It means that a typical single elderly woman would see a reduction in her Social Security benefit equivalent to the loss of one week's worth of food each month at age 80, and nearly two weeks' worth at age 95. Women, who generally live longer and already depend on Social Security benefits for most -- often all -- of their income, stand to lose the most.
Or take child care assistance. It helps low-income parents enter and stay in the workforce and provides their children early learning experiences that prepare them for school. We're already moving backward: In 2012, families in 27 states were worse off under one or more child care assistance policies than in 2011. The across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to start in January would mean 80,000 children would lose child care assistance and 100,000 would be shut out of Head Start.
Protecting and strengthening programs like these is a winning proposition. They support women and families when they need help the most, and they mean jobs for the workers -- mostly women -- who provide these vital services. And all of these families, in turn, help keep local businesses afloat.
Step 3: Extend tax cuts for those who need them, and let them expire for those who don't. We've already cut spending on federal programs by $1.5 trillion in the name of deficit reduction, while millionaires haven't contributed a penny in additional taxes. If we let the Bush-era tax cuts expire for the top 2 percent, all Americans would get a tax cut on their first $250,000 ($200,000 for an individual). Couples earning $300,000 would see little change in their taxes; 98 percent of Americans would see no change. And the nation would save $1 trillion over the next 10 years.
A trillion dollars is hard to imagine, so consider this: Extending all the Bush-era tax cuts would give the average millionaire a tax cut of $160,000 next year. That's enough to support child care assistance for 27 children, or Pell Grants to help 41 students attend college, or family planning services for 608 people.
Extending tax cuts that benefit the middle class, including the 2009 improvements to the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, would effectively stimulate the economy. But the House has proposed ending these 2009 tax credit improvements, which were enacted to help low-income working families make ends meet. Ending them would take $12.6 billion out of the pockets of hardworking families next year. Women would bear two-thirds of this loss, since a large majority of low-income families are headed by women.
These three steps will improve the balance sheet both for families and the nation by strengthening the economy and restoring fairness to the tax code. The alternatives will weaken the economy and make life harder for those who are struggling, especially women. The choice is clear.
Joan Entmacher is vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center, a nonprofit policy organization based in Washington.