Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Remember the ladies for this Economic Stimulus Plan

guest commentary
Remember the ladies
By Jared Polis
Posted: 01/27/2009 12:30:00 AM MST

"In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."
— Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776

The economic recovery package before Congress this week is largely devoted to infrastructure investment — transportation and school projects, energy-efficiency improvements, and green economy investments such as smart grid expansions — to jump-start our economy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Unfortunately, while President Barack Obama is to be applauded for proposing such a robust investment, the proposed infrastructure spending overwhelmingly benefits men and won't be of much help to unemployed women. Without efforts to increase workforce diversity, this could lead to a massive shift of hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth from women to men.

Public works spending during the New Deal disproportionately employed men, but women comprised only 22 percent of the workforce in 1930. Doing nothing to redress this inequity was a mistake then and it would be an even greater mistake now.

Today, women make up nearly half — 46 percent — of the total U.S. labor force, but only 9.4 percent of the construction industry. While the overall unemployment rates of women and men have been similar since 2000, women with children experience much higher unemployment rates. Worse still, there is evidence that women who lose their jobs face a harder time finding new jobs than their male counterparts.

We must not let this gender imbalance lessen the impact of this much-needed investment or hinder our economic recovery. A few simple steps, if incorporated into the economic recovery package, could help ensure that infrastructure investment can and will benefit women.

First, we should expand the U.S. Department of Labor's Women in Apprenticeship and Non-traditional Occupations (WANTO) grant program that "awards competitive grants to recruit, hire, train, and retain women in apprenticeships and non-traditional occupations."

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006 allows states to use funds for "preparing students for employment in fields that are traditionally dominated by one gender." Not only should funding for the Perkins Act increase, but the program should be more narrowly geared toward gender diversification in infrastructure-related jobs through gender equity set-asides and the reestablishment of equity coordinators.

Second, we should increase the targets for female employment by federal construction contractors and require them to design and implement plans for hiring and retaining qualified female workers. Selection criteria for contracts could include assessments of these strategies and past performance. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance should rigorously enforce implementation.

Third, we should provide incentives for companies employing women. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit encourages employers to hire members of families receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, among other disadvantaged populations, whose beneficiaries are overwhelmingly women. Increasing the size of the credit would make it an even stronger incentive for employers.

These steps can be implemented swiftly. During World War II, with the urgent need to ramp up war production, women entered traditionally male jobs that necessitated skilled training — welding, iron molding, skilled machine work — within months.

We must ensure that the biggest jobs program since the Great Depression does not redistribute America's wealth away from women and funnel their federal taxes and debt obligations into paying for jobs for men.

Incorporating these changes would meet both the immediate needs of the recovery package and the long-term goals of improving the skill and preparation of our workforce by offering a future filled with greater economic security for women and their families.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis represents Colorado's 2nd District.


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