Mothers Pay Price for Nurturing Human Capital

Despite cheerleading about “family values,” our society and government give no economic recognition to mother's work. The author argues that the great unfinished business of the women's movement may well be winning respect for women's work at home.

Ann Crittenden

(WOMENSENEWS)-After 15 years as an economics reporter, I added a new dimension to my work life that would have profound personal and financial consequences: I became a mother.

I was immediately struck by two things: First, that my new commitment as a mom required as much if not more skill, self-discipline, patience and judgment-not to mention love-than my previous work had ever demanded. And second, the world out there didn't seem to “get it” when it came to the value of my efforts. The unpaid or poorly paid work of rearing children was not regarded as work at all, much less highly skilled work, comparable to the service performed by the best teachers, counselors, ministers and therapists.

This was dramatically brought home to me a few years after I had quit my job as a writer for The New York Times, in order to have more time for my family. I ran into someone who asked, “Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?”

I was determined to write something that would convincingly demonstrate that raising children really is what people often say it is: “the most important job in the world.” I knew that economists now agree that two-thirds of all wealth is created by human beings-through their skills, creativity and enterprise that is called “human capital.” I also knew as a parent that these capabilities are nurtured, or stunted, in a child's earliest years. That makes mothers, and other early caregivers, the nation's principal wealth producers.

Yet the vital economic role of these producers is virtually invisible.

Unpaid labor in the household-most of it related to childcare-is not counted in the Gross Domestic Product, despite the fact that it rivals in size the largest industries. Mothers are not mentioned in the economics textbooks as the foremost producers of human capital. And mothers' caring labor is valued at zero, or utterly disregarded, by every major institution in our society. This makes mothers the only people in the economy who are expected to work for no remuneration.

The Big Difference Between Men's Work and Women's Work is Men Get Paid

The principal difference between “men's work” and “women's work” is that men are paid for most of the work they do and women are not. One need look no further for the causes of the relative poverty of women and children.

As an example, I was particularly shocked to discover how far from an equal economic partnership modern marriage still is. The spouse who primarily cares for the children has no legal claim on the primary breadwinner's income, which is mislabeled as “family income.” She has no statutory right to half the family's assets in the vast majority of states. And if a divorce occurs, she is not entitled to compensation for her financial sacrifices on behalf of the family, despite evidence that the typical college-educated mother may lose as much as one million dollars in lifetime income as a result of having a child. Most divorced mothers leave marriage with a much lower earning capacity, and fully 40 percent will need to turn to welfare for some period of time.

This staggering “mommy tax,” as I call it, explains why more than one-quarter of college-educated baby boomer women have had no children: The costs-the economic risks-have simply been too high.

Mothers are also penalized outright by government policy. Every other worker may qualify for Social Security, unemployment insurance or workman's compensation and job retraining in the event of job displacement. Not mothers. Nannies earn Social Security credits but mothers do not. This is one of the many reasons why motherhood is the single greatest risk factor for poverty in old age.

Mothers' lower income and reduced economic security make most married mothers' dependent in marriage. This is the “dark little secret of family life,” rarely if ever discussed in polite company. Although it does surface in the popularity of books urging women to “surrender” to marriage, many can see no alternative. This maternal dependency, despite its ill effects on women's equality and peace of mind, is not considered to be a problem, if it involves dependency on a husband rather than a government.

Maternal Dependency Is Detrimental To Children As Well As Women

But a growing body of evidence demonstrates that maternal dependency of any kind is detrimental to children, as well as to women themselves. A family's economic investment in its children turns out to be greater and more reliable if mothers have some control over family income. This is because income earned or controlled by mothers is more likely to be spent on children than income controlled by fathers. Even more provocative is the considerable evidence that children's welfare is enhanced not only when mothers have their “own money,” but also when no one is able to challenge their priorities.

In other words, the more resources mothers have at their command, the greater a nation's investment in human capital, and the more prosperous it is likely to be. This evidence is so strong that development economists now believe that the best way to develop an economy is to educate and empower women.

These insights are utterly absent from the sterile, often hypocritical American debate about “family values.” The value of the work done in families, by mothers in particular, is still given no economic recognition. Women may have won respect for their work in the workforce, but they have yet to win respect for their contribution in the home. This, I believe, is the big unfinished business of the woman's movement.

Ann Crittenden is the author of the recently published “The Price of Motherhood”