The United States runs on and undervalues women’s work—both paid and unpaid. From health care to child care, women enable all other members of society to participate as fully as possible in the economy. This is especially true of Black women, whose unpaid and underpaid work has been relied on for centuries, first during chattel slavery and later during the subsequent eras of racial apartheid that built generational wealth for white families. Women are not only care workers: they are essential workers, overrepresented in the key industries that we all rely on. However, the current debt ceiling debate—the debate over how to raise the limit on how much the government can borrow in order to pay its bills— puts women’s economic well-being at risk. It also sets the stage for budget negotiations that would chip away at the progress towards economic justice for women.

How Defaulting on the Debt Affects Women

Failing to raise the debt ceiling would have severe and widespread economic harms because the Treasury Department would default on its obligations. Because of this, the Treasury would be unable to pay for key government programs and have higher interest rates on Treasury Bonds. Beyond possibly creating a recession, these delays and higher rates would impact the stock market and government services, leading to direct impacts on individuals. Some of the direct harms to individuals from failing to raise the debt ceiling include losses to retirement savings, higher mortgage costs, and job losses. Importantly, all of these impacts would have disproportionate harms for women and families.

Women’s overall employment has finally reached pre-pandemic levels, and women of color have been driving a significant share of this job growth. From February 2022 to February 2023, women added 1.5 million jobs.1 The unemployment rate for Black women was 5.1 percent in February 2023. While higher than both the overall unemployment rate and pre-pandemic levels, Black women’s unemployment rate has been dropping for much of the last two years and reached a historic low in March. With women finally making gains, now is not the time to slow down the economy.

With women finally making gains, now is not the time to slow down the economy.

Additionally, homeownership rates have been growing for women, and dropping for men: The homeownership rate among women increased from 50.9 percent to 61.2 percent between 1990 and 2019, while the homeownership rate among men dropped from 70.6 percent to 67.1 percent. This growth in homeownership has occurred despite a stagnant pay gap between men and women, wherein women are still paid 84 cents on the dollar. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, Third Way finds that a new mortgage would cost an additional $130,000. This will be a step backwards for the progress towards gender equity in homeownership that’s occurred over the past several decades.

Lastly, women lag men on indicators of retirement security: 22 percent of women have $100,000 or more in personal retirement savings compared to 30 percent of men. Since women often live longer and have more expenses during retirement, a last minute drop in retirement savings would be especially harmful to women. Moreover, defaulting on the debt would cause delays in receiving key benefits like Social Security.

Raising the debt ceiling and the federal budget should be two distinct issues.

Raising the debt ceiling and the federal budget should be two distinct issues. On the one hand, raising the federal debt ceiling is a procedural necessity for paying bills that the government has already incurred. Passing a budget, on the other hand, is an essential function of the government to determine how much is being spent on the key programs that serve every single person living in the United States. Republicans in the House of Representatives have asked for spending cuts in the budget as a condition for raising the debt ceiling, while Democrats are insisting on raising the debt ceiling without conditions to keep the two issues separate. By connecting the two issues, Republicans are trying to frame budget negotiations around deficit reduction, rather than from a position of funding essential services.

How Spending Cuts Would Harm More Than They Help

Ideally, Congress will raise the debt ceiling without conditions. However, it is likely that the House majority will use the current debate surrounding the debt ceiling to bring serious scrutiny to each part of the budget.

The budget can be broken down into mandatory spending, which is authorized by existing laws, such as Social Security; and discretionary spending, which is spending that comes from the appropriations acts rather than other laws. Mandatory spending for Social Security and Medicare make up more than one-third of the budget. Fourteen percent of the budget goes towards discretionary defense spending. In general, Congress has agreed to not touch Social Security and Medicare. Republicans are more divided when it comes to defense spending, but generally also don’t want cuts in that part of the budget. The remaining half of the budget goes towards everything else, including funding for public schools, Pell grants, food assistance, unemployment insurance, housing assistance, cash assistance for low-income families, health care, Medicaid, tax credits, child care, and more. While not exhaustive, the section below describes how the Republican proposals to revert spending to 2022 levels would impact women and families. There are also many essential government programs that women and families depend on that are not included here.

Child Care Funding

House Appropriations Ranking Member Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) requested that each federal department submit letters enumerating how proposed Republican budget cuts would affect each agency’s operations. The impacts are widespread and deep. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services found that proposed cuts would conservatively result in a loss of up to 200,000 slots in Head Start. Moreover, reducing funding for child care could cut 105,000 child care slots. Given that currently less than 20 percent of eligible children receive child care subsidies in the first place, further reducing funding from the current, inadequate levels would worsen the child care crisis in the United States and force more parents to make tough choices around trying to manage work and care.

Social Security and Medicare

Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries are more likely to be women. Moreover, women are more likely to live longer than men, meaning they are more likely to rely on these programs for a longer period of time. Additionally, for women who receive Social Security, these benefits more likely comprise a main source of income as they age compared to men. Thus, cuts to Social Security and Medicare disproportionately harm women. The Social Security Administration reported to Representative DeLauro that these cuts would increase the wait time for a decision for a disability claim to nine months and force the layoff of 6,000 employees, making the agency less responsive to the public and reduce access to critical services.

Food Assistance

SNAP benefits disproportionately benefit women and children. A 2019 report found that 58 percent of SNAP recipients were women and 43 percent were children. Any cuts to SNAP, like House Speaker McCarthy’s proposal to restrict access to SNAP by expanding work requirements, will disproportionately harm women and families. Additionally, the USDA, which administers SNAP and WIC, reported the enormously harmful impact that proposed Republican cuts would result in for WIC, which provides food assistance to low-income pregnant, post-partum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children. If these proposed cuts were implemented, WIC would be unable to provide benefits to 250,000 participants, and reduce access to the program by 22 percent.

Any cuts to SNAP will disproportionately harm women and families.

Looking Ahead

Any budget that Congress passes is a reflection of our values and priorities. Government spending goes to specific programs that help to, among many other things, reduce poverty, provide needed assistance for child care, and ensure food security for women and families. It’s a corrosive misunderstanding to treat this spending as inherently wasteful simply because it’s expensive: these expenditures are essential to building and growing our economy and providing for the well-being of families across the country. Budget cuts don’t happen in a vacuum: they have tangible impacts on the services that millions of Americans rely upon every day. Raising the debt ceiling is necessary to ensure the U.S. economy remains as strong as possible, and passing a budget that adequately meets the needs of women and families should be Congress’ primary goal.


  1. Author analysis of Current Population Survey data.