The Economic Reasons Why ‘Mom’ Is America’s Most Important Job

The Economic Reasons Why ‘Mom’ Is America’s Most Important Job


Although it won’t get many headlines, one of the most significant numbers in Friday’s jobs report is the employment-population (E-P) ratio among women, which is 53.6 percent. Put more simply, just over half of women age 16 and older have jobs.

If that sounds low, it is. The failure of the E-P ratio to rebound since the recession — in 2007, 56.6 percent of women were working — has been one of the recovery’s more troubling patterns. Although the decline was partly expected with the aging of the population, it has been more dramatic than anticipated and, even more to the point, the E-P ratio among prime-age women, 25-54 years, is down by a similar amount: 70.1 percent today, versus 72.5 percent in 2007. (Men have struggled much the same; the E-P ratio for prime-aged men is 84.5 percent, compared with 87.5 percent in 2007.)

This stubborn sluggishness should give Fed policymakers pause when considering raising interest rates. Low E-P ratios tell us the labor market isn’t nearly as strong as the unemployment rate indicates.

Related: Here’s the Pain the Job Numbers Don’t Show

But today, my purpose is not to debate monetary policy. Instead, for Mother’s Day, I want to highlight something the official statistics never consider: Many women’s most important job takes place outside the labor market. It’s called being a mom. Failure to appreciate this can, and often does, lead to short-sighted, misguided labor market policies.

Working Moms

Consider this simple accounting exercise: 70 percent of prime-age women are working and about 74 percent are moms. Of course, these groups also overlap — 48 percent of women fall into both categories. Putting it all together, roughly 96 percent of prime-age women are either working or parenting or both. Call it the EMP ratio: employed-and/or-mom to population ratio. In other words, nearly all American women age 25-54 are substantially engaged in productive and societally important activities. (The EMP ratio is about 88 percent if we only consider those with children under 18, but in this day and age, does anyone really believe parenting responsibilities end with high school?)

Why is this important? An enormous body of research spanning economics, biology, neuroscience, sociology and psychology points to the huge impact parents have on their children’s future outcomes, including health, educational attainment, employment and earnings. To take just one example, Nobel Laureate James Heckman has shown that test scores among children in the lowest income quartile, on average, rank 15 percentiles below those in the top income quartile—by age six. Put differently, the disparities that are already in place by the time kids begin school account for more of their relative performance in seventh grade than do all of their experiences while in school.

Related: 7 Quirky Economic Indicators – from Dogs to Guns

Although scholars disagree on the degrees to which genetics and parental behavior contribute to child outcomes, two things are clear: First, parenting matters, and differences in parental backgrounds and capabilities contribute strongly to the intergenerational transmission of inequality; and second, well-designed public policies can immensely improved the life prospects of disadvantaged children, particularly if action is taken early.

Why Moms Matter

On the first point, Janet Currie of Princeton, among others, has demonstrated one potential pathway through which the parent-child link operates. Parental socioeconomic status is strongly predictive of child health, and this childhood health gradient can help explain differences, in the labor market and otherwise, in adulthood.

The role of moms is particularly important. While traditional gender responsibilities are blurring — and although some studies emphasize the importance of dad’s education or occupation — it remains the case that, in most families, the lion’s share of parenting duties falls to mom. According to the American Time Use Survey, among households with children under 18, women spend 1.7 hours engaged in childcare as a primary activity, compared with 0.9 hours for men. If we include secondary childcare time — that spent while also doing something else (better known as multitasking) — women spend 7.6 hours a day tending to their children, while men allocate just 5 hours. The gap persists even when both parents are working full time, with women spending an average of 30 minutes more a day caring for their kids. If 30 minutes doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that it works out to 182 hours over the course of a year — equivalent to dad taking a week-long vacation while mom does all the parenting herself.

What’s more, mothers exert disproportionate influence on the health of their children. For one thing, it’s biology. Economists Anne Case (Princeton) and Christina Paxson (Brown) have found mothers’ behaviors during pregnancy (for example, whether they smoke, drink, or receive prenatal care) have a significant impact on infant birthweight and child health; child health, in turn, influences cognitive ability and academic achievement. Here, maternal education becomes particularly relevant. The more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to avoid substance use and seek medical care while pregnant. She’ll also be more likely to defer childbearing to a later age, and with maturity comes improved parenting practices. Finally, if it is women to whom the majority of child-raising duties fall, then it is their knowledge of and attitudes toward health practices that will shape their children’s health.

