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A Lot Less Fun Than Mother’s Day

Amy Traub

Mother’s Day was a couple of weeks ago, but Americans need another day to think about what we owe to moms. May 30th is a less festive occasion: It’s Moms’ Equal Pay Day, a date indicating how far into 2018 mothers have to work to catch up with what fathers were paid back in 2017. In other words, today underscores the reality that mothers must work a full 5 months longer than fathers to provide the same support to their families. The pay inequity harms mothers, their partners, children and everyone else who relies on a mother’s income for all or part of their household’s needs.

In our 2016 report The Parent Trap, my Demos colleagues and I quantified the plunge in income associated with having a child too young for public school. After controlling for differences in age, partnership status, education, and race, we found that the drop in income associated with having a young child amounts to $14,850 a year for households with two adults. For women who become single mothers, household income declines a staggering 36 percent. The high cost of child care and a lack of paid leave to care for a baby is responsible for much of the decline: Mothers who live with a partner and were paid low wages are the most likely to leave the workforce when a baby is born.

Yet it’s not all about taking time out of the workforce. Researchers have revealed a “motherhood penalty” as mothers in the paid workforce face discrimination “in the form of lower perceived competence and commitment, higher professional expectations, lower likelihood of hiring and promotion, and lower recommended salaries,” according to Cornell University scholars Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik.  While fathers see a pay bonus after becoming parents, mothers’ pay takes a hit.  For mothers of color, the income penalty associated with having a child is compounded by racial discrimination that further reduces pay.

We owe far more to our mothers. Our recent briefing book, Everyone’s Economy, lifted up a range of policies—including many bills already pending before Congress—that would cut the motherhood penalty and help to equalize pay. Policymakers should:

  • Ensure Paid Time to Care. At some point in our lives, we all need time to care for loved ones or ourselves, whether we are bonding with a new child, caring for an ailing parent, or recovering from a serious personal illness. Yet in 2017, only 13 percent of private sector workers had access to paid family leave through their employer. Policymakers should provide paid benefits to working people who need time away from their jobs to care for a new child, a loved one with a serious health condition, or their own serious health condition.
  • Provide Child Care for All. Family comes first. That means all families should have access to affordable and high-quality choices for their children's early care and education. Millions of American parents need child care to be able to work or go to school, while children need quality care and education to get a strong beginning in life. Yet child care costs have soared in the past decade, leaving a growing number of working- and middle-class families unable to afford the early learning and care that will enable their children to thrive. Policymakers should guarantee universal access to affordable, high-quality child care and preschool programs for all American families, and improve compensation and training for child care workers.
  • Guarantee Fair Employment. We all deserve an equal opportunity to be hired based on our abilities, and to carry out our work free from discrimination and harassment. But discriminatory hiring, firing, harassment, promotions, and pay continue to shape the U.S. labor market in ways that systematically disadvantage people of color, women, LGBTQ workers, people with disabilities, and other targeted groups. Policymakers should provide additional resources to strengthen the enforcement of existing fair employment laws and expand civil rights laws to clarify that discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, personal credit history, pregnancy status or caregiving responsibilities are illegal. Policymakers should also ensure that people with arrest or conviction records have a fair chance to work.
  • Raise Job Standards. Americans work hard, and that should provide enough to sustain our families. Yet a large share of employers structure jobs in ways that prevent working people from getting by. Today, as women and people of color make up a growing share of America’s working class, employers are weakening job standards for all working people. Policymakers should raise the standards for American jobs so that all working people get paid fairly for their efforts and have work schedules that take their basic needs into account. This policy includes a higher minimum wage, stable scheduling, paid sick time, prevention of wage theft, protections from being improperly classified as an independent contractor, and increasing the number of working people who are guaranteed overtime pay.
  • Restore Freedom to Negotiate at Work. Our American tradition guarantees working people the freedom to join together with co-workers to negotiate for a fair return on work. When workers have the freedom to band together in unions and negotiate with their employers, they and their families gain from improved wages and benefits, safer working conditions, and fairer treatment on the job. Yet because unions successfully enable working people to build power, the freedom to come together in unions is under attack by corporate interests aiming to maximize their own wealth and power. Policymakers should restore workers’ freedom to join together in unions and negotiate for a fair return on work.

Enacting these policies would be a giant step toward workplace parity for mothers, fathers, and all working people.