Magazine | December 5, 2016, Issue

Moving beyond the Gender Gap

(Tetra Images)
The right needs an agenda for women

Most women didn’t want Donald Trump to win. According to CNN exit polls released the day after the election, Trump lost the women’s vote by twelve points to Hillary Clinton. This gap jumped to 90 points among black women and 42 points among Latina women.

Given that the Republican nominee had been recorded bragging about groping women, it’s surprising that the gender gap wasn’t bigger. Trump’s standing among women voters was more or less in line with the GOP’s lackluster performance over the last 40 years. Mitt Romney lost the women’s vote by twelve points to President Barack Obama, according to Gallup. That was only a slight improvement from 2008, when Senator John McCain lost the women’s vote by 14 points. Women have backed a Democratic presidential candidate over a Republican one by an average of eight points since 1980, according to Pew Research.

It may be tempting for Republicans to believe that the gender gap is not a liability, given that they have won a national election in spite of a large one. But Trump’s victory is the exception, not the rule. Since the 19th Amendment was passed, this is the only time on record when Republicans have won the White House with a double-digit gender gap among women.

This performance is not something that conservatives should seek to replicate, with one notable exception: Trump was the first Republican presidential nominee to put forward child-care and paid-leave policies, likely blunting his fallout with women voters. These are policies that have been ignored by the Right for far too long and, if properly structured, could significantly improve the lives of women across America. They are part of a broader portfolio of policies that Republicans could embrace to help women succeed in today’s economy.

The role of women, and the nature of family life and work in American society, has fundamentally changed since the heyday of Republican politics in the Reagan era. Forty years ago, it was common for married women not to work, and only a small share of families were led by single parents. Today, the opposite is true. Women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households, according to Pew Research. Single parents as a share of the population have tripled since the 1960s; 25 percent of families with children are now headed by single mothers. And women’s labor-force-participation rate rose from approximately 50 percent in 1980 to a high of 60 percent in 2000, although it has dropped slightly since.

This has led to opportunities and breakthroughs, such as women’s achieving record levels of educational and professional success. But there also have been challenges, such as the unaffordability of child care, lack of paid leave, family breakdown, low-paying jobs, and persistent poverty, which have presented new public-policy puzzles.

The Right largely has ignored these shifts, ceding so-called women’s issues entirely to the Left, with the gender gap widening accordingly. They have their reasons. Some argue that the gender gap is inevitable because of the Republican party’s opposition to abortion. Others contend that whatever solutions conservatives propose would look measly in comparison with progressive proposals, or that such proposals should be avoided altogether because they could result in more government spending.

These arguments may satisfy political strategists. But they fail a bigger, much more important test: Can Republicans offer a compelling conservative vision to improve women’s lives and address 21st-century challenges? This is a fundamental responsibility of any good political party and one that Republicans largely have abdicated.

Until Trump. Likely in an attempt to close what was shaping up to be a gender gap of epic proportions and under the strong influence of his daughter Ivanka and her #WomenWhoWork initiative, Trump put forward policies to directly support working women. (Full disclosure: I reviewed these policies, though I did not support him as a candidate and worked for several of his opponents.) His proposals were far (and sometimes very far) from perfect, but they were a critical break in the inertia of the Republican party on these issues. Republicans would be wise to build upon Trump’s proposals instead of ignoring or merely criticizing them.

Paid leave is a significant issue facing today’s working women. Trump’s plan would expand unemployment insurance to include six weeks of paid leave for new mothers upon the birth of a child, though I believe it should be extended to all parents. The benefit would be equivalent in size to the average unemployment benefit (approximately $300 a week), which is nearly a 100 percent wage replacement for low-income workers, although significantly less than that for higher-income workers. Evidence from state paid-leave programs suggests that paid leave increases the work-force attachment of new mothers, reduces reliance on other government benefits, and improves children’s outcomes.

Notably, this would involve no new taxes or government spending. Trump has promised that it could be paid for by reducing fraud in unemployment insurance, which is unlikely. But it could easily be fully paid for by structural reforms to the existing safety net (including entitlements). Given the positive economic and social effects of paid leave, it could easily fit into a broader pro-work, pro-opportunity reform package such as the one outlined by House speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans in “A Better Way.”

Child care is another important issue. Trump’s child-care proposal was expensive and poorly targeted. But there are fiscally responsible child-care proposals that Republicans can get behind. For example, child-care assistance now mostly goes to parents on welfare and those with a significant income-tax liability, leaving out low- and middle-income families who arguably need help the most. Our existing maze of child-care credits and subsidies could be restructured to direct help to low-income women, for whom high child-care costs are often a barrier to work. This is every bit as pro-work a policy as other Republican proposals, such as an expansion of the earned-income tax credit.

Another significant issue facing working women is taxes. Women are more likely to drop out of the work force than men when faced with high marginal tax rates and benefit reductions that kick in as income increases. These effects were heightened under changes the Obama administration made to the tax code and benefit programs. Married women are more likely to be a household’s secondary earner; thus the first dollar of their earnings is effectively taxed at a higher rate than their single counterpart’s, and they bump up against the top marginal rates sooner. Low-income women can face up to a 100 percent effective marginal tax rate because of the way government benefits are phased out as income increases, an effect made worse by the Affordable Care Act. High effective tax rates, especially combined with high child-care costs and low wages, make work unattractive for many women. Conservatives should seek to reduce high marginal tax rates in our tax and benefit programs and should even consider more-sweeping reforms, such as moving from a family- to an individual-based tax and benefits system.

Over the last three years, I have written about these and other reforms that might constitute a conservative women’s agenda, outlining a set of policies in National Affairs in 2015 and then in these pages and elsewhere. In a turn of events no one could have predicted, Trump is now the Republican best situated to act on these policies and increase women’s economic opportunity.

The bigger question is whether the Republican party is ready. When Trump released his family policy, Republican responses ranged from tepid support to outright rejection. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said, “What he is proposing is to out-Democrat the Democrats,” a response indicative of a party that is tone-deaf to the economic challenges faced by women voters and short on positive, thoughtful solutions. This is a dynamic that a Trump administration must push back against — to preserve the future viability of the party he now leads and to improve women’s lives across the country.

– Abby M. McCloskey is an economist and the founder of McCloskey Policy LLC. She previously served as the policy director for Rick Perry’s presidential campaign, an adviser to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, and the program director of economics at the American Enterprise Institute.

Abby M. McCloskey is an economist, is founder of McCloskey Policy LLC, and has advised numerous presidential campaigns. She is a member of the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Paid Leave.

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