May 12, 2007
The one day a year when we honor our mothers is upon us. Tomorrow, millions of moms will get flowers, candy, a gift or two, and sticky pancakes or burnt toast lovingly prepared by husbands and kids.
As individuals, we’re pretty fond of our mothers. But as a nation we don’t value motherhood all that much. We lag far behind Europe in granting leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Our system of unpaid leave applies only to those who work for the largest corporations, and most new mothers can’t afford to take it anyway. CEOs and their lap-dog lawmakers say paid leave, the norm in most of the rest of the developed world, would cost too much. After all, we have to save money for tax breaks and corporate bailouts benefiting the same employers that don’t provide family benefits.
Child care is another area where we’re Neanderthal regarding social policy. No president has had the guts to propose a comprehensive, federally subsidized child-care program since Richard Nixon vetoed such a plan, calling it the "sovietization of American children." Most moms are now in the paid work force out of economic necessity — but still make only 76 cents to a man’s dollar –so they can’t afford child care that can run $5,000 to 10,000 per year per child. The result is a generation of children characterized by the phrase "latch key kids."
Many mothers take traditional "women’s jobs" (nursing, teaching, housekeeping, child care) to be home when their children are. For this they are punished with historically low wages attached to female-dominated occupations. Is there a reason other than ingrained sex discrimination that dog-pound attendants make more than child-care workers, and parole officers make more than social workers? If employers were really "family-friendly," they would seriously evaluate their pay scales to find the inequities, and bring women’s pay up to par. And they would also encourage fathers to take advantage of the few programs that do exist, like flextime and job-sharing, without labeling guys who want to do it "girlie men" or worse.
However much our younger moms have to scramble, the older ones are worse off. The U.S. has the highest percentage of elderly women in poverty of all major industrialized nations. A big part of this is what I call the "motherhood tax." Women have less money in private pensions than men, due to those lower wages, working part-time, or having to drop out of the work force altogether during years when kids are young. And each year of stay-at-home caregiving for kids is counted as a big fat zero when it comes to benefits in the Social Security system.
Twenty-five percent of elderly women living alone rely on Social Security for 100 percent of their income, and 40 percent count Social Security as 90 percent. As a nation we’re still talking about giving our mothers the "gift" of a privatized system, removing the guaranteed income they have and replacing it with risky stock-market schemes that primarily benefit investment houses. Ask yourself: "If my mother (or grandmother) lost her Social Security today, could I afford to write her a check every month?" When those great private investments go the way of Enron, it’s the kids who will pick up the slack.
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We should all think about fixing a system that doesn’t work for moms. The majority of mothers, like fathers, now work outside the home — they need the money to support their families. We need national policies and workplace practices that reflect that reality. June Cleaver doesn’t live here anymore.
Martha Burk is the director for the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations.