Following the Money
Women and the U.S. Budget: Where the Money Goes and What You Can Do About It
by Jane Midgley
Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2005, 202 pp., $16.95, paperback
Reviewed by Randy Albelda
Women and their children have an economic relationship with the government different from that of men in at least two important ways. First, women are major beneficiaries of government spending. They have significant caregiving responsibilities that circumscribe their labor market activity, forcing them to rely on family members—in particular, husbands or partners—for income. But families and the labor market often fail women, so they turn to the state as a supporter of last resort. From social security to workplace training to TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), women are much more likely than men to depend on government benefits. While this is not unilaterally true (for example, in the cases of unemployment insurance and military expenditures on troops and weaponry), public spending priorities have a significant impact on the lives of women in particular.
A second distinction concerns women as taxpayers. At all levels—federal, state, and local—the rich pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than the poor. And while inequality among women has complicated the issue of women’s economic position, women (and children) often find themselves at the bottom of the income ladder. As a result, women pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than men.
For decades, Jane Midgley has been at the forefront of calling women’s attention to the US federal budget, making the connections among how the government spends and taxes and women’s interests. She links these economic issues to others of importance to women—most prominently those of war and peace and economic systems in general. This book nicely reflects Midgley’s political work.
She divides her book into three parts. The first discusses how the federal budget works: where the money comes from (taxes); where it goes (spending); and who gets to decide (the political process around the budget). The second part puts the federal budget in the context of the larger US and global economy. The third part argues for new ways to envision the federal budget that would advance women’s economic equality and suggests ways feminists can act upon this vision.
Midgley is not an academic, and she does not write for academics. Those looking for empirical evidence and a stream of carefully documented sources for her claims about corporate concentration and power or the ways in which women’s needs are ignored will not find them. Instead, the book is a polemic geared toward a popular audience. Midgley wants to educate women and rile them up about the gendered implications of the US budget. In her preface she enlists her readers as “public investigators” (PIs), asking them to examine the many ways in which congressional and presidential priorities and decisions regarding tax and spending issues affect women’s lives and livelihoods—even as women are hardly represented in the debates. She intersperses her text with boxes she calls “PI pull-outs” that call attention to her main points.
Midgley’s project is often overlooked in feminist politics. I became acutely aware of how important tax policies are for unions, women’s groups, and poor people’s organizations when I served as the research director for the taxation committee of the Massachusetts state legislature during the 1980s. With the exception of public sector union representatives, the lobbyists who had the most influence on tax bills before the legislature—representatives of specific corporate interests as well as conservative citizen’s groups promoting lower taxes, including those on the rich—were fighting hard to reduce taxes. Those advocating for women’s issues were looking to increase spending but paid little or no attention to how the money was to be raised. So as men in suits were successfully whittling state coffers, those representing women were politely asking for more. Those days, when not at work, I spent a good deal of my time talking to small groups of feminist advocates and human service lobbyists about women and state and local taxation. The bright, well-informed, and savvy activists understood their own programs and how the budget and legislative process works, but they were sorely lacking in information about on how the budget relates to the economy as a whole, how taxes work, and how both affect women in particular. While human service advocates are more tax savvy today, I’m not sure feminists are. This book, which brings together taxes, spending, and political decision-making and connects them to the larger economic system as well as to national and international feminist efforts in a readable and friendly form is an important contribution.
While I am excited that Midgley’s book exists, it has some problems that diminish its usefulness. Midgley takes on corporate power and capitalism throughout the first two sections of the book. She effectively calls attention to corporations’ enormous influence on tax and spending policies and shows how they use their influence to serve their own interests—not women’s. The second part of the book specifically links the budget to US capitalism and to a global system. Yet, in the third part of the book, where Midgley discusses how women can envision and effect change, the larger economic context (and its underlying problems) is largely absent. Midgley’s suggestions for change do not really address the fundamental problems she analyzes in the first two sections. While I agree with such strategies as doing research, opening up the budgeting process, and ratifying various UN Conventions, they don’t begin to gnaw at the edges of corporate concentration and power.
A second limitation of the book is its focus on the federal government. By taking on the federal budget only, Midgley misses a good bit of the action. State and local spending (including the money they receive from the federal government) comprises 40 percent of all government expenditures. The feds’ nearly exclusive concern with national defense, combined with the increasing trend toward passing responsibility for spending programs down to the states, diminishes their direct impact on women’s lives. For example, states and localities make the decisions on public primary and higher education, health care, a good deal of income assistance, and transportation—all crucial issues for women. While Midgley discusses states and localities briefly in her chapter on where the money comes from (i.e., taxes), she neglects them throughout the rest of the book.
Finally, the book contains a number of small errors, incomplete explanations, and imprecise use of economic terms (okay, so I’m an academic economist). These do not undermine the larger message of the book, but they distracted me and certainly discouraged me from using this book in the classroom. Here’s one example: Midgley introduces the concept of tax expenditures in chapter three, but she never clearly defines this term. Yet, in my experience working with advocates, I’ve had to explain tax expenditures more often than any other idea. (Tax expenditures are special provisions in the tax laws that exclude particular entities or forms of income or consumption from taxation. Their exclusion from taxation means less revenue collected—hence the term “tax expenditure”. They are often referred to as “loopholes,” but they are not always undesirable: for example, most states exempt food purchases from the sales tax.) A better explanation would have clarified the tax laws and furthered Midgley’s political point. To be fair, tax provisions are complicated, and it is easy to get lost in details.
Still, Midgley takes on a topic that far too many feminists and advocates for low-income people shy away from—even though it is an absolutely crucial component of achieving women’s economic well-being. She successfully links mundane topics such as budgets and taxes to larger economic phenomena and outcomes and takes an activist’s approach to them. She believes in women’s power to learn and to change the world. As a result, her book is a worthwhile primer.
Randy Albelda is an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She serves as vice president of the International Association for Feminist Economics.