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  • Writer's pictureNicole Vorrasi Bates

The Unspoken Economics of Motherhood

May 3, 2021. Becoming a mother should be one of the most joyous occasions in a woman’s life. Sadly, this momentous occasion comes with serious economic consequences for women.

This year, May 5th is Mother’s Equal Pay Day, the day in the current year mothers need to work until to catch up to wages paid to men during the last year. That is more than four months of additional work! Mothers of color need to work even longer!

In general, mothers earn 75 cents for every dollar paid to fathers, and single-mothers make even less – just 54 cents on the dollar. Broken down further by race and ethnicity, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic fathers:

  • Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) mothers are paid only 90 cents (85 cents for non-mothers);

  • White, non-Hispanic mothers are paid 71 cents (79 cents for non-mothers);

  • Black mothers are paid only 52 cents (63 cents for non-mothers);

  • Native American mothers are paid only 50 cents (60 cents for non-mothers); and

  • Latina mothers are paid only 46 cents (55 cents for non-mothers).

To make matters worse, these statistics are based on 2019 data! They do not take into account the devastating impact the pandemic has had on women, particularly mothers, many of whom have downgraded their careers or left the workforce altogether.

There is no denying the “Motherhood Penalty” – a decrease in a woman’s salary after becoming a mother. I have witnessed it firsthand. A 2017 Census Bureau study found that the pay gap between spouses doubles between two years before the birth of the first child and the year after that child is born, and continues to grow at a slower rate for the next five years before tapering off and even beginning to fall once the child reaches school-age.

The study suggests “to reduce the overall male-female earnings gap, one could target either the size of the initial increase in the gap at childbirth, or decrease the persistence of that earnings shock.” How do we do that?

Currently, there are a few legislative proposals intended to address the gender pay gap, including as applied to mothers.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (“PWFA”) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers, such as more frequent bathroom breaks or carrying a water bottle, which are more frequently denied to workers in lower paying jobs – those very workers hit hardest by the pandemic. Employers would be prohibited from (1) forcing women to take leave (paid or unpaid) if a reasonable accommodation exists, and (2) retaliating against women who request or avail themselves of a reasonable accommodation.

Originally introduced in 2012, the PWFA has yet to be enacted. However, in 2020, it passed in the US House of Representative with overwhelming support. Recently, even the conservative, pro-employer US Chamber of Commerce supported the Bill and its reintroduction in the current Congress, albeit because the PWFA would reduce employers’ litigation costs.

Nonetheless, after the child is born, working mothers are confronted with serious childcare issues. According to a pre-pandemic study by the US Department of Education, 86% of families with two full-time working parents and 75% of single-parent full-time working families relied upon non-parental childcare.

The lack of access to affordable, flexible, quality childcare, which contributes to the increased pay gap for mothers, is real. I will never forget trying to find childcare for my son. Before getting pregnant, I had visited various daycare centers in Washington DC – both near our home and where my husband and I worked - and found a few, but all of them had waiting lists for the $2400/month (!!) infant room. That price tag alone keeps women from going back to work.

When I was four weeks pregnant, I put our name on the waitlists – I literally could not have done it earlier. As instructed, when our son was born, I called to let each of them know. They informed me that it would be about nine months to a year before a spot was available.

With no family in the area, I had to make other arrangements (and we were very blessed to have the means to do so) or one of us was going to leave our job. When our son was twenty months old, they called to say a spot had opened up! Mothers without means would be out of work for 20 months, and many of them and their families would be forced into poverty as a result of a lack of childcare.

The White House, under President Joe Biden, recently issued two proposals to address these issues. First, the American Jobs Plan provides for $25 billion both to assist struggling childcare centers and to build new ones. It would also create additional childcare jobs.

Second, the American Families Plan provides for a cap of 7% of income for childcare costs for low and middle income families, aims to ensure high-quality childcare, includes increased child-related tax credits, and establishes government-funded pre-school for all three and four-year olds. In addition, the plan provides for a $225 billion investment in a national paid family and medical leave program, designed to help the families that need it the most – low-wage workers that are predominantly women and workers of color.

While all three of these proposals are long overdue and will help mothers and their families, they alone will not eradicate the gender pay gap and its tragically damaging effects. Mothers will continue to battle the bias against them (they are hired less often, assumed to be less committed/unreliable, etc.), and these proposals do nothing to address general gender discrimination.

As discussed at length in our recent blogs, “$956 Billion Reasons We Must Address the Gender Pay Gap Immediately”, and “The ERA-Can We Stop History From Repeating Itself?”, we need more support for women and mothers, including the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Equal Rights Amendment. However, given that the issue of gender equality is clearly a partisan issue, the answer is not likely to come from legislation.

The answer – as it usually does – will come from the strength of our collective voice.


Wage Statistics

Motherhood Penalty

Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Child Care

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