The Gender Gap

The Gender Gap

A Feminist Economist Explains how Women Have Been Hit by the Financial Downturn


Professor Randy Albelda is a feminist economist from the U.S. with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A leading specialist on poverty and gender, she has worked as research director of the Massachusetts State Senate's Taxation Committee, and has taught at the University of Massachusetts Boston for 22 years. Albelda sat down with I.M.O.W. to discuss gender disparities in the U.S. economic crisis at last year's International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) conference.

International Museum of Women: As a feminist economist, how would you explain how the financial crisis has affected women in particular?

Randy Albelda: Everyone has been affected by the financial crisis, but there are two distinct factors that are different for women. One reason this crisis is different for women this time around is that many more women are employed, are earning income, and are essentially breadwinners for themselves or their families than ever before. Thirty percent of households are women-led households.

The other crucial difference is that single women were the fastest growing segment of people purchasing new homes over the last 10 or 15 years. They are disproportionately victims of the sub-prime mortgage lenders; they got to the gravy train just as it was pulling away. And that's wealth-stripping, particularly for the poverty-stricken who were told to get in this ownership society, and once they did, they lost their assets.

IMOW: Do you think women were targeted by predatory lending?

RA: Yes, because they were the fastest growing segment-particularly women of color. One-third of women borrowers had subprime mortgages , compared to 1/4 of men. An African-American woman was 2.5 more likely to receive a subprime loan than a white woman or Latino woman.

IMOW: What about unemployment? News reports say that more men are unemployed than women.

RA: It's true that men's unemployment rates are higher than women. Typically, the leading sectors are affected by financial crises first, and in the US those tend to be construction and, to some degree, manufacturing. Other sectors where women are a majority were hit quite hard-for example, the temp industry, which is about 60% female. Almost as many jobs have been lost in that industry as in construction. I think we will see women's unemployment rates catch up, and eventually we're going to see unemployment trickle down to other, lower-wage sectors where women workers are the majority.

IMOW: Let's go back to what you mentioned earlier about women being the primary breadwinners for 30 percent of households. How will these households be affected by the crisis? Are there any favorable policies for single mothers?

RA: No, and in fact single mothers are in an extremely tough spot thanks to some of our social welfare policies. There's a policy that says single moms need to go to work too, that we're not going to give them cash assistance, and this is how governments have tried to encourage mothers to be employed. Yet at the same time, governments haven't changed their basic framework of social welfare programs that were meant for people who didn't have much income. So a lot of low-income mothers find themselves in a real bind: they don't make enough money to pay for their needs and they don't have support from their employers, yet they earn too much to receive government assistance. So we haven't changed the rules, but family structures have changed. The breadwinners have changed, but the policies haven't reflected that.

IMOW: Have you seen any significant policy changes since the financial crisis that you think will be helpful for people trying to get back on their feet?

RA: There were substantial changes in unemployment insurance provisions in the stimulus package that tried to extend unemployment for people for longer than the normal period. But in the US, only 40% of unemployed workers actual qualify for unemployment insurance. These temporary changes from the stimulus helped to modernize the unemployment policy so that it applies to part time and low wage workers, which is a step in the right direction. But remember, these are temporary changes.

So changes are happening, but a lot more slowly than I would want. There has to be a drum beat-we need to modernize our employment structures, to modernize our policies, and public support programs that we have. Sometimes I think that we won't have change in America unless we take to the streets.

IMOW: Do you see that coming to America?

RA: It's hard to say. There are many groups in the US that are particularly aggrieved by this situation, like students. Students have egregious levels of debt, and that's only been escalating in the past 10 to 15 years. And unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds is almost up to 20%. Young people are getting hit really hard; they are the ones who need to take to the streets. Homeowners with low levels of assets should also get more involved. But we're a fairly complacent society on that level. I would like to say that I see more organizing going on, but I haven't. Change certainly won't come from the inside, from experts and academia. I think everyone needs to do their part.


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