Updated: Apr 8
This piece was originally published in Ms. Magazine.
Federal budgets are countries’ most explicit statement of values, and the U.S. is lagging behind other G7 states—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom—in implementing budget processes that put our money where our mouth is.
Congress is currently conducting its annual parsing of taxpayer dollars to federal departments, agencies and programs—this year, to the tune of $4.75 trillion. If the U.S. believes in gender equality, now is the time to prove it.
The United Nations has developed an approach to foster gender equality called gender-responsive budgeting(GRB) that can be used for small programs as well as entire national budgets. GRB—“the explicit consideration of the existence of gender inequalities when designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating a budget or policy”—applies a gender lens to every step of the budgeting process in order to “assess how it will address the different needs of women and men, girls and boys, and different groups of women and men, girls and boys.”
The International Monetary Fund states that “most fiscal policies have implications for gender equality to a greater or lesser extent.” Reducing funds for social services clearly affect men and women differently, as women are more likely to be single parents and make around 80 cents on the dollar when compared to men in the U.S. Even mining uranium to produce nuclear weapons has hidden gendered implications—including a disproportionate rate of cancer in women and girls in surrounding areas.
“The government does not set out to discriminate,” Diane Elson, one of the originators of GRB processes, explained. “Rather, it overlooks its own bias because it does not take the trouble to assess how policies affect women. Government budgets are supposed to be ‘gender-neutral;’ in fact, they are gender-ignorant.”
Budgets can either further exacerbate gender inequality or close the gap, depending on the priorities they fund and to what extent. Feminist policies aim to create a society governed by equality and justice, and they reap other benefits, too: How a country treats its women is one of the best predictors of the stability of the nation, and gender-responsive budgeting can result in a boost in GDP.
The U.S. is a major player at the UN, but has yet to ratify and implement major gender equality treaties and approaches it espouses—including gender-responsive budgeting. According to the Commonwealth Secretariat, over 60 countries—including the U.S.—have implemented some form of gender-responsive budgeting initiatives, but many were one-off exercises.
But some of our fellow G7 countries have made GRB a core practice—and made progress. Canada requires that the Cabinet conducts a gender-based analysis of legislation, policies and programs; France’s annual Budget Law has an annex with gender-disaggregated data; Germany has made strides in implementing gender equality as a guiding principle in the Joint Rules of Procedure of the Federal Ministries at the sub-national level; the UK has integrated gender equality into fiscal policy in numerous ways thanks to the Women’s Budget Group.
In recent years, the U.S. has taken a different approach. The Trump administration’s 2020 budget slashed funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of State, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Agriculture and more—all while increasing funds for the Departments of Defense, Veterans’ Affairs, Homeland Security and Commerce.
This is a clear prioritization of brute force over human security, which calls for “people-centered, comprehensive, context-specific and prevention-oriented responses that strengthen the protection and empowerment of all people.” Until the federal budget process is set up to first understand how proposed policies and programs affect men and women differently, the U.S. will be unable to fully right the ship.
The U.S. should use feminist values to decide who gets what—and enter into the budget process with the goal of constructing a country where men and women, and all people, have political, social and economic equality. The UN has laid out a roadmap to creating more equitable distribution of money—it’s time for us to get on the right path.