Susan Feiner

Three Steps for Women to Weather the Stormy Economy

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.

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Consider Boycotting Holiday Shopping

Female shoppers, beware.

It's November and that means that Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year -- is lurking at the end of the month, raising the risk of a post-holiday debt hangover.

Twenty-three percent of Americans will not pay off their holiday debt until March or later, equaling $14.6 billion in interest-accruing debt, according to a Consumer Reports 2006 survey. Over one-quarter of Americans use credit cards most often when holiday shopping, contributing to the $63.6 billion charged on credit cards throughout the shopping season.

Since as much as 75 percent of retailers' profits accrue during the holiday season, Black Friday represents the point in time when retailers' account books shift from red (debt) to black (profit).

But black fades into red when we switch our standpoint to the consumer's perspective.

The money flowing into cash registers accentuates the red tide of consumer debt, which is especially toxic for women, whose bankruptcy filings have risen ninefold in the past 20 years, according to research published in the Brooklyn Law Review. Women Aren't Profligate

It's not that women are profligate in their spending, at the holidays or otherwise.

Yes, Women's Wear Daily may tell us that "yuletide bling" appeals to multiple generations of women and that "jewel-encrusted bras, camisoles embellished with feathers and silky crotch-less panties sold like hot cakes last year."

This could tempt you to think that women have become downright hysterical in their spending. But more methodical research tells us that when it comes to overspending our society has achieved a rare gender balance; both sexes do it to pretty much to the same extent.

Instead, overspending during the holidays is a women's issue in particular for a very simple reason: we can afford it less. That's because we continue to earn less -- 75 cents to the dollar on average -- and we are also less likely to have other financial safeguards such as jobs with good health care and pension benefits.

Much more often than men, women are using consumer credit to pay for life's necessities. Retailers Worried

Retailers, meanwhile, are clearly worried that spending will not match the double-digit sales gains of the last several seasons, which gets us to the real warning of the story.

In 2006 companies spent a staggering $209.74 billion on advertising. The results of all that money are, in their immensity, difficult if not impossible to either avoid or ignore.

Advertisers target women for a simple reason: We do about 85 percent of all consumer spending. The constant buzz of advertising is, as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once put it, "relentless propaganda on behalf of goods."

The array of available goods grows daily, and so inevitably does the list of what we know we don't have. This induces a perpetual state of wanting, and millions of us heed the siren call of malls, department stores, upscale boutiques, downscale discounters and everything in between.

It's all particularly dangerous for women who head households. Saving a portion of your earnings is an essential element of long-term financial security, but a recent report in the Survey of Consumer Finances, says 53 percent of female household heads spend all or more than all of their incomes.

The dominant media doesn't want to focus on the systemic reasons for women's financial problems. Instead they focus, as usual, on self-improvement, running endless how-to articles about ending impulse spending, making a list and sticking to it, cutting back on your make-up routine, finding a less expensive hair salon, and don't forget the $64,000 question: Do your finances need a makeover? Social Policy Void

This individualist focus misses a deeper point: there is no social policy working to protect people from the aggressive influence of marketing; that not enough is being done to make sure women have more workplace equity.

Women as individuals and consumers should, of course, develop habits that get them off the consumer escalator. Read a book, take a walk, talk to a friend instead of reaching for that credit card. Sure.

But there's more to the story than any one woman's individual behavior.

For one thing, there's recent political history. Over the past 25 years, kicked off by the massive tax cuts of the Reagan era, income in the United States has been distributed less and less equally. That has created a huge gulf between the very rich, the posh well-to-do, and the rest of us.

Not only ads, but entertainment programming such as "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" make people earning $35,000 a year desire the ways and means of those earning $135,000. Economist and social commentator Juliet Schor describes the new consumerism as a cycle of "see, want, borrow, buy."

So when we think about consumerism as part of social policy -- rather than a simple set of "free" individual choices -- it becomes obvious that our national fascination with "more" is being driven by policies designed to reduce public attention to the values that sustain us as a community.

As citizens we value parks, clean energy, recreation, housing, and the environment. But the share of federal spending devoted to these public goods has been declining since the beginning of the conservative attack on government in 1981 when these were 11 percent of the federal budget. Spending in these areas is now a mere 8.6 percent of federal spending.

Households strapped to make monthly home, car and credit card payments are not likely to look fondly on spending to enhance community life. Funding for health care, parks, public recreation, elder care, child care, transportation and education become less palatable.

So with that in mind, maybe the best approach to the day after Thanksgiving this year -- rather than rushing around the mall -- is to join anti-consumer, pro-environment activists in Buy Nothing Day.

After all it's a political campaign season. With all the time we save by not shopping we can start looking over the candidates. Who's talking about women's pay and benefits disparities? Who's talking about health care, park, public recreation, child care, transportation, education?

Susan Feiner is professor of women's studies and economics at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Which Dem Has the Most Woman-Friendly Health Plan?

So who's got the most women-friendly health care plan?

Is it Hillary, Obama or Edwards?

Answer: none of the above.

Only Dennis Kucinich offers what women really need: single-payer, universal health care.

To the others I have one question: Why are you ignoring over 50 years of experience in our peer nations, which show that the public provision of health care delivers far better results at far lower costs?

The national disparities in women's deaths between the United States and countries such as Canada, France and Germany are horrendous.

In the United States there are 77 female deaths from heart disease per 100,000 women, according to current World Health Organization data. In Germany that first key number is 68; in Canada 54; in France 21. For pulmonary disease the U.S. performance is even worse. The rate per 100,000 in the United States is 33; in Canada 13. In France and Germany it's 7.

But universal health insurance does more than fight the diseases that afflict women. By extending better coverage and care to everyone it goes to the heart of women's major inequity: our lower work-force participation due to the time we spend taking care of the preschoolers, sick kids, elderly parents and disabled spouses.

Women's wages are often reported to be about 80 percent of men's. But that figure seriously understates the actual loss of earnings due to gender and caretaking. The 2004 report "Still a Man's Labor Market" by the Women's Institute for Policy Research puts the gap closer to 60 percent.

But the proposals by the Big 3 will not stop women from being the ones to leave work -- or not even attempt it at all -- when the health care system breaks down.

Nice Features

All three plans have some nice features. All call for a ban on the insurer practice of "adverse risk selection," which means enrolling healthy people and rejecting those more likely to require doctors, hospitals and medicine. All allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

But each plan shortchanges women in some similar ways.

For starters, each relies on tax credits to help people buy health insurance -- the purchase of which will be mandatory -- from existing private, mostly for-profit, insurers.

Do tax credits really help women, given that women earn considerably less than men? No. The value of tax credits decline as income falls so the more generous the tax credit the greater the benefit to the highest earners: men.

The trio of plans by Hillary, Obama and Edwards are also equally hard on women by requiring some level of out-of-pocket payments.

Even when women have insurance coverage their economic insecurity means they are more likely than men to economize on their medications and minimize follow-up treatment. All of this was first reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation and confirmed earlier this year by a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Caretakers Need a Real Break

The three private insurer-based plans are also identically stingy toward caretakers.

Some plans -- Hillary's and Edwards' -- would cover respite care to help caregivers. Edwards offers up flextime, longer leave periods and paid leaves to help "parents" balance work and family.

Although well intentioned these policies reinforce the social expectation that women will be able to meet the daily needs of those who cannot help themselves.

If, for example, federal legislation required employers to grant flextime to help care for the elderly, our social expectations of women would mean that any one of them who didn't use this option -- who didn't toss aside her paying job to assume this role -- would be subject to criticism.

And the news media wouldn't shy from broadcasting every report -- however marginal or questionable its methodology -- that showed how much better it is for the elderly to be in the care of a daughter than a professional attendant.

The U.S. health care crisis -- which left 47 million uninsured in 2006 -- is driven by escalating costs, high co-payments, skyrocketing drug prices, minimal preventive care and over-hospitalization (combined, ironically, with such short stays that the families of discharged patients must learn advanced nursing skills overnight).

None of the Big 3 addresses the fundamental cause of this crisis, which is not consumer behavior, employer stinginess or insufficient competition.

Instead, the high costs are traceable to the for-profit organization of the medical-industrial complex.

One need not have an MBA -- or even to have viewed Michael Moore's diatribe against the U.S. system in "Sicko" -- to know that insurance company profits rise with every claim that is denied, or delayed, delayed again and then processed incorrectly.

Eventually some customers give up thinking, "It's only $25," "It's only $50" and "It's only $1,000."

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