Time for creative thinking

Lawmakers busy drafting the big jobs bill for President Obama’s signature early next year need to stay focused on two things – fairness and creativity – to think beyond the kind of traditional public-works program President-elect Obama has talked about, even with his 21st-century addition of “green” jobs. That kind of stimulus package would do hardly anything for the 46 percent of the labor force that is female. That’s where fairness comes in. A bill centered on construction projects also does nothing about a major economic issue facing many families – the price of healthcare. Congress can fix both of those problems by looking to a bill passed during another dire economic downturn 25 years ago.

After the 1982 election, with unemployment topping 10 percent, a lame-duck Congress convened to pass an economic-stimulus plan. While the House Appropriations Committee penned provisions for highways and bridges, plus a whole lot of pork, the women in Congress (and there were only 21 of them) rose up to remind their colleagues of the recent results. More women had voted than men that November, and it was their votes that had bolstered the House Democratic numbers for the next Congress, and chipped away at the Republican majority in the Senate.



A jobs bill would have to include more than public works, the women insisted, public service would have to be in there as well. The women also saw the congressional willingness to spend money as an opportunity to address another problem – the growing numbers of homeless and hungry people in the country, many of them children. The Appropriations Committee responded by writing a bill funding childcare centers and home healthcare workers, among other measures, and establishing the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.

When President Reagan threatened a veto, the House shelved the stimulus bill until early the next year when the new, more Democratic Congress passed it handily. Not only was the package fair – putting both men and women to work in the short run – but 25 years later the food and shelter program can be counted as a federal success story. Distressed families in more than 2,500 cities and counties have turned to it when they find themselves temporarily without homes or food as a result of natural disasters or economic downturns. The program also prevents homelessness by stepping in to pay a month’s rent or mortgage, or utility bills, in order to tide a family over a rough economic spot.

The creativity comes in the private/public mix that runs the program. It’s governed by a board made up of nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross and the United Way, with a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as its chair. Originally funded with $50 million in 1983, the food and shelter program has now handed out more than $3 billion directly to families – with minimal administrative costs and no bulky bureaucracy.

The new stimulus package could serve as a similar lifeline for the 47 million Americans without health insurance. As unemployment grows, the problem of health coverage will grow with it, and women will be affected worse than men. A healthy woman who loses her insurance when she’s laid off from a job is likely to face bills up to 48 percent more than a man of the same age if she tries to buy private insurance. That discrimination is still legal in most states.

Universal health coverage advocates should jump on this opportunity. A Congress willing to spend money should send an infusion to states struggling to pay for health services for lower-income families and children. Those families would then have more money to spend to boost the economy, and states not saddled with huge medical bills could use their funds for other programs.

To cut down on costs, state healthcare reformers have promoted disease prevention and increased primary care, to stave off the expense of sophisticated procedures or hospital stays. And that means jobs for women, since nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants often provide first-line care.

Including healthcare in the economic-stimulus package would go a long way toward remedying the sex bias that is inherent in a pure public-works bill – it would help solve the fairness problem. And it could be an important first step toward the goal of assuring every American adequate medical care. All it takes is some creativity. Let’s see if the Congress and the new president can provide it.

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

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