WMC News & Features

Budget 2011: What Will Women Gain?

If a budget is the ultimate statement of values, the Obama Administration deserves some good marks for attending to women’s needs in an austere time.

After President Obama released his budget proposal for 2011 Monday, news reports focused on three things: the increased size of the deficit, the new government spending freeze and the end of tax breaks for the rich, the oil companies and the hedge fund managers. If readers made it through budget coverage foretelling the end of American civilization, they might have read that Obama’s spending freeze doesn’t include defense or homeland security spending; but even if they dug really deep, they might not have noticed that the budget itself doesn’t take into account “supplementary” spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How does the budget affect ordinary Americans—let alone American women? In between repeating talking points from the administration and its political opponents, reporters seemingly don’t have time to read the whole thing and figure it out for themselves.

On the scale of things, however, the budget does a number of pretty decent things for America’s women—which, since it’s been a year since Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and six months since Congressional leaders sold abortion access down the river in its health care reform—seems pretty well-timed. And, if the budget and the proposed tax credits for new jobs aren’t responsive to criticisms that last year’s stimulus package disproportionately favored male-dominated employment categories, they do a better job of parceling out benefits to small businesses and any business willing to hire new workers without overtly favoring industries that hire men.

The proposed budget’s assistance to America’s women includes adding $1.6 billion for child care to Department of Health and Human Services funding; spending $3 billion on HIV prevention, testing and treatment; spending $183 to prevent teen pregnancy—including $22 million on “science based prevention approaches”; and extending the federal matching funds to state child support enforcement initiatives. The budget also includes a 22 percent increase for programs that aid victims of domestic violence for a total of $535 million. But where the HHS Budget giveth, it also taketh away: it provides $500 million to “a new Fatherhood, Marriage, and Families Innovation Fund” for the states, described as funding “responsible fatherhood programs, including those that incorporate healthy marriage components and demonstrations geared towards improving child outcomes by improving outcomes for custodial parents with serious barriers to self sufficiency.” At least it requires states to review the efficacy of such programs, which are often geared at encouraging marriage-at-any-cost mindsets rather than assistance for battered spouses or effective counseling for abusers. One wonders what uses shelters for victims of violence, and Legal Aid programs that help abused partners escape abusive situations, might have for the extra money if their aid was doubled, rather than spent on experiments to encourage marriage among lower-income Americans.

The Agriculture budget includes a 13 percent increase over 2010 for food stamps, due to an uptick in expected demand, and money to expand access to farmer’s markets. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs will get only a 4.6 percent increase over 2010—still above the current rate of inflation—and includes money to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables covered under the program as well as $83 million for Breastfeeding Peer Counseling (an increase of $10 million).

On the bad side, however, the President decided to eliminate the provision of the Earned Income Tax Credit law that allowed recipients to collect their expected EITC payment in advance as part of their paycheck. According to the President, 80 percent of recipients didn’t comply with one or more of the programs requirements, which is about the same percentage of people that the banks claim are ineligible for mortgage modification assistance due to faulty paperwork. The EITC is a complex program with significant paperwork requirements for people often unfamiliar with the complexities of tax law and government bureaucracy, and eliminating a source of income for many working mothers mired in poverty, rather than simplifying the process, will likely prove more of a hardship than the $120 million in savings will benefit the bottom line.

On the international side, with the State Department being the biggest winner of the budget fight this year—getting an overall 2.8 percent increase in funding despite the spending freeze—programs serving women abroad will share in the bounty. Global health initiatives, including programs to reduce child and maternal mortality and prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, will get a 9 percent increase in 2011. It’s one way of keeping Secretary Clinton’s commitment to international women’s issues alive, even though they’ve often taken a backseat to other concerns at the White House.

Overall, the President’s budget does try, in a difficult environment, to keep the promises Obama made to this nation’s women during his campaign in 2008. Whether they survive the Congressional process—Congress added back in funding for abstinence-only education last year, for instance—remains to be seen, as does this administration’s willingness to fight for what they’ve said they believe in.

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