To Truly Honor Labor Day, Compensate Mothers

By reinstating the expanded child tax credit and scaling guaranteed income programs that are caring for mothers, we have a unique opportunity to elevate mothers every day of the year.

Cajania Brown and her son are both residents of Jackson, Miss. Brown is a member of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a guaranteed income program that gives $1,000 per month for 12 months to 100 families headed by Black women living in federally subsidized housing. (Sarah Stripp / Springboard to Opportunities)

On this Labor Day, let’s consider the two meanings of the word. On the one hand, there is the original labor exerted by our mothers when we were brought into this world. On the other, there is the often invisible work that our mothers provided in raising us. So often, it was our mothers who stayed with us when we were sick, who held us when we were hurting, who made sure we were fed, warm and safe. Mothers are the essential workers for our families and communities—so this Labor Day, we are compelled to think about the many ways our leaders and policies are currently failing this country’s mothers.

Too many mothers, especially mothers of color, cannot access what they need to take care of themselves and their families. A mother from the Abundant Birth Project, a guaranteed income program in San Francisco targeting Black and Pacific Islander mothers, noted: “If you’re making minimum wage to support a family of four or five, it just don’t make no sense … I can still get denied benefits.”

Stagnant wages in the face of rising costs mean that even mothers with jobs are not safe from financial catastrophe. The lack of paid medical and family leave has pushed mothers out of the workforce during the pandemic. Further, moms are punished and penalized by the very safety net programs intended to help them advance economically and socially. Blatant racism, lack of trust and centuries of unremedied exploitation threaten the well-being of mothers of color and their families everyday.

Data compiled by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development and the Abundant Birth Project shows us just how challenging it can be for mothers to make ends meet. These analyses build upon the Family Needs Calculator, an alternative measure of what families need to survive in California, and conclusions are clear: We must do more to protect the health of Black and Brown moms and their babies, and mothers deserve to be protected.

Enacting a guaranteed income is an important part of solving for this inequity. A guaranteed income, often confused with a universal basic income, proposes to give stipends targeted by income and need so that all pregnant people, children and families have the funds to meet their most essential needs—with their dignity and self-efficacy intact. Providing direct, unconditional cash aid is a bold step that not only demonstrates trust in women to make the right choices for themselves and their families, but also addresses the underlying stress of financial insecurity that is likely a key driver of premature birth, childhood trauma and maternal mortality.

When guaranteed income is provided to women of color, specifically moms, it undoubtedly leads to increased quality of life for Black and Brown mothers, their families and quite literally everyone they touch. What will the impact be on small businesses when more families have cash to spend? How will our schools thrive when more parents are no longer living hand-to-mouth and can share their time and perspectives with PTAs? What will our country’s future look like when more families are stably housed and fed, and their children actually have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential?

Guaranteed income is critical to supporting the health, well-being and economic stability of its recipients and represents a prime opportunity to connect mothers with the financial resources necessary to disrupt inequitable outcomes in birth, education and beyond. It is time to eliminate the stigma and shame so many moms encounter when simply trying to access the resources they need to thrive and raise families with joy.

Last year’s expanded child tax credit is a prime example of how direct cash can work at scale—distributing monthly payments of up to $300 per child to nearly every parent in America, the policy allowed families to cover their basic needs, did not have any adverse employment effects and does not contribute to inflation. In fact, even moderate economists have called for this unrestricted cash program, whose ending led to a more than 40 percent spike in child poverty, as a critical tool for families to combat rising prices. Programs like the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, the Abundant Birth Project and The Bridge Project are showing in real time the generational impact of giving marginalized mothers a guaranteed income.

Everyday, in homes across the country, mothers are laboring to shape the next generation. Our collective future is in their hands. Policymakers must acknowledge mothers and the role they play in making our economy strong and resilient. The path to security, dignity and financial sovereignty for Black, Brown, Indigenous and immigrant mothers across this country starts with cash. By reinstating the expanded child tax credit and scaling guaranteed income programs that are caring for mothers, we have a unique opportunity to elevate mothers every day of the year.

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About and

Dr. Zea Malawa is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley and the director of Expecting Justice.
Yvonne Yen Liu is associate director of research at Insight Center for Community Economic Development.