Motherhood - the Forgotten Issue: Invisible Women

By Folbre, Nancy | The Nation, October 20, 1984 | Go to article overview

Motherhood - the Forgotten Issue: Invisible Women


Folbre, Nancy, The Nation


Motherhood-the Forgotten Issue

Despite all the rhetoric about family values from the Republicans and the Democrats, neither seem concerned about the economic well-being of mothers. Race and class largely determine women's economic vulnerability, but women with children are far more susceptible to poverty than are men or childless women. In 1981, 68 percent of all single mothers with at least one child under 6 and one or more older children were poor. In contrast, unmarried women without children had a higher average income than childless couples.

Although the major parties call themselves pro-women and pro-family, their records do not support those claims. Specifically, they have not acted on five crucial matters: guaranteed parenthood leave, publicly funded day-care facilities, enforcement of a father's child-support responsibilities, welfare protection for women and children living in poverty and federally funded abortions.

Motherhood, like apple pie, is a chiche that politicians can invoke at relatively low cost. Because it is sanctified as a religious, moral or cultural mission, raising children is not considered work. If it's not work, it doesn't have to be paid for. And if it doesn't have to be paid for, employers, absent fathers and the government need not worry about it. Household labor, after all, is not included in the gross national product.

As most mothers and some fathers recognize, child rearing is, among other things, a form of labor. The fact that it's not paid for has some peculiarly unfair economic consequences. When today's children enter the work force, their Social Security taxes will largely support today's adults in their old age, whether or not those adults directly contributed to the "child-rearing sector' of the economy. If that sector seems invisible it is partly because the United States does not provide child-support allowances. It is the only Western industrialized country that has neither national health insurance nor a systematic maternity-leave policy guaranteeing seniority and pension rights.

U.S. courts recognize childbearing as a disability, requiring only that pregnant women be provided the same medical coverage and sick leave that other disabled workers receive. Since many firms do not provide such benefits, only about 40 percent of all working women are covered.

In 1978 California passed legislation guaranteeing a woman up to four months of unpaid maternity leave. Recently a Federal District Court found the law in conflict with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which stipulates that pregnant women may not be treated differently from other employees. The problem could be averted if, as in Sweden, both men and women were guaranteed parenthood leave. But neither maternity nor paternity leaves seem to be on the national political agenda.

Day-care centers and nursery schools in the United States fall well below European standards. This summer's cases of sexual abuse have dramatized the absence of Federal regulation or licensing of private facilities. New commercially franchised day-care centers are able to accommodate hundreds of "units,' as children are referred to in management parlance, but even mass-produced day care remains scarce.

Where high-quality day care is available, the cost is often prohibitive for all but the well-off. Parents in the upper tax brackets enjoy write-offs for child-care expenses, but less affluent mothers face a circular problem: unable to pay for child care, they never obtain the job experience they need to earn sufficient wages to pay for child care. Public support for day care, always scant, has been significantly reduced. Between 1981 and 1983, direct Federal and state spending on child care for low-income families dropped 14 percent.

Lack of access to well-paying jobs means that a lot of mothers are economically dependent on financial support from the father of their children. …

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