I Got It from My Momma: Economic Mobility and Motherhood

You have made an informed decision, assessed all of your options, and are going to be a mom! Congratulations! You have guaranteed yourself a lifetime of macaroni art, tiny hand prints, misspelled poems, and eventually some flowers, or even a nice handbag. As Mother’s Day approaches I am left contemplating what I could possibly give the woman who sacrificed it all for me. She gave me her time, her attention, and perhaps her economic mobility as well?

We can’t talk about mothers and the economy without discussing the history of women in the workforce. World Wars I and II brought more women into industry and public service jobs, filling vacancies left by servicemen. These vacancies broadened the scope of both the type of jobs and the types of women in the workforce. (Before World War I, many employers refused to hire married women.) By 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which mandated equal pay for both genders. Adding another layer of protection, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, banned discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.

Currently there are over 72 million women in the labor force, 47 percent of all workers. These women, however, are not paid the equal wage guaranteed to them by the Equal Pay Act, instead making 77 cents to every dollar made by their male counterparts. The wage disparities are even greater for women of color. African-American women earn only 64 cents, while Hispanic/Latinas are even worse off, with a mere 56 cents to the dollar.


Both dual income and single mothers face similar challenges at work and with economic mobility. In a Cornell University study entitled “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” researchers found that employed mothers face discrimination that could significantly interfere with their economic mobility, in both wages and perceptions of competence and commitment. Using job applications for a pair of same-gendered and equally qualified applicants who differed on parental status, researchers compared hiring outcomes in both a laboratory study and with actual employers. They found that in addition to the gender wage gap women face, mothers experienced a per-child penalty of 5 percent. Researchers also found that mothers are perceived as less competent and committed to their work. (The opposite was found to be true for fathers in the workforce. They were seen as more committed and even offered higher starting salaries.)  Women without children were seen as more competent than men without children. The study was unable to determine the causal mechanism for this bias. The fact that evaluators offered higher salaries to fathers suggests a gendered mentality as to who the bread winner should be. (And let’s not forget the unpaid labor of mothers working in the home as primary caregivers. It is estimated that these moms should be paid about $59,862 for all of the work they do managing households and caring for children.)

These biases have even more devastating implications for single mothers, who do not have a supplemental income from a partner. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single-parent families in 2016, more than 80 percent were headed by single mothers. Of those single mothers, about 49 percent have never married and 51 percent are divorced, separated, or widowed. Single mothers earn well below married mothers on the income ladder: in 2013, single mothers had a median income of $26,000 compared to married mothers’ median income of $84,000. All in all, single mothers fare worse on almost all accounts when compared to married mothers. Making ends meet is especially challenging for single mothers with poverty rates five times higher than that of married mothers. This leads to a higher incidence of homelessness and subpar access to health care (75 percent of homeless families are headed by single mothers and over 20 percent lack healthcare).

As mentioned earlier, women of color face an even larger wage gap compared to men and white women. The challenges facing mothers of color—single and married, working and non-working—are notable. The proportion of female-headed working families is higher among African Americans (65 percent), compared with whites (36 percent), Asians (20 percent), Latinos (31 percent), and those in other racial groups (45 percent). Mothers of color must also manage the disparities in education, obtaining culturally relevant child care, and fear of violence that their children may face due to discrimination.

While there is no holiday where more money is spent to celebrate any one individual more than Mother’s Day, I wonder if mothers have the same place of high esteem in our policies or practices. Perhaps the best way to appreciate a mother’s role in society this year would be to offer equitable wages, flexible employment opportunities, and supportive services, like quality, affordable dependent care. (But you could send the flowers, too, I guess.)