The traditional portrait of mothers needs a 21st century update: Yes, many mothers still bake cookies. But they also bring home the bacon.
More than any time in the past, mothers are making an essential contribution to the economic security of their families. In fact, fewer than one in five families fit the 1950s stereotype in which the father goes to work to support the family and the mother stays at home to care for the children.
Today, over two-thirds of mothers are working in paid jobs outside the home—twice as many as were working outside the home in 1965. And their collective contributions are enormous: Mothers earned $960 billion in 2013. They are the sole wage earners in one-third of all American families.
Indeed, a mother’s earnings typically account for 40 percent of her family’s income. In the poorest families, mothers contribute twice that amount—86 percent—to their families’ total income.
These are among the findings of a new report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) that paints a vastly different portrait of motherhood than what was the norm just four or five decades ago.
Yet, despite revolutionary changes in the number of women in the labor force, public policy remains mired in the Leave it to Beaver era.
As a result, the work/family calculus has become harder for mothers to balance. Fathers have taken on greater responsibility for the care of families, but mothers still spend more than twice as much time with their children as fathers do. And—astoundingly—women are actually penalized for becoming mothers.
Working mothers earn 3 percent less than women without children, subjecting them to a “mommy penalty.” Fathers, on the other hand, earn 15 percent more than men without children—a “daddy bonus”!
These disparities are neither inevitable nor intractable. We could take a number of steps to reduce the disparity in pay and help lighten the load for mothers across America. All it would take is the recognition that we live in the 21st century, not the 1950s, and that public policy should catch up with the fact that 70 percent of mothers are now in the labor force.
Congress could, for example, adopt the Paycheck Fairness Act to help ensure women receive equal pay for equal work. Or it could raise the minimum wage to help women make a living wage, as they make up 63 percent of the workforce earning at or below the minimum wage. Congress could bring the U.S. in line with 182 other nations and pass legislation enacting paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child, leaving Papua New Guinea and Oman as the two outliers. Or Congress could approve legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave, expanding affordable day care and encouraging more flexible work policies to help ease the burden under which working mothers now labor.
Politicians give ample lip service to “family values.” But family values should begin by valuing families, which means recognizing mothers for their significant contribution to the financial well-being of their families and crafting policies that help them excel both at home and at the office.
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