The federal government ran up the largest monthly deficit in American history last month—a whopping $223 billion in February alone. Last year, total U.S. government debt exceeded 90 percent of gross domestic product. Yet as this column goes to press, Congress can't seem to agree on a paltry $61 billion in cuts as part of the funding bill to keep the government operating.
And whenever the subject of deficit reduction comes up among Washington politicians, they all shake their heads and conclude that the key question is whether "the American people are really ready for deficit reduction." The answer always seems to be that, sadly, we're not.
They've got it backward: It's the politicians who are not ready. Why else would President Obama continue to advocate for more new "investment," while many of the deficit commission's own members didn't vote in favor of its recommendations, and Republicans and Democrats haggle over what can only be called token cuts in discretionary spending? Meanwhile, Gallup shows Obama's approval rating on the deficit has hit a new low at 27 percent. And the public's approval of Congress has "rebounded" to 20 percent. People are fed up with both sides. [See a slide show of 10 budget and spending fights looming for Obama and the GOP.]
A lot of it has to do with the fact that, unlike the government, most Americans have been doing more with less for the last two years. And because more women than men are responsible for household budget decisions, most of the cutting back in family budgets has been done by women. One 2010 study found that more women than men are cutting monthly spending "moderately to significantly." Most women are spending less at restaurants and department stores—"discretionary spending," in federal terms—presumably rather than skipping savings or retirement fund payments. [See political cartoons about the federal budget and the deficit.]
And it's not just women my age who are concerned: A Bank of America/Seventeen magazine poll found that nearly 9 out of 10 teenage girls—a higher percentage than teenage boys—worried about having enough money in life and were "stressed" about the economy. One in five reported having accepted her second choice for college or choosing a state school because of financial concerns, a decision that will have a ripple effect for years. [See political cartoons about the economy.]
When it comes to concerns about fiscal responsibility, the people are ahead of the politicians right now, and women are ahead of men. According to this month's White House report, "Women in America," they're ahead on a number of fronts. Women have higher graduation rates across the board and earn more advanced degrees than men, and last year, more than half of all managers and professionals were women. As more women enter the economic mainstream, female breadwinners are seeing their earnings constitute a growing share of family income.
Gone are the days when women my mother's age had no idea how to balance a checkbook. Nearly 95 percent of women are now involved in family financial decisions, with a quarter acting as the primary decision makers, according to a recent Prudential Financial survey. Most women viewed the recession as a wake-up call to get their long-term financial plans up and running. We see the writing on the wall.
We are aware that we'll probably live longer than the men in our lives. Right now, the vast majority of Social Security recipients age 85 or older are women. And because we tend to live more years after retirement than men, we'll have a greater chance of exhausting our retirement savings. A doctor told my 72-year-old mother recently that she's so healthy, she could live another 30 years. Her response: "That's great, but I can't afford to live another 30 years!"
That same Prudential poll found that three quarters of women surveyed expect to work longer than they originally planned or wonder if they'll be able to retire on time. That might explain why women voters—who also make up a greater share of the electorate than men—might be more open to reforming Social Security and Medicare than the politicians in Washington are.
Recent polls show that majorities of voters now support raising the retirement age to 69 by the year 2075, and reducing Social Security and Medicare payments to wealthier Americans. Depending on how those two reforms are implemented, they could eliminate as much as 60 percent of Social Security's underfunding, according to the Wall Street Journal, and would result in increased—not decreased—benefits. And don't forget that a larger proportion of those benefits will go to retired women.
I suspect most women are ready to reform entitlements. They understand that it's not the moderate reforms that threaten their benefits, but an unsustainable status quo. Chuck Blahous, one of two public trustees for Social Security and Medicare, says that doing nothing will ultimately result in benefits being cut by a full 22 percent. To most women, if the choice lies between a 22 percent drop in benefits during their long retirement, or working a few more years—something they were already planning to do—it's a no-brainer.
Women will continue to grow in number in the workforce and to have a primary responsibility for home and family matters, so they deserve a voice in these budget debates. Women get it. If told the truth about what needs to be done to save entitlement programs that we may need someday, we will listen and make decisions on the facts, as we do every day at the office or around the kitchen table. We got used to tightening our belts a long time ago, and if treated as the intelligent caregivers, voters, taxpayers, and businesswomen that we are, why would we not do what needs to be done?