Women's Issues in the Obama Era: Expanding Equality and Social Opportunity Under the Obama Administration

By Caitlin Morelli
2015, Vol. 7 No. 02 | pg. 2/3 |

Pushing for Economic Equality

Assessing the long-term impact of new economic policies before a president’s term has ended can be difficult and uncertain, but at this point in time, is appears that women have reaped the benefits of economic policies put in place by the Obama administration. Ensuring economic equality for all Americans has been the focal point of the Obama’s two terms, with a major emphasis on bridging the opportunity gap between the genders. Women comprise the majority of college graduates, represent a growing share of the workforce, and are the primary or co-bread winner in two-thirds of American families.17 To match this growing economic power, Obama has pushed for a number of programs that train women for quality jobs and provide them support at home, at work, and in between jobs. The president understands that to fuel a struggling economy, he must help women gain the economic potential to play a stronger role in its recovery. Targeting the wage gap with Lilly Ledbetter Act was simply the first step.

At the president’s request, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $20 million in grants for female training and support services, especially in infrastructure-related employment, a field where women are severely underrepresented.18 The majority of non-infrastructure spending was designated for those with financial difficulties, lower incomes, dependents, and older Americans - categories of the public that are disproportionately represented by women. Despite the fact that men experienced greater job loss, women went into the recession with lower earnings and incomes, and bore the responsibility of maintaining the family budget through financial difficulties. The safety net programs provided by The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) helped struggling women by increasing food stamps and unemployment benefits, ultimately staving off massive spikes in poverty levels during this period.19

In the 2014 State of the Union address, Obama proposed raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour by 2016, because (sticking true to traditional Democratic ideals) greater incomes lead to greater purchasing power and less reliance on government. Despite outright conservative opposition, a wide range of economic research argues that raising the minimum wage will have little or no effect on the employment of these workers.20 In February 2014, Obama issued Executive Order 13658 requiring federal contractors to raise the minimum wage to $10.10.21 Although this policy affects only 200,000 workers, it is a step in the right direction and an indication that the President will act unilaterally if raises to the federal minimum wage are not passed through Congress.

If enacted, this shift would affect a large number of the working poor. Considering that women account for 55% of the workforce currently paid minimum wage and 72% of tipped occupations like waitresses and stylists, it would disproportionately affect their demographic. Obama understands that his bills will not pass a Republican-controlled Congress, which is why he has strongly urged state legislatures, governors and business leaders to move independently on raising the minimum wage.

Using the 2014 State of the Union as a forum to highlight policies for the working poor, Obama said, “few [steps] are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit.”22 The EITC, a federal tax credit designed to reward and encourage work, while offsetting federal income taxes, is what the Committee for Economic Development has called the most effective method of encouraging work over any other type of welfare reform.23 Embracing this idea, Obama expanded the EITC, as well as the refundable Child Tax Credit (CTC), impacting about 16 million families with 30 million children, and lifting 1.4 million families out of poverty.24

In 2014, he proposed further expansion of the EITC to childless workers, which would support women without children who comprise about one-third of minimum wage workers. Historically the EITC has received strong bipartisan support, so chances are good that the president will be able to propel this expansion through tax code reform. Obama has made it publicly known that this measure of welfare reform is an important piece of not only lifting women out of poverty, but children as well. If he manages to make true on promises made in 2014, he will provide much-needed support to the most vulnerable members of American society; however, huge losses for Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections render this an unlikely possibility.

Another component of Obama’s economic security plan included a revitalization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Contingency Fund. The program has been historically successful for job-creation, especially for women who make up the majority of the TANF subsidized jobs population. In 2012, Obama implemented reforms to TANF, which has already provided over 250,000 jobs to parents and disadvantaged youth, by giving states the flexibility they had repeatedly asked for.25 This would allow states to test new methods of helping individuals find and retain employment by removing time-consuming and costly rules for executing programs.

Many conservatives have criticized Obama for removing the work requirement with the false belief that welfare recipients can simply collect a check. In truth, most states have waived work requirements in order to enroll recipients in other programs that encourage future employment, like job training. If states use this newfound flexibility to their best interest, Obama’s TANF reform will remove some of the current bureaucracy in executing welfare programs and continue to assist single mothers and other women struggling with poverty.

While it may be too early to tell whether certain aspects of Obama’s economic reforms will yield success, data show that women in the U.S., as a whole, have seen increases in weekly median earnings of $77 since the president took office.26 Whether this can be attributed to general economic recovery or some of Obama’s more nuanced policies towards women is unclear at this time. The Bureau of Labor also reports that women made 82.2% of the median earnings for men in the third quarter of 2014 – a slight rise from 79% in January 2009. Census data from 2013 offer a slightly different picture, that the male-to-female earnings ratio has not experienced a significant annual increase since 2007.27

Due to differences of professional opinion, the fact that the pay gap varies widely by sector and occupation, and the lack of comprehensive studies around Obama’s initiatives since 2008, it cannot be determined what the real impact of his policies will be at this time. If anything can be said, it is that standardizing legal procedures around pay discrimination and expanding the social safety net will be beneficial to women of all social classes, but it will take time to measure the extent of this impact.

