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A Good Job Is Hard to Find

The conservative movement's obsession with gender roles is keeping women poor.
 
 
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President Bush is betting $500 million that poor women are better off having a man than holding a job.

American women are 40 percent more likely than men to be poor. In fact, 90 percent of welfare recipients are women. While the Bush administration pours money into ineffective marriage-promotion programs, it ignores what may be the best bet for women to lift themselves out of poverty -- "men's work."

Last month, President Bush committed $100 million a year for the next five years to a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" as part of the welfare reform bill reauthorization. This move diverts funds from programs that have proven successful -- such as education, child care and job training -- and gives money to often religious-based programs that tell women marriage is the best way out of poverty.

The Bush administration swears up and down that the programs are simply common sense. Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services touts marriage promotion as helping "couples who choose marriage for themselves gain greater access, on a voluntary basis, to services where they can develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage."

Sounds innocuous enough, but the goal of this initiative isn't about helping people have healthy marriages, it's about ensuring that they have "traditional" marriages. In fact, President Bush cited his Healthy Marriage Initiative in the same breath that he defined marriage as a heterosexual institution in a 2003 statement on the creation of " Marriage Protection Week."

"Marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and my administration is working to support the institution of marriage by helping couples build successful marriages and be good parents," he said. "To encourage marriage and promote the well-being of children, I have proposed a healthy marriage initiative to help couples develop the skills and knowledge to form and sustain healthy marriages."

But a traditional marriage isn't just one that's between a man and a woman. For this administration, it's one where women don't work.

Looking at the content of the programs reveals the administration's real motives. In 2004, one of the Bush administration's first marriage promotion programs was charged with sex discrimination. The Family Formation and Development Project in Allentown, Penn., a 12-week marriage education course for unmarried couples with children, offered employment services as part of the program -- but only to male participants. Another program, the biblically based Marriage Savers, makes the case for marriage using logic that sounds like it came from a 1950s home ec textbook: "The married man won't go to work hung over, exhausted or tardy because of fewer bachelor habits, and because he eats better and sees the doctor sooner, thanks to his wife. She is also a good adviser on career decisions, and relieves him of chores, so he can do a better job."

The message is clear: men should be the breadwinners, and women should be dependent on them. What Bush wants is happy housewives. What actually works is a different story.

Jobs traditionally associated with men -- like construction work, mechanics and firefighting -- have proven to be a viable way for low-income women and women without a college education to make more money. The hours are flexible (a must for women with children), the money is great and there's great potential for career growth.

While any job training is preferable to pushing tired sexist stereotypes about poverty and marriage, nontraditional jobs are much better paying than "pink collar" professions. Legal Momentum, a women's legal rights organization, reports that in 1996 the average weekly earnings for cashiers, waitresses and hairdressers ranged between $200 to $300, while those for women rail workers and women electricians were $700 and $800, respectively. Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), a New York-based organization that trains over 200 women a year in skilled trades, reports that the annual income for a home health-care aide is $18,000; for a construction worker it's $53,000. A testimonial from one of NEW's graduates says it all:

"When I first got into construction, I was very close to applying for welfare. Now I have my own home. I have a brand-new car. My daughter is in private school. I'm getting ready to buy another house. As far as the American dream, I was able to achieve that by doing this work."

Despite the obvious benefits of training and recruiting women to nontraditional fields, it's just not happening on a national scale. Nonprofit groups and local organizations are making headway, but government funding and support is far from adequate.

Funding for the Women in Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Occupations Act (WANTO) was eliminated from the Department of Labor's budget in 2004, and according to Tradeswomen Now and Tomorrow (TNT), this was "the only national stream of funding directed to support women in nontraditional occupations." While WANTO was restored in the 2006 Labor-HHS Appropriations bill, the funding is paltry compared to Bush's $100 million a year for marriage -- WANTO got less than $1 million. And on a local level, women welfare recipients just aren't being told that these jobs are even an option. According to the ACLU, caseworkers often steer women to only pink collar professions, which are generally the lowest-paying jobs available.

Under an administration where women's rights are being rolled back across the board, it's no surprise that the idea of a woman in a "man's job" isn't exactly popular. But when enforcing gender roles takes priority over a common sense approach to getting women out of poverty, we're in serious trouble. It's time that the Bush adminstration gets its policy on poor women out of the dark ages and onto a construction site.

Jessica Valenti is the executive editor of Feministing.