Why Mitt Romney's 'Economic War on Women' Charge Could Backfire

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Facing a double-digit deficit among female voters, likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has accused the White House of waging an economic "war on women." Since Obama took office in January 2009, he's charged, an amazing 92 percent of all job losses have been among women.

He's absolutely right. In the last 26 months, U.S. payrolls have shrunk by 740,000 jobs and of those, 683,000 belonged to women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But Romney should be careful with his talking point. All those women who lost work? About two-thirds of them were laid off from government jobs. And a lot of them lived in states governed by Republicans. 

The Romney campaign is counting job losses that occurred literally the day Obama took office, which is a bit like blaming the fire fighter for not traveling back in time to stop the fire. It also ignores the fact that, before women started losing work en masse, millions of men had already been handed pink slips. Between December 2007 and January 2009, about 3.3 million men lost their jobs, versus 1.2 million women. Was President Bush waging a war on Y chromosomes? Hardly. That's just the natural pattern of a recession. Male dominated fields like construction and manufacturing are more sensitive to the ups and downs of the economy, so when times get tough, their jobs tend to disappear faster, and in larger numbers. Women, who are concentrated in fields like healthcare, government, and education, tend to feel the pain less severely. 

But let's set all that aside for now and focus on what Romney gets right. Women have lost work since Obama took office. The question is: why? 

Women_in_gov_employment.png

The answer, in part, lies with the huge contractions we've seen among state and local government payrolls. As illustrated in the chart above, created by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, women are way over-represented in the public sector, especially on the local and state level. When those governments cut back, females suffer. And in the wake of the recession, they've cut back big time, even as the federal workforce has grown slightly.   

The BLS data that gave Romney his stat also shows that 440,000 of those women's jobs were in government. Here's the story of female employment in a single pie chart:

Women's_Job_Losses_Jan_2009_to_Present.PNG

For a Republican who preaches the virtues of smaller government, it might seem a bit hypocritical to bemoan the loss of women's jobs that are mostly the result of ... smaller government. But the problem actually goes deeper. When it came to laying off government workers in 2011, there was a clear red state/blue state divide. According to the Roosevelt Institute, 40.5 percent of all state and local government job losses occurred in places where Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010. Call that the Scott Walker effect, after the Tea Party-backed governor of Wisconsin who has clashed fiercely with public sector unions. Meanwhile, another 31 percent of those government jobs vanished in Texas. Call that the Rick Perry effect. All other states combined accounted for just 28 percent of state and local layoffs. 

State_and_Local_Job_Losses_2011.PNG

Again, if you believe in smaller government, and you think that in lean economic times, the prudent thing to do is cut back on government payrolls, there's nothing wrong with these numbers. They're just the result of reasonable, conservative stewards making the tough decisions. The problem is, this kind of budget-trimming has and will continue to be biased against females. So Romney can rightly tell women they've had a tough time of it since Obama took office. He'd just better hope they don't realize why. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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