September 17 2013
Carrie L. Lukas
The Left understands women — connects with them — much better than the Right does. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway, and sadly it’s borne out in the results of most polls and elections.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Conservatives have the potential to show women how our policy ideas can help improve people’s lives and create the kind of society we want for our daughters.
The Left’s appeals to women typically showcase how government helps vulnerable members of society and provides the support people need. It’s important for the Right to realize that women seem increasingly comfortable with the idea that government’s role isn’t just to provide a safety net for people during hard times. A growing portion of women — and men, for that matter — accept the idea that government should be a partner that helps people meet life’s everyday challenges.
The notorious Julia graphic, created by President Obama’s reelection team last summer, encapsulates this idea. Julia’s wasn’t a hard-luck story: She was an everywoman walking through the stages of life and relying on government to help her get by every step of the way, from paying for college and routine medical care to finding child care for her son to dealing with old age.
Conservatives recoil instinctively from this vision of permanent dependence on government: America is supposed to be the land of rugged independence, with free citizens striving to be all they can be, rather than a people happy to settle for a modestly comfortable existence guaranteed by the state. But not everyone — and certainly not all women — have this reaction. Some even view Julia as a model of “independence,” since she lived without the support of a husband (no partner is mentioned during Julia’s cradle-to-grave story) or other family members. Taking government transfer payments has become so normal that for many it seems no different from using government-provided roads and other infrastructure.
Conservatives can make inroads by highlighting all that is lost when we allow government to take such a prominent role in our lives. Dollars and cents are a small, though important, part of that story. More central is how dependence is changing society, our aspirations, and our expectations.
Ask parents what they want for their daughters, and overwhelmingly you’ll hear about economic opportunity and a lasting relationship with a loving family and community. We want our daughters to have good educations, interesting jobs, loving husbands, fulfilling friendships, and safe, engaging communities. Of course, we want them to be protected from the worst things in life — from poverty and illness and hardship — but we want lives that are more than just avoiding the downsides and getting by. We want them to strive for something bigger, and to be surrounded by others who are similarly engaged and looking to make the most of this life.
The Cato Institute’s recent revealing report, “The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013,” contains the kind of information that should give all Americans pause. It found that in most states welfare pays more than minimum-wage jobs, even after the Earned Income Tax Credit is accounted for. In 13 states welfare paid the equivalent of $15 per hour, or more than twice the federal minimum wage. What kind of message does that send the next generation about the value of starting the climb up the economic ladder? Work isn’t just about money. As Peggy Noonan recently wrote, a job is about striving, belonging, and contributing. We shouldn’t want to invite people to opt out of this process or to wonder if they are better off with a life on the dole.
When appealing to women, the Left almost always exclusively talks about government benefits and programs that disproportionately go to women. This gives conservatives another opening to talk to women about men. The overwhelming majority of women don’t see society as a battle of the sexes, but as a place in which our fates are irrevocably joined. Women know that male-dominated industries have been among the hardest hit in the recession, that men’s employment prospects are even worse than women’s, and that men are falling behind in school. This isn’t good news for women, any more than it is for men. It means fewer potential marriage partners, fewer fathers able and willing to help raise children, and fewer brothers able to help their siblings and support their parents.
We must explain how government’s endless meddling strangles the entrepreneurship and economic growth that’s so important, not just for our budgets and the economy, but for society.
Conservatives have a story to tell women. It isn’t about a “go it alone” society, as the Left charges, or dismantling the safety net for those in need. No. It’s about creating an aspirational society that encourages the best within us.
— Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum and the co-author of Liberty Is No War on Women.