Reporting this way about an issue as important as this one does a serious disservice to public understanding and our ability to frame problems and seek solutions.
“One Year Later, Many Are Finding Relief in Health Care Law,” read Sunday’s New York Times front-page headline on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
“The law has clearly reduced broad measures of inequality,” explains Harvard Economics professor David Culter in the piece. “From the vantage point of the poor and the working poor, Obamacare has been profound.” This is good news and was accompanied by a granular analysis, which found that:
- Low-wage earners made high gains.
- Part-time workers gained insurance coverage at higher rates than full-time workers.
- Immigrants, of all backgrounds, had the largest gains in coverage, with Hispanics accounting for more than a third of the newly insured (almost double their percentage of the population, 17%).
- Adults living in households headed by relatives, such as siblings or cousins, also added coverage at two times the rate of traditional households.
In other words, women—a word that appears exactly zero times in the 1600-word article.
Immigration, low wage work, and the economics of non-traditional mixed family households are all feminist issues. The data, presented in pretty charts, were sliced by education, citizenship, work status, and industry sectors and completely erased the impact of women’s femaleness on a complicated equation. The article does make explicit note of men making gains, naming minority men specifically by race and gender as those who “work as groundkeepers and janitors” and in construction.
Consider the four areas addressed by the analysis:
- Low wage earners: Two-thirds of low wage earners are women. “Coverage rates,” said the authors of the piece, “jumped for cooks, dishwashers, and waiters, as well as for hairdressers and cashiers,” the majority of whom are women.
- Part-time workers: Women are twice as likely to be employed part-time.
- Immigrants: Women are 51% of immigrants to the United States, but they are less likely to be allowed legal entrance independently, a fact that makes them dependent and vulnerable to abuse.
- Mixed family households and care: Women are overwhelmingly responsible for care—both as domestic laborers and in the care of their own extended families. That includes, “living in households headed by relatives, such as siblings or cousins.”
The piece led with the fact that immigrants are responsible for the sharpest increases in coverage and related that to other areas of interest. Gender is central to understanding immigration and its implications for labor, labor shifts, work/life conflicts, household and family structure, gender roles and more.
Prior to Obamacare, it was legal for insurance companies to engage in gender-rating. A woman, essentially considered a too complicated, more expensive, defective variation of a man as the human standard, could pay as much as 84% more for insurance than her male peers. For immigrant women historically insured at lower rates than immigrant men (29% versus 35%), this often meant no insurance at all.
In addition, immigrant women are more likely to be low-wage earning, working part-time, and caring for others. They are also living with high rates of intimate partner violence. Why does that matter? Because also prior to the Affordable Care Act, a woman who had been beaten, strangled, raped, or otherwise terrorized by an intimate partner could not get health insurance coverage, the abuse was considered a pre-existing condition that companies were not required to cover.
The article included one example of a woman among several of men. It featured a nanny, Hispanic and an immigrant, who had never, in 25 years, been insured. Prior to the law changing, she had used emergency care, restricted her diet in order to buy vital medicine, and used home remedies when she was sick.
Today, men get almost three quarters of the employment visa granted, only one quarter going to women as principal holders. Two-thirds of immigrant women come into the country as dependents, on a spouse’s visa. They cannot work legally themselves and are often working at home, caring for children and extended families and their homes.
This is also true among highly skilled tech workers—more than 70% of those granted visas are men. “More men are coming simply because companies prefer to hire the men over the women,” said Karen Panetta, a Tufts University computer engineering professor, at a 2013 U.S. House Judiciary Committee. “I hate to say this,” added Stanford Law School’s Vivek Wadhwa, at the same meeting, “but the women in Saudi Arabia have more rights than the spouses, the wives of H-1B visa workers. It’s inhuman the way we treat them.”
These imbalances in gender make women immigrants particularly vulnerable to abuse and in need of care. Research by Domestic Workers United found that 33 percent of domestic workers in New York City experienced some form of physical or verbal abuse. In addition, immigrant women are especially vulnerable to intimate partner violence, abusive spouses often use the immigration status as a weapon. In the United States, 51% of intimate partner murder victims are foreign-born, many of whom, until the passage of this act had no recourse to the health system during incidents of abuse. For example, married immigrant women are abused at a rate of 59.5% compared to unmarried immigrant women, 49.8%.
The Affordable Care Act doesn’t just close racial and class gaps in health care. It’s important to understand the role that gender, and intersectionality in general, plays in public policy. Reporting this way about an issue as important as this one does a serious disservice to public understanding and our ability to frame problems and seek solutions. There are 11 paragraphs describing the impact on working class minority men, and two of the three photos in the hard copy, the only one online, are of minority men. Working class men should have insurance coverage and the impact of not having insurance coverage is deplorable, but this story entirely erased the fact that it is women who were most affected by the lack of coverage prior to the law being passed and it is, substantively, women who are able to improve their lives because of it.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.