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Three Steps for Women to Weather the Stormy Economy

The economic rescue plan must be bigger and more tailored to women.

Now that President Barack Obama is buckling down to business, it's time for women to do the same about the economic rescue program at the heart of his domestic agenda.

Early in November feminist economist Randy Albelda voiced concern about Obama's macho economic recovery plan, which faces its first test today with a scheduled vote before the U.S. House of Representatives. About a month later, the writer and lawyer Linda Hirshman made a similar argument in a New York Times op-ed.

These efforts helped spur a group of progressive economists, myself included, to form a group called W.E.A.V.E., Women's Equality Adds Value to the Economy.

In the past few weeks we have gathered over 1,200 signatures.

We are pushing three basic steps to help tens of millions of women -- and their children -- weather the stormy economy.

No. 1: Revive and enforce Labor Department regulations requiring affirmative action for all federal contractors.

No. 2: Set aside apprenticeship and training programs in infrastructure projects for women and people of color. Both groups are seriously underrepresented in the construction trades.

No. 3: Spend recovery money on projects in health, child care, education and social services.

Before going into detail on these three targets, let's also look at two over-arching problems with the current plan: Too meager, too male.

Oversights Begin With the Players

Addressing these problems must begin by adding fresh faces to Obama's economic recovery team; people who can "weave" the themes of this commentary into the overall economic planning.

Leading the way right now is Larry Summers, the new head of the National Economic Council. His nomination set off a collective groan among self-respecting women because he is by now notorious for questioning women's innate ability to "do" math and science when he was president of Harvard. To paraphrase economist Barbara Bergmann, to say that Larry Summers is not a feminist is like saying a Bengal tiger is not a vegetarian.

The administration's current advisors are also deficit hawks who have designed a rescue package that's just over 1 percent of GDP, or $850 billion. That's not enough. An adequate plan would be at least 10 percent of GDP, or about $1.3 trillion.

"Spending at these levels is critical for everyone, especially women," James Galbraith, a University of Texas professor of economics and government, and author of "The Predator State," told me.

Galbraith went on to say that generous federal support for states and localities -- which are forced to balance budgets and have, as a result, been laying off workers and cutting back services -- is the single most important thing for women's jobs.

Forty-four states have immediate combined budget deficits of $42 billion, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and in two to three years that could widen to $350 billion.

Unless the president and Congress step in, we could see wave after wave of collapsing local services. Direct care for children, the disabled and the elderly will disappear. Education and health will suffer massive cuts. These are vital community services and employ huge numbers of women.

Galbraith has also said women would disproportionately benefit from an increase in Social Security benefits since many more women than men depend solely on this form of retirement income.

The same goes for a payroll tax holiday. The deductions from paychecks for Social Security and Medicaid are highly regressive, hitting low-wage workers much harder. Workers play a flat payroll tax of 8.3 percent of income up to $106,800. Employers also pay 8.3 percent but most economists agree that this is passed on to workers as lower wages.

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