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Op-Ed

Will white women in Georgia put family or culture war first?

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Editor's Note:

This article originally appeared in the New York Times on November 25, 2020.

In the run-up to Election Day, there was a lot of talk about the gender gap and the importance of the women’s vote for Joe Biden’s chances. In some polls, Mr. Biden was leading President Trump by as much as 23 points among likely female voters. The actual gap, according to an early CNN exit poll, may be closer to a far smaller 15 points.

Most of the help that female voters provided to Mr. Biden came from women of color, and especially from Black women. Despite all the talk of suburban women moving toward Mr. Biden, with the clear implication that these suburbanites were white, it was women of color in and around cities like Atlanta and Philadelphia who were most responsible for his victory. A majority of white women voted for Mr. Trump, by an 11-point margin.

Morgan Welch

Senior Research Assistant & Project Coordinator - Brookings Institution

True, they didn’t vote for him by as large a margin as did white men, and if college-educated, they tipped toward Mr. Biden. Still, given Mr. Trump’s well-known tendencies to denigrate women and his administration’s failure to structurally improve their communities, this depth of support for him may come as surprising.

Mr. Trump has tried to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, made court appointments that threaten Roe v. Wade, and reduced access to contraception. And he has vacillated on further relief to deal with a pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on women’s employment and economic well-being.

In 2004, Thomas Frank published his best-selling book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” which argued that his fellow Kansans were voting against their economic self-interest because of hot-button cultural issues. Perhaps now we should be asking, “What’s the Matter With White Women?” Are they voting on cultural rather than economic issues? Are many simply following their husbands’ lead? For some, it would seem so.

In contrast to Mr. Trump, the president-elect has a comprehensive agenda to materially improve women’s lives, including paid leave and child care, equal pay, reproductive choice, higher wages and benefits for teachers and care workers, as well as support for the Equal Rights Amendment. Mr. Biden has plans to create a White House Council on Gender Equality, and his growing interest in student debt cancellation will greatly benefit women, who by certain estimates hold two-thirds of such debt.

Mr. Biden’s ability to carry out his agenda now depends on what happens in two Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January; the results will determine which party controls the Senate. Black women, once again, may hold the key, but they will need white women to join forces with them if the two Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, are to win.

Why should we care about Georgia? Because Mr. Biden’s ability to address issues that significantly affect women — such as child care, paid leave and reproductive health care — depends on it. And because women are not only half the population but have also become the backbone of the economy over the last few decades.

Mr. Biden’s ability to address issues that significantly affect women — such as child care, paid leave and reproductive health care — depends on what happens in Georgia.

As new Brookings research shows, virtually all of the growth in middle-class incomes since 1979 is a result of the rise in women’s work hours and wages. Over 40 percent of all mothers are either the sole or the primary breadwinners for their families, and 70 percent of couples are now dual earners. Because men’s wages have stagnated, without the contributions of women, middle-class incomes would have been flat between 1979 and 2018.

While the rise in women’s work and wages has enabled middle-class families to inch ahead, it has worsened what we call “the time squeeze.” That is the enormous pressure that is felt among two-earner families with children and among single parents to balance work and family life. This squeeze has tightened in the pandemic. Women, especially women of color, suffered the biggest economic damage. For mothers, the closing of schools and day care centers combined with women’s disproportionate responsibilities for child care have increased the burden.

In interviews and focus groups with middle-class families in 2019 and 2020, we heard about these problems over and over again.

As one mother said, “It’s very hard if you’re working and you have your kid at home that needs to be taken here or there, sports, and it’s like, there’s not enough time in the day to make meals and do your laundry and it’s like, ‘Ah!’”

A working mother who has two children with Type 1 diabetes spoke of the tax on her mind and body: “I have to support my family and it’s very hard,” she said. “By the time I’m done with my day, I’m mentally and physically drained.”

We propose some ways to ease the time squeeze. For starters, paid family and medical leave is a must. Many employers and some states do provide various forms of paid leave, but those policies and practices have so far mainly benefited higher-paid workers.

We propose a paid leave policy financed by payroll taxes that could be used for the birth of a child, family care, or an extended illness. It would be linked to wages (up to a certain limit) and cover up to 12 weeks of leave. This is not a new proposal; it is embedded in the Family Act, which was sponsored by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, in addition to having the support of the Biden campaign.

What is new is one of our other proposals: aligning the school day with the workday. School schedules are a holdover from the days when women stayed home and children were needed to work on the farm in the summer. While the most common work schedule is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the most common school schedule is 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. More closely aligning these times, and providing access to after-school (and perhaps summer) care for most elementary and middle school children, would ease the time squeeze for working parents, especially the hassles and costs related to finding after-school child care.

This proposal would use sliding-scale fees to make sure that needy families had full access, and entail federal subsidies to local school districts to nudge them toward needed changes. These extra hours could also be used to expand opportunities for catch-up learning among children who are falling behind in the pandemic. Add to this reform package universal pre-K programs and a more generous child care tax credit, and many families would be much better off.

The sad news is that — unless Southern women save the day — Republicans will remain in control of the Senate and nothing much is likely to get done in Congress. There will be too little affordable child care; birth control and abortions will be harder to obtain; and we will remain the only advanced country without a paid leave policy to cover illness, caregiving or the birth of a child.

White women in Georgia, as the crucial swing voting bloc in these runoff races, have a clear choice between upholding a sclerotic status quo and enabling a corrosive culture war or giving their state, and the country, a chance at removing major burdens that are crushing families’ budgets, and taking away their quality time.

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