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The presidential candidates and the media have recently been caught up in economic issues, including the stock market upheaval, credit crunch, housing crisis, and rising unemployment. Women’s issues, on the other hand, have faded from the media spotlight.

That changed on Tuesday, when Governor Palin went after Senator Obama on women’s issues. The Governor correctly noted that Senator Obama passed over an imminently qualified woman, Senator Hillary Clinton, as his Vice-Presidential pick, while Senator McCain selected a woman. But do those choices accurately reflect how the candidates would govern if elected?

A new report (which I co-authored) grades the presidential candidates on women’s economic issues, and casts some light on this question. And what did we find?

Let’s start with poverty. Since women comprise the vast majority of poor adults in our society, Obama’s proposals are generally more supportive. In contrast to McCain, Obama supports increases in the minimum wage and in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Partly because of that higher EITC, Obama’s tax plan would reduce the tax burden on the vast majority of working and middle class women relative to McCain.

But the flip side of reducing taxes is that it becomes increasingly difficult to fund necessary government services for women, children, or indeed for any American. And both candidates’ proposals would result in massive reductions in government revenues to fund those services. With Obama’s rejection of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, his reductions are substantially smaller, but both candidates were proposing sizable revenue reductions before they both supported an additional $750 billion expenditure on the Wall Street bail-out (oops!).

This logic carries over to other areas. For example, women and particularly mothers suffer disproportionately from the unpaid nature of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); even if their jobs are covered by the FMLA, they often face a choice between caring for a sick child or keeping a roof over the child’s head. Senator Obama supports expanding coverage of the FMLA, but his proposal for funding relies on seed grants for state-level initiatives, and many states would undoubtedly leave their citizens out in the cold. We could do better with a central insurance fund (like Social Security). Of course, the Obama plan is still more supportive of women’s (and children’s) needs relative to McCain’s absence of any clear policy stance on these issues.

Similarly, Obama’s plan to expand after-school programs to cover one million additional children is clearly superior to McCain’s proposal for no change in expenditures, but even Obama’s plan barely puts a dent in the need for after-school programs: an estimated 15 million children currently need but lack coverage.

The story is, however, very different with respect to health care. Although we do not gauge health care in this manner in the grade report, many thoughtful and reasonable economists agree that the two core principles needed to save our health care system involve a) severing the link between employment and family health insurance, and b) creating a single-payer health insurance pool (like Medicare, but covering everyone). The prior is needed to make our corporations more competitive internationally while the latter is where the big cost-savings lie (i.e. getting rid of $300 billion annually in insurance industry overhead). Most analysts agree that the Obama plan would result in more Americans having health insurance relative to McCain’s plan, but the Obama plan neither severs health insurance from employment nor does it result in a single-payer insurance pool. In fact, on these two criteria, the McCain plan is arguably superior. The taxation of health insurance benefits would (as Obama is fond of pointing out) undoubtedly lead many employers to stop providing health insurance, but McCain’s $5,000 credit for health insurance would be available to everyone regardless of employment.

Even in the case of health care, as with every other issue we graded, Senator Obama came out ahead of Senator McCain. The fact that Senator McCain picked a woman for a running mate is important and laudable, but when it comes to women’s economic issues, Governor Palin’s claims are way off the mark.

(This blog first appeared in The Huffington Post.)

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