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How Women Became America’s Social Safety Net

Haley Paskalides  |  June 5, 2024

Jessica Calarco explains how women became America’s social safety net — and what we can do about the weight on our shoulders.

Here’s one thing we know — America runs on women — our paid work, our caregiving work, and our invisible work keeps the country going — but the fact that we’re this country’s social safety net is taking its toll. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Stress in America survey, women say they’re feeling stressed, misunderstood, and alone. The survey also found that women were more likely to say they “strongly agree” that no one understands how stressed we are and we were less likely to report that we can get over our stressors quickly. 

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But we also know that in other countries, women are not expected to bear the burden of being their nation’s social safety net. Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden are the top countries for women, according to the 2023 study by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. The study also found (unsurprisingly) that women’s well-being is directly linked with the well-being of their country, and the U.S. ranked 37th on the list. 

Jessica Calarco is a sociologist who’s dedicated her life’s work to understanding how America got this way, despite being consistently ranked one of the wealthiest countries in the world. 

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In her new book Holding It Together: How Women Became America’s Safety Net, Calarco explains how our “DIY society” began in the 1930s in the wake of the New Deal programs where we were shifting the way that we think about our social safety net and the way that we fund our social safety net. 

“Wealthy business owners were looking for ways to persuade Americans that we could get by without a stronger social safety net,” Calarco says. “So they found a group of Austrian economists who were developing neoliberal theory that said that people will be better off without one because they will make choices that will keep themselves safe if they don’t have a net to rely on.”

Fast forward to today, and while other countries have large-scale government programs that help them get by, the United States has women as its social safety net. Everywhere you turn, women are the default caregivers for children, the elderly, and our communities. 

“At the same time, women are also the ones who disproportionately fill the lowest-paid jobs in our economy,” Calarco says. “Those are often jobs that are too labor intensive and too difficult to outsource to be highly profitable. Jobs in child care, jobs in home health care, jobs in customer service. So we have an interest in pushing those jobs onto people who can be easily exploited or forced to take whatever job is available to them. And that’s how we’ve structured parts of our social safety net.”

While Calarco wants women to know that the struggles we’re up against are the product of the society that we live in, and not because we’ve made poor choices along the way, there are things we can do as individuals to make change. She first recommends voting for the kinds of politicians and policymakers who will push for policies like paid family leave and sick leave, affordable childcare, free college tuition, retirement pensions, and free eldercare. 

“I think that’s one small thing that we can do is to catch ourselves and then potentially redirect some of the individual energy that we often spend on judging ourselves and judging each other to finding ways to fight collectively,” Calarco says. “Facebook moms groups, for example, are a place where lots of mothers of young children spend a lot of time. That’s a place where we could be looking toward collective organizing, finding the mom in the group who wants to run for local office and saying, okay, how can we collectively support her in that kind of a campaign?”

In Mailbag, we hear from a listener who is looking for advice on how to handle her emotions in the workplace. We also hear from someone who’s in the running for a position with a pension and wants to know what the pros and cons of pensions really are, should she accept the job. 

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