Related: Here’s an Economic Agenda for Hillary Clinton​​

So, for reasons of both time investment and biology, how capably women perform as moms has consequences that extend well beyond their families, shaping the character and productivity of the next generation, as well as the demands placed on government programs and services — including the public assistance, health care and criminal justice systems that we remedially rely upon to fill in the holes. There’s also another reason we ought to pay particular attention to moms: It is to them that the vast burden of single parenting largely falls.

The story of poverty in America is largely a tale about single moms. People in families headed by women with no husband present account for half of all poor people in families (by contrast, single father families account for just 10 percent of the total). Growing up in a single-mother headed household is one of the surest pathways to poverty: 55 percent of children in such circumstances are poor; among African-American children, the number is 61 percent.

Sometimes, no amount of effort is able to make up for the lack of a spouse. One in 10 single mom families remain poor despite mom working full-time, year-round; in those cases where employment is constrained to be part-time, or part-year, the poverty rate jumps to over a third. The unemployment rate among single moms with young children is among the highest of any group — and two to three times higher than that among married women. If you want to prevent poverty from perpetuating, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to start than helping single moms.

How Policy Can Help Moms Do Their Jobs

Fortunately — and this is point No. 2 — we know how to prevent this sorry state of affairs from holding sway. Among the most effective public policies we have are those serving disadvantaged mothers and children. Chief among them is the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), the evidentiary gold standard for social programs.    

Developed in the late-1970s by Dr. David Olds and his colleagues, the NFP provides professional nurse home visitors to first-time, low-income moms starting early in their pregnancies and continuing through their children’s second birthdays. During the visits, which occur as often as weekly, the nurses teach the moms about healthy pregnancy, nurturing parenting and achieving self-sufficiency.

It works. The NFP has been the subject of nearly four decades of randomized, controlled trials. Mothers who participate in the program have fewer preterm deliveries and low birthweight babies — and they go on to exert better control over their reproductive lives. Their children grow up healthier and safer, with the incidence of both child abuse and serious accidents halved. They have higher test scores and fewer behavioral problems. Mothers are twice as likely to be employed when their children are two years old — and will have used 30 fewer months of public assistance by the time their kids are 15. Most striking of all is NFP’s cost effectiveness: Among high risk families, the program generates $6 in savings for every $1 invested; in other words, at a typical per family cost of $9,000, NFP will produce more than $50,000 in savings, primarily through reduced reliance on the welfare and criminal justice systems and increased tax revenues from employment.

Related: 10 Worst States for Working Mothers

The NFP is not alone. There are a number of proven, evidence-based supports for mothers and children, spanning education (for example, Reach Out and Read, as well as high quality preschool programs, such as Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project), nutrition (WIC and food stamps), and income supplements (the Earned Income Tax Credit). If you’re interested in learning more about programs that address child poverty, I encourage you to read the excellent work by my colleagues Clio Chang and Jeff Madrick.

Unfortunately, we don’t commit anywhere near the level of resources these programs deserve. The NFP, for instance, has traditionally subsisted by cobbling together funds from ill-focused federal block grants, unpredictable state appropriations and private donations. Recently, things have gotten better, thanks to the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program (MIECHV). Created by the Affordable Care Act and reauthorized by Congress at $400 million annually through fiscal 2017, MIECHV provides dedicated funding to evidence-based programs.

It’s not enough. Even $400 million is but a rounding error in our $3.5 trillion federal budget; despite it’s record of success, home visiting receives just a fraction of the, say, roughly $70 billion we’ve spent annually on unemployment insurance during the last decade.

What’s more, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 hasn’t increased since 2009, meaning that young, low-educated moms who give up precious time with their children to work increasingly are not rewarded for their sacrifice; and when work doesn’t pay, their kids may wind up worse off on net because the small income increment doesn’t offset the loss of active parental involvement. Perhaps most shameful, the U.S. remains the only rich country that lacks a federal guarantee to paid family leave and other workplace flexibilities that would allow moms to balance children and work.

This Mother’s Day, let’s remember two things. First, labor market policy must respect — and prioritize — the job of parent.

And, second, call your mom.

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