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We Didn’t Give Mothers Enough

Amy Traub

The National Retail Federation was expecting a Mother’s Day bonanza on Sunday, predicting consumers would “spend more than ever… as they shower moms with everything from jewelry to special outings at favorite restaurants.” If their projections proved correct, many individual moms got a lot of love last weekend—or at least abundant gifts. Unfortunately, our society as a whole does a great deal less to honor and support mothers. Today, with health coverage for maternity care threatened, child care costs outstripping the price of college tuition, and  nearly a quarter of new mothers forced to return to work two weeks or less after giving birth, we are making it extraordinarily difficult for anyone but the very wealthy to be a mother at all.

The dollars and cents impact is clear: in the U.S. the drop in income associated with having a young child is a stunning $14,850 for households with two adults, after controlling for other factors, according to my findings in a study conducted last year with colleagues Robert Hiltonsmith and Tamara Draut. This is equivalent to 14 percent of household income. For single women, the drop in income associated with having a young child is equivalent to a devastating 36 percent of household income. For parents of color, the lower income level associated with having a young child is compounded by the broader labor market disadvantages faced by people of color.

The blow to income reveals a massive failure of public policy: the U.S. provides no respite from the trap that immediately ensnares families between the need to provide care for their children and the necessity of earning income. Something has to give.

This year, phony solutions to the crisis of care abound. Ivanka Trump, claiming to be a champion of “women who work,” has promoted a child care plan that primarily benefits high-income households, and a paid leave plan that shuts out many families entirely. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are pushing a scheme to let employers take away workers’ overtime pay in the name of employee “flexibility,” and replace it with comp time that could be used to care for family. Yet the mis-named “Working Families Flexibility Act” would still allow employers full discretion about when employees could use any comp time they had earned, leaving working parents with a pay cut but without any guaranteed ability to take paid time off when they actually need it. Instead, as the National Partnership for Children and Families points out, the bill “sets up a dangerous false choice between time and money, when working families urgently need both.” 

New York is among the states implementing better policy. By next Mother’s Day, working parents in New York State will have job-protected, paid leave under the New York State Paid Family Leave Program set to launch January 1, 2018. New York will finally join California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island on the short list of states that guarantee the critical leave benefits that virtually every other country on the planet already provides on a national basis. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is developing plans to gradually expand the city’s successful universal preschool program for four-year-olds to three-year-old children as well, a move that promises to support both working parents and children’s learning.

If we want Mother’s Day to be more than a “greeting card holiday”—an economic boon to florists, jewelers, and restaurants—we need more strong policy like New York’s (and New York itself must act to reverse cuts to child care programs that will harm struggling families). There’s time to do far better for mothers (and fathers too) in Washington and in states and cities across the country by next Mother’s Day.