Viewpoints: Women hit hardest by recession, budget cuts - Women's Foundation California

—Jean Ross and Judy Patrick

With California once again facing a sizable budget gap, the governor and the Legislature face choices that will determine our state's future and the future of programs that Californians depend on. Their deliberations should be informed by new research showing that California's women – especially low-income women, single mothers and the elderly – have been especially hard hit by the Great Recession and the budget crisis.

A new report from the California Budget Project, released in partnership with the Women's Foundation of California, makes clear: The economic downturn and recent budget decisions have taken a major toll on the supports and services that help California's women advance in their careers, provide for their families and enjoy a secure retirement.

Consider CalWORKs, California's welfare-to-work program. CalWORKs offers temporary cash assistance to low-income families with children and helps parents prepare for, find and keep jobs. Almost four of five CalWORKs participants are children, and about three of four adults in CalWORKs are women.

In the past several years – amid a historically weak job market – the state has cut the program by more than $3 billion, about $3,000 for each of the 1.1 million children in CalWORKs. And despite continued double-digit unemployment, the state has cut the lifetime limit on adult CalWORKs participation from five years to four while reducing funding for services that help parents – again, predominantly women – move from welfare to work.

The state has also undermined women's pathways to opportunity by cutting support for public universities and community colleges, which are essential in helping women obtain skills they need to pursue higher-wage jobs. Funding for the California State University system, for example, was cut by nearly one-third between 2007-08 and 2011-12, while support for community colleges was reduced by almost one-fifth.

Recent budget cuts limit women's access to higher education. Most troubling is the drop in the number of women attending California's community colleges, which help students build employment skills or prepare to transfer to a four-year institution. Enrollment in California's community colleges has fallen by nearly 130,000 students in recent years, with women accounting for more than 80 percent of this decline.

State budget cuts also have hit support for child care and preschool, eliminating services for 35,000 children in the current year alone. The governor's proposed 2012-13 spending plan would eliminate child care for an additional 62,000 children, making it harder for working parents to find affordable child care that enables them to remain in – or return to – the workforce.

Recent budget and policy choices have magnified the impact of the most severe economic downturn of the post-World War II era. Women, and single mothers in particular, have been deeply affected by the Great Recession and its aftermath. This is the first economic downturn in recent history in which women experienced significant job loss. What's more, even as California's job market appears to be slowly recovering, women have not been sharing equally in these employment gains.

The downturn has been especially difficult for single women supporting families. Between 2007 and 2010, the share of single mothers with jobs dropped by 10 percentage points. Only six in 10 single mothers were employed in 2010, the lowest employment rate among this group since 1996. This means that job losses among single mothers in just three years erased all the employment gains this group had made since the implementation of welfare reform in the late 1990s.

In short, the state has made deep cuts to supports for women and their families – and at a time when many families face a struggle to make ends meet. Our public policies can and should help to mitigate the impact of tough economic times.

Most notably, the state should adopt a balanced approach that includes significant additional revenues to help close our current budget gap. Without additional dollars, California's key public structures – including those that promote economic opportunity and overall well-being for women and their families – will face further cuts.

Budget choices reflect our values and priorities. As lawmakers seek to close the budget gap, they should strive to help all Californians to achieve success and contribute to the state's prosperity. The very future of our state is at stake.

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