One of the few things President Obama and Congress have been able to agree on is extension of benefits for the nation's unemployed. Bipartisan agreements in Washington and in states across the country suggest agreement that people are hurting and jobs are scarce, and that we need to step up with extra help until the tide turns.

That is, unless you work in the low-wage, high-turnover, female-dominated sales and service sectors of our economy, where access to unemployment insurance is far less frequent. It's within these sectors that almost half of Minnesota's women work.

And women aren't just earning "pin" money these days. Many are primary breadwinners in their families.

When they lose hours or lose jobs altogether due to economic downturns, many women who work in these sectors (often mothers with children) must turn to the Minnesota Family Investment Program. Half of MFIP applicants were working in female-dominated, low-wage industries in the quarter before they turned to the state for help.

These kinds of jobs -- hotel and restaurant work, temp jobs, and personal/social care services -- generally don't provide leave of any kind. They have erratic schedules and unpredictable hours. Employees are not eligible for unemployment insurance if they are forced to quit because, for example, they can't accommodate a sudden shift change due to a conflict with other part-time jobs or because they can't secure day care during their new work hours.

During this economic crisis, more than two-thirds of those turning to MFIP are women trying to work and take care of children, while two-thirds of those getting help from unemployment insurance are men. Those (mostly men) seeking help through unemployment insurance are rightly viewed as deserving victims of a bad economy.

But somehow those seeking the only help available to them in the face of a bad economy through MFIP (again, mostly women with children) are painted as freeloading parasites and are subjected to stigma and intrusive, humiliating hurdles.

Anyone who has spent a day cleaning houses or taking care of other people's children for $9 an hour (yes, that is the median hourly wage for child-care workers in Minnesota) knows that such work is no less demanding and in many cases no less important than other jobs are to the functioning of our society.

As someone sitting in an office typing this commentary but who has been in those shoes, I know that many workers toil far harder for much less money. And work carried out primarily by women is routinely undervalued and insecure, even when risks, skills and training requirements are comparable and even when the women are the primary or only earners in their families.

At the same time that we are extending benefits via unemployment insurance to those who have been the victims of our lackluster recovery, Minnesota legislators are considering cutting assistance provided under MFIP. For example, under HF 2080/SF1833, assistance would be dropped for a family of three transitioning off MFIP when the applicant found a job earning $9 an hour, instead of the current $10.55 per hour. With full benefits, this same family survives on just $532 a month, an amount that has not changed in almost 30 years.

When Barbara Ehrenreich put herself in the shoes of her subjects for her compelling book "Nickel and Dimed," about surviving in the low-wage-work world, Minnesota was the only place she couldn't make a go of it.

According to the Minnesota Housing Partnership, Minnesota's rental housing affordability is ranked worst in the Midwest. We have the third-highest accredited child-care costs in the country. The average single mother in Minnesota would have to spend 57 percent of her income to afford high-quality day care for her infant.

In comparison to the proposed $9 per hour cutoff for help (around $18,000 annually for full-time work) or even the current $10.55 per hour, Wider Opportunities for Women estimates that the bare-bones cost of living for one adult and one infant is $46,368 per year.

The proposals under consideration are aimed at fixing women instead of fixing the economy. These "reform" efforts place the blame for a lousy job market on mothers struggling to pull it all together and find and keep work in a historically bad economy, one in which even recent college graduates are competing for retail jobs.

They are no less deserving of our compassion and assistance than are those lucky enough to be eligible for unemployment insurance. They just happen to be women.


Debra Fitzpatrick is director of the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.