Democrats usually have women voters in the bag. In the 2006 midterm elections, exit polls showed that women voters favored Democrats overall by 12 percentage points. In 2008 Barack Obama got 56 percent of the female vote in the general election. But as Nov. 2 looms, it's become obvious to Democrats that their once comfortable lead among women voters has become painfully small. A recent ABC News-Washington Post generic poll shows that only 47 percent of women say they will vote Democrat in races, while 44 percent say they will vote for Republicans.
In response, the Obama administration has set out to communicate what Democrats have done for women over the last two years. The White House says it has done quite a bit to help ease the economic burden and improve prospects for American women of all stripes. Cecilia Rouse, a member of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, chatted with The Root recently about some of the Obama administration's women-friendly initiatives.
The Root: The administration says it's working toward shrinking or eliminating the gender pay gap, which remains largest for minority women. How do you work to close that gap while addressing the specific needs of minority women?
Cecilia Rouse: The president very much believes that Congress needs to pass the [Paycheck Fairness Act]. One of the first things the president signed was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, so we think it's important that women receive equal pay on the statutory front.
More generally, one of the ways the president is trying to help ensure that women can receive equal pay is to make it easier for many women to balance their responsibilities. Part of the gender gap is explained by women taking jobs that allow them to still be able to take care of their children or take care of their elderly parents while having a good job.
Currently, what many women are forced to do is take a lower-paying job even though they are perfectly qualified for a higher-paying job with more responsibilities. But when firms put in place workplace-flexibility options where workers are paid based on performance, workers are given some choice over the hours they work, or they're given mobile workstations so they can work from home or choose when they can start their start hours and ending hours, all of these arrangements make it easier for women to combine these two responsibilities.
CR: This recession is pretty unusual in that it has been so widespread. For example, in prior recessions, the job loss was particularly focused on one or two sectors, and in this recession the job loss has been much more widely shared. As a result, what we know is that policies need to be focused on really stimulating the entire economy, and what is going to be good for the entire economy is going to be good for all groups of individuals.
[As for the unmarried women with] children, as part of the Recovery Act, we had expansions and extensions of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Millions of women benefited from those expansions and extensions, and it helped to keep millions of them out of poverty with their children. We had expansions and extensions of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit as well. We had the Making Work Pay Tax Credit, which went to 95 percent of American households.
TR: Job training is one of the women-friendly initiatives the administration has pointed to. Has anything been done to make it easier for women to leave the home for job training, such as child care assistance?
CR: In addition [to the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit], one of the focuses, in terms of job training, has been on really providing unprecedented investment in the community-college sector. We have a $2 billion investment over the next five or six years. One of the uses of those funds that we believe is very important is actually providing those kinds of support services so that women with children can find the time to be a mother and know that their children are safe, and at the same time go to class and invest in themselves.
TR: Besides what's been reported about the new health care law in the media, what should American women know about the law and what it might do for them?
CR: [The bill] tries to standardize benefits and does not allow health-insurance companies to charge differential premiums — for example for women versus men. [The bill also] has defined minimal essential benefits that include mammography and coverage during pregnancy.
Lauren Williams is The Root's associate editor.
Lauren is a former Deputy Editor of The Root.