Does Motherhood Make You Poor?

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Ann Crittenden, a former New York Times reporter, writes in her book, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, that motherhood is the biggest reason why so many women live in poverty. And if not in poverty then they still lag behind men in wages and job advancement. Until a woman bears a child, she is relatively equal to a man in terms of ability to compete in the job market. But once a little bambino enters the picture, all that changes.

Some people dismiss this argument with the old canard, “No one made them have children; why should society have to make adjustments in order to accommodate them?” I’m really tired of hearing that. For one thing, it takes a woman and a man to make a baby. So why does the responsibility for raising it fall primarily on the woman? And don’t tell me about all the house husbands out there who consider themselves the primary caregiver. They’re so few and far between their numbers are almost negligible. (According to the 2006 U.S. Census Survey, there are over 160,000 stay-at-home-dads in the United States compared to approximately five million stay-at-home moms.)

Besides, stay-at-home parents of either sex suffer from the same economic problems: no income of their own, devaluation of what they do in the home, less work credit for the purposes of determining Social Security benefits, no money being paid into pension funds, and difficulty getting credit. It’s just that so many more stay-at-home moms than dads makes this a women’s issue.

If a woman stays home with her children and then there’s a divorce, statistics show that she gets, to be blunt about it, screwed. Current child support guidelines are usually based on the income potential of each parent, which means that the SAHM is forced to go into the workforce no matter how ill-prepared she is or what the ages of her children are. Child and spousal support (the latter of which is increasingly rare) are usually not enough to make it possible for the mother to continue to stay home with her children.

While it’s true that the courts usually take into account the lower earning potential of the woman (merely because she is a woman), more often than not she’s held responsible for more of the child support than she can afford. At the same time, the man, who is no longer considered the primary breadwinner, has more income at his disposal (especially since his expenses have declined). Women are more likely to descend into poverty then men after a divorce.

And then there’s the issue of employability when a woman has children. While she may choose to work part-time or take on less-demanding jobs because she has children, often that decision is made for her. The female lawyer is passed over for partnership, the female professor has a harder time getting tenure, professionals of all types make less money because of time they take off for children. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that the majority of women in the workforce have jobs that are not as generously compensated as “men’s jobs” because they are seen as “women’s work.” (For example, the garbage collector makes more than the waitress.) Not only that, but when males do enter traditionally female occupations, they are often paid more than the women are for doing the same job.

Not every woman who has children is poor. But the facts show that having children makes it more likely that a woman will have a lower standard of living than women without children. And they most definitely will be more likely to be poor than men with children. Because no matter how you slice it, mothers usually end up with the short end of the stick income-wise. And considering that they are trying to support society’s children on their lower incomes (or no income at all), this is a situation that needs to be rectified. If we profess to care about our children, that is.

Source: Women in the Labor Force: A Databook by the U.S. Department of Labor.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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