The Morning After Mother’s Day

Guest blogger H. Patricia Hynes, a retired Professor of Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health, is on the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.

Mother’s Day with its messages of love, respect and gratitude has passed. And we revert to the social, economic, and political realities of women who are mothers, realities airbrushed away for a day.

Here are some salient facts of mothers in the U.S. today:

Single Mothers

Twenty percent of all families are headed by working single mothers.Families of single mothers have an extremely high poverty rate, near 30% percent, and are worse off financially than single mothers were in 1970. Women who leave welfare and take jobs have average earnings of $8000-10,800 — not nearly enough to lift a single mother and children out of poverty.In late 2009, 1 of every 8 women who were single mothers and sole breadwinners in their families was unemployed, a rate twice as high as married men. Women who flee violent husbands or partners usually end in poverty for a period of time, which is longer if they flee with their children.


Gender Wage and Benefit Gap

More than two-thirds of married mothers are employed; and, given the extended recession, their earnings are more important than ever to their families’ well-being.Yet the gender wage gap persists at 77 cents for every dollar on average, resulting in a lifetime average loss for working women of $434,000 in income.Lesser income over a lifetime results in a diminished social security, retirement and pension increasing the lifetime gender wage gap to as much as $1 million for some women. The gender wage gap exists in all occupations, in comparable jobs with men, at all educational levels; and it is higher for African American and Hispanic women.Further, women workers are less likely than men to have fringe benefits, such as paid sick days even though they are more likely to have to lose work because of children’s illness.


Pregnancy and New Motherhood

What about mothers-to-be?The first of its kind national study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that homicide is a leading cause of traumatic death among new and expectant mothers.The CDC admits that the data is not reliably tracked and thus their findings understate the magnitude of the crime.Some state studies have found much higher rates that the CDC, concluding that intentional murder is the leading cause of traumatic death among new and expecting mothers.


Pregnancy and the Workplace

Women at every socioeconomic level and in entry to executive positions have had to pay “the pregnancy penalty”: job offer withdrawn, demotion, docked pay and benefits, sexual harassment, forcibly reduced hours, and job loss, according to wage discrimination expert Dr. Evelyn Murphy. Illustrative statistics from 1997-2004 gathered in her book, Getting Even (2005), reveal that employers in all work sectors, including rental agencies, hotel and big box chains, telephone companies, media, state police, and higher education have been charged with pregnancy-related discrimination and have settled.Verizon, for example, settled a class action suit with 12,500 women who were denied benefits related to pregnancy and maternity.Pregnancy discrimination is one of the fastest growing kinds of employment discrimination being filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Motherhood Penalty

In The Price of Motherhood (2001), economic reporter Ann Crittenden observed that women’s labor in the family, including housework, meal preparation, childcare and eldercare, has been “sentimentalized as a labour of love” and uncompensated. “The caring economy” (as family work is called) is uncounted in the paid economy and, consequently, under-supported by social welfare benefits and policy.In the United States, parenting receives so little government support, such as paid parental leave and subsidized child-care, that women mainly bear the cost of child care through their own unpaid labor. No wages for work in the “caring economy” of the home means no pension or retirement benefits and lower Social Security in older age. Thus women are systematically impoverished for being mothers and the primary caregivers of elderly parents.

A 2003 Government Accounting Office (GAO) study of the impact of parenthood on working mothers’ and fathers’ salaries found that women are penalized and men, rewarded. Working mothers suffer a loss of earnings (average of 2.5% for each child), while working fathers enjoy an increase in earnings (average of 2.1% for each child).What might explain these differences: for starters, gendered stereotypes of employers, namely that working mothers have reduced productivity and working fathers work more efficiently.


Women and Federal Policy

In her primer Women and the U.S. Budget (2005), Jane Midgley frames the federal and state policy issues which contribute to women’s lower economic status than men.For example, women working in the public sector have, on average, salaries that are closer to comparable men’s salaries and have more access to employer-funded pension benefits and health plans.Thus the trend in privatization of government services threatens the economic gains for women in the workplace. Working mothers in particular have a triple layer of discrimination:being concentrated in lower-paying jobs, without benefits; being the majority of unpaid caregivers of society; and receiving inadequate government assistance for welfare-to-work programs.In addition, flat state taxes and sales taxes take a larger percent of their smaller salaries.Midgley concludes that tax policy is a “major instrument” for increasing inequality, with single working mothers — who do not enjoy tax shelters and tax entitlements at the bottom.

Recommendations to Gain Justice and Equality for Mothers

Support economic autonomy for women through training and opportunities.

Support as generous a social welfare system of benefits for mothers raising children as is provided for soldiers and war veterans.

Lobby for enforcement of equal pay and equal employment opportunity rights and for family-friendly work arrangements,.

Lobby for the right to organize, given that the gender gap is smaller among unionized workers than non-unionized.

Work to end violence against women in all forms.

Additional Resources

Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Wage Project

National Committee on Pay Equity

Women of Color Resource Center


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