Printer Friendly

Motherhood - the forgotten issue: invisible women.

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. Yet this support is often not provided. In 1981, as in previous years, only about 25 percent of all single mothers received the support payments due them. When a bill requiring states to withhold money from paychecks of delinquent parents was introduced in Congress in 1983, even members of the New Right could not bring themselves to vote against it. But experience with a 1975 Federal law applying similar sanctions to fathers of children receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (A.F.D.C.) suggests that enforcement will be a major problem. Despite its vocal support for the 1983 legislation, the Reagan Administration now seeks to reduce Federal funding for the existing Child Support Enforcement Program.

Mothers' economic vulnerability explains their need for public assistance. In 1979, 25 percent of all mothers receiving A.F.D.C. were in the labor force. A 1979 survey shows that approximately half the families receiving A.F.D.C. payments leave the program within two years. Yet during the last five years, eligibility requirements for assistance have been tightened and real benefits substantially reduced.

Throughout the 1970s many states, with the tacit support of the Federal government, lowered their A.F.D.C. costs by neglecting to raise their "standards of need' (the amount deemed necessary to maintain a minimum standard of living) to keep pace with inflation. State legislators apparently felt that poor people could subsist in 1979 on the same stipend they received in 1969, although its purchasing power had fallen by 26 percent.

Any pretense that the purpose of A.F.D.C. was to keep families out of poverty was dropped long before Ronald Reagan came to office. By 1979 only two states had a standard of need for a family of four that exceeded the Federal poverty line. Food stamps and other in-kind payments temporarily cushioned the decline in A.F.D.C. benefits. But in 1983, even combined A.F.D.C. and food stamp benefits available to families of three or four were below the poverty level in all states and were at least 25 percent below the poverty level in thirty-nine states.

A.F.D.C. and Child Support Enforcement bore the brunt of the Administration's cuts in social spending. Between 1981 and 1982, actual expenditures on these programs fell about 12 percent in real terms, and the A.F.D.C. caseload fell by 8 percent, despite increased unemployment among mothers because of the recession. This January the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the 1981 and 1982 changes will shave Federal family aid expenditures by more than $3.6 billion through 1986. Because the states normally match Federal spending on A.F.D.C., the final reductions will come to nearly twice that amount. Many of the families excluded from A.F.D.C. will lose Medicaid coverage. Black and Hispanic families will be disproportionately affected.

One might argue that declining public support for single mothers simply mirrors the overall decrease in social spending. But it also reflects a lack of recognition of mothers' work. Women who receive public assistance by virtue of their relationship to a husband get far more than those who receive assistance "only' because they are raising children. In 1970 the average A.F.D.C. recipient, often separated or divorced from the father of her children, received only 58 percent of what a widowed mother covered by Social Security received. By 1980 that percentage had dropped to 40 percent. That year the average monthly benefit for families on A.F.D.C. was only $287.77.

Many Democrats, as well as Republicans, supported the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which allowed states to deny Medicaid financing for abortions. That legislation has not lowered the rate of abortions; rather, it has forced poor women and their families to assume the burden of the cost. Yet in 1981, many Democrats approved the Reagan Administration's 22 percent cut in Federal support for family-planning services, ignoring the fact that reductions in the availability of family-planning information and contraceptives increase the risk of unwanted pregnancies, particularly for teen-agers.

Why doesn't Walter Mondale take these problems to heart? Perhaps it is because proposals for guaranteed parenthood leave, high-quality publicly funded day care, and increased social spending in areas that affect children would conflict with his obsession with reducing the deficit. But such policies would help provide the public support that child rearing deserves. And a strong commitment to them would lend some substance to the Democrat's cheap profamily rhetoric.
COPYRIGHT 1984 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:federal aid to single mothers
Author:Folbre, Nancy
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 20, 1984
Previous Article:Preparing for a stepped-up war?
Next Article:No magic in this marketplace: energy "happy talk." (Ronald Reagan's energy policy)

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters