“The personal is political.” A world-changing insight opening the eyes of millions of women and men to the constricting, oppressive reality of the socially sanctioned gender division of labor (the male-breadwinner, female-caretaker version of household life). Fast-forward half a century. It’s time to realize that the personal is as economic as it is political.

Women politicians – yep. Women doctors – yep. Lawyers – ditto that. Professors, accountants, managers, airline pilots, law enforcement officers, firefighters, mechanics, groundskeepers. Yes, yes and yes. But what hasn’t changed? Despite important progress in the world of work, women – that is, mothers – are still children’s primary caretakers. A recent Pew survey of dual-income households found that “mothers spend about twice as much time with their children as fathers do (13.5 hours per week for mothers in 2011, compared with 7.3 hours for fathers).”

Another study (also of dual-income households) confirmed this finding: “Women’s greater parenting burden started soon after their baby was born … . By the time their children were 9 months old, women spent almost 70 percent of their time on an average weekday, when they were not working or sleeping, on some type of child care.”

It’s easy to groove on the image, “My Special Mom.” June Cleaver, Donna Reed, Claire Huxtable. Smiling, available, empathic. Perfect mothers like these exist only in dreams, children’s books and TV sitcoms. Quick. Look behind you. Whack. “You mother!” Equally imaginary yet diametrically opposed to Hallmark’s sugary “Mom.”

Babies cry to communicate their needs. Experiencing discomfort and feeling pain trigger the demand. Children have to sense their unmet needs before they can let caretakers know their needs are unmet. Hunger must exist before hunger can be signaled. Ditto cold, fear, loneliness and pain.

Every child soon knows their mother is the key to well-being. Remembered or not, each of us started life as a wordless, helpless, dependent infant. Over and over we experienced moments of terror as we wailed our needs, never knowing if the need would be met.

As adults we are not wordless. When hungry, we prepare meals and feed ourselves. As adults, we have the resources and capacities to meet an incredibly wide range of needs. But survival is thrown into question when we don’t have adequate incomes. And that happens when there aren’t jobs or when the available jobs don’t pay living wages. As adults, regardless of gender, we are as dependent upon the economy as infants are upon their mothers.

Mothering/caretaking is more difficult in hard economic times. Stagnant or falling incomes place too many of life’s basics beyond our reach. Scarcity – the private sector won’t provide decent jobs at decent wages for all the people willing to work. Then the raw materials and capital equipment owned by private-sector actors sit idle despite massive social needs for more and better food, housing, health care and education. Derived scarcity – the public sector reins in spending because tax revenues collapse as income stagnates. Economic insecurity spreads like wildfire, kindling mass memories of infantile dependence.

How to respond? We could scapegoat the most vulnerable members of society; “Those lazy, irresponsible moochers threaten my survival.” Or we could recognize systemic economic dysfunction as challenging our survival. “Tough love” economic policies are built on scapegoating, thus acting out on the political stage the childhood fears we all carry within us.

That’s where austerity comes from. “Nutritional assistance? No can do, not enough money.” “Health care, too expensive.” “Public education? Nope, we’re broke.” “Meals for seniors? Extravagant luxury.” “Support veterans? Exorbitant expense.” And so the litany goes. Every social program, no matter the merit, no matter the need, we can’t afford it. Do unto those in need as your childhood fears do unto you.

Regressive social policies are built on the primal fears we experienced as young children. Progressive social policies, in contrast, are built on trust and mutuality.

Of course we will be healthier, better educated and more secure if all of us are healthier, better educated and more secure. Our children and our grandchildren will be better off if we clean up the environment, invest in education, expand health care and ensure meaningful work for everyone who wants to work.

Health. Prosperity. Opportunity. What mothers wish for their kids. Austerity is antithetical to these goals. Advocates of “tough love” economics claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility. Austerity isn’t responsible, it’s acting out. The personal is economic.

Susan Feiner is a professor of economics and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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