The Affordable Care Act and Women’s Health

President Obama succeeded in passing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March 2010 with a vision of universal healthcare for all Americans. In spite of the administration’s poor implementation of the rollout and website inadequacies, the ACA has both lowered national uninsured rates and expanded access to public and private healthcare coverage, having major effects on women’s health. Before the ACA, approximately 64 million women in the U.S. lacked good-quality, affordable health insurance, even though reproductive health needs inevitably cause women to interact with the health care system more frequently.

Additionally, 62% of private insurance plans neglected to offer maternity benefits. Obama responded to these inequalities by criticizing insurance companies for charging higher out-of-pocket costs for equal coverage and denying women on the basis of pre-existing conditions, including pregnancy and a history of sexual assault. Although the Affordable Care Act was passed for all Americans, it was especially helpful for women, as it expanded their access to the system and the basic services offered under new plans.

Obama’s healthcare reform is the most significant advancement in women’s health since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid. Under the ACA, no woman can be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition or be charged more for equal coverage. Recent data show that 8.7 million more women have accessed the healthcare system and are seeking preventative care in the form of one free “well woman” visit per year to discuss and schedule services. Single mothers and low-income women have benefitted as well from Medicaid extensions to women with incomes below 133% of federal poverty level - more than double the average state coverage of 61% before the law.28

From this perspective, Obama deserves praise for his achievements. On the other hand, there has been no reform on laws that provide Medicaid coverage to uninsured women for the period that they become pregnant until 60 days after birth.29 Ensuring pre-pregnancy health coverage for women is crucial to the health of the fetus and the success of subsequent pregnancies. From an economic standpoint, preventative care results in better outcomes and saves states money in delivery and postnatal care. To further his comprehensive healthcare policy, Obama might consider mandating the expansion of Medicaid to all states and widening eligibility rules to truly realize his vision of healthcare for all Americans.

The contentious contraception mandate included in the Affordable Care Act was met by stringent backlash by hardline Republicans and right-to-life activists. President Obama made clear that contraception is a necessary and vital component of preventative care that all women should have access no matter their employer or economic status. His belief that women should be in control of their own health is supported by the fact that overall health insurance costs are lower when women can access these services. Obama fought for this mandate, a core component of his initial healthcare proposal, on economic and moral grounds surrounding a woman’s right to choose and right to health.

Unfortunately, concessions made to appease the opposition and help pass the ACA have come at the expense of this mandate. Since the beginning, Obama has acknowledged that this law will burden religion and has taken steps to accommodate religious non-profits. Following the heated Hobby Lobby victory – which expanded exemption to for-profit institutions with strong religious beliefs – the administration put forth weak regulations that alter the forms necessary to notify insurance companies of noncompliance, along with other awkward accommodations to the law. Obama’s poorly construed argument was that contraception could be provided in a less restrictive manner (by insurance companies) if similar concessions were made for for-profits as non-profits.

The ACA has been left battered by years of concessions, leaving many to question Obama’s poor leadership and criticize his tendencies to cave on major proposals in the face of strong opposition. Respect for women’s rights in their entirety will not be realized without federal recognition that all women should have equal access to preventative contraception without the infringement of an employer’s religious belief.

Health insurance for women is vitally important for single mothers, as their children risk losing health insurance should they lose their job. The Joint Economic Committee estimated that at least 276,000 children lost their insurance in 2010 for this reason.30 While President Obama’s healthcare package included the continuation of COBRA coverage31 – allowing women to keep job-based healthcare coverage for up to 18 months –many small businesses are not bound to these regulations. While employed, women face the difficult decision of missing work to care for a sick family member or visit the doctor. Obama re-introduced earned paid sick leave in the Healthy Families Act in May 2009, although the bill ultimately failed to pass. It largely fell by the wayside until Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address where he re-focused attention on the working poor.

Following this speech, Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Rosa DeLauro put momentum behind the Healthy Families Act on the premise that allowing workers to stay home and recover from sickness is beneficial to public health and workplace productivity. Although there is minimal chance it will pass on a federal level, ballot questions on paid sick leave were posed to the public in four jurisdictions in the November 2014 elections, where Massachusetts became the third state to approve this measure. The President’s Budget has proposed a $50 million dollar State Paid Leave Fund in the Department of Labor to help offset the costs for employers and employees, but given Obama’s abysmal record for passing budgetary proposals with a Congress advocating stringent spending cuts, his efforts may very well end up futile.

Provisions of the Affordable Cart Act have dramatically improved women’s access to preventative services and set the stage for future advancements. Although Obama exhibited weakness in pushing for the contraception mandate, he still managed to reform the healthcare system by banning discriminatory pricing and revising laws around pre-existing conditions. Seeing as the Affordable Care Act has not yet been fully rolled out, it is hard to determine the impact it will have on women’s health beyond theorizing that greater access to preventative services will have beneficial outcomes for women and their children.

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