Bryce Covert | The Nation

Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

Education Alone Won’t Put an End to Equal Pay Days

Female students of color in college

Today is Equal Pay Day, the dismal holiday where women celebrate the fact that, on average, their earnings have caught up to what men made in one year last year, given that when they work full-time, year-round they make just 78 percent of what men make.

The gender wage gap hasn’t really budged in recent years—about a decade, in fact—and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research predicts it won’t actually close for another five decades. The gap is even larger for women of color, and they have to wait until summertime or later to catch up to what white men earned last year.

But some think change is coming faster than that. They base this hope on the fact that today’s young women are getting college degrees at a faster pace than today’s young men. Given that a college degree represents a more than $400 earnings premium every week over that of a high school graduate, that extra money should, they reason, help women earn their way out of the gap.

But while education may boost earnings for each college-educated woman over her less educated sister, that doesn’t put her on better, or even equal, footing with a similarly educated brother. The gender wage gap still shows up at every education level. Go to work after graduating high school, and you’ll earn less than a male high school graduate; go to work after graduating college, earn less than a male college grad. Even when a young, childless woman graduates the same college with the same major into the same job as a man, she’ll earn less.

Perhaps more galling is that the gap is widest at the highest levels of achievement. Women with high school educations earn 75 percent of what high school educated men earn, but women with graduate degrees earn 69.1 percent of what men with those degrees earn.

The gender wage gap can be partially explained by different factors: women get clustered into lower-paying work, and they often have to take time away from their careers to care for family. But each time economists look at the gap, they find an unexplainable portion—and that’s likely the murk where discrimination against women exists. It’s only been a half century since women started to flood the workplace, not much time to overcome the view that a woman who worked was maladjusted and harmful to her children, her husband and society. Given today’s treatment of pregnant women and mothers at work, we clearly haven’t totally shaken that suspicion of a woman in the workplace. Even if it goes unstated, even to the person setting pay himself, that suspicion may still lurk. It’s no contest for a mere diploma.

The same holds true for other entrenched biases. People of color can’t eradicate racism by simply getting better educated, either. While college degrees help, they can’t make up for everything. A black student has a lower chance of getting a job than a white one at every education level she achieves. Worse, a black graduate with an Associates degree has about the same chances as a white high school graduate; a black student with a Bachelor’s has the same chance as a white person who didn’t finish college. So even if a black person is better off educated than not, he will still never be quite as well off as a white person in a society still colored by white supremacy and the legacy of slavery.

What about class? Education is often championed as the ultimate way to overcome income inequality. It’s a sort of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach, assuming that education will reinforce those bootstraps into something akin to steel cabling. But a recent paper simulated what would happen to income inequality if suddenly, one out of every ten men between the ages of 25 and 64 without a Bachelor’s were to suddenly have one. Such magic would, of course, increase each of those men’s earnings and chances of getting a job. But it doesn’t really change the fact that the richest Americans are getting an enormously outsized share of the country’s income.

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That’s because America today has become a country of calcified, stratified classes that are nearly impossible to move between given that the rich keep accumulating more and more for themselves at the tippy top. An important portion of the problem is not just the wealth they accumulate, but the power they can buy with that wealth, keeping policies in place that benefit the best off among us.

Education is always the answer for the person who would rather put the onus of eliminating sexism, racism, and class on individuals, not on the collective. It’s alluring in a sort of “I did it and so can you” way: just put your mind to it and nothing can hold you back. And they have the numbers to explain to each woman, person of color, and poor person why they will do better with an education. But unfortunately, changing deeply entrenched beliefs society holds about these groups will take a whole lot more. It’s a lot harder than getting more people into a mortarboard. And until we as a society understand that, we’ll be celebrating Equal Pay Days in April, July, and November for the next half century.


Read Next: Bryce Covert on the Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign

Starbucks Asks Employees to Solve Race Relations in America for No Extra Pay

Starbucks "Race Together"


McDonald’s has some unlikely company in at least one aspect of its labor practices: Starbucks.

This week, Starbucks announced that it would encourage its baristas to write “Race Together” on coffee cups and engage customers in conversation about the state of race relations in the United States. The company is also giving its employees stickers and placing inserts in newspapers to get the conversations rolling.

CEO Howard Schultz says the initiative comes out of his desire to show that “we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America” after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s admirable that an executive is taking interest in social issues, rather than only fixating on protecting his own profits. But instead of doing something about it himself, Schultz is putting the onus on his workers—and asking them to go above the normal duties of a low-wage coffee house employee for no extra pay.

In so doing, his company joins the likes of McDonald’s and several other low-wage employers. Today’s underpaid employees are increasingly asked to do more than show up for their shifts on time, perform their duties, and do so politely. Now many employers are also asking them for something more: putting on a performance along with serving up a burger or a Frappuccino. Ahead of Valentine’s Day, McDonald’s ran a campaign where employees were asked to randomly pick customers who could “pay with lovin” instead of money if they danced, called their mom or hugged someone nearby. In reality, that required McDonald’s employees, who make just above minimum wage, to put on a show of excitement and enthusiasm on top of work that can be so rushed and intense that it leads to physical harm.

McDonald’s wasn’t the first employer to demand this kind of work from its employees. In 2013, Pret a Manger posted expectations of its workers: they should create a “sense of fun” and not act like they were “just here for the money.” (It later removed the requirements from its website.) It didn’t clarify what else an employee shows up for if not money. But more and more employers want their workers to pretend they get something out of work other than compensation. Some sociologists estimate that half of all jobs require emotional labor today, up from just a third in 1983.

Starbucks’s campaign is slightly different. It’s not asking employees to show delight doing about menial tasks so customers get a better experience. But it’s still an emotional performance—demanded of employees who make less than $20,000 a year on average. Schultz may genuinely want to spark meaningful conversations about race relations, but the initiative means something for the Starbucks brand, too—and the low-paid employees serve as the uncompensated brand ambassadors.

This extra work, for no extra pay, might require even more effort and duress than urging a customer to dance, particularly for the 40 percent of the company’s workforce are people of color. As Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor who makes money by teaching students about, in part, race and racism, notes, “I require payment to talk about race and racism. It is a hard job.” People of color are constantly being called upon to talk about race—as paragons of their backgrounds and initiators of conversations with white Americans who don’t think of themselves as having a race at all. Cottom wonders whether Starbucks employees will even be given the tools they need for these conversations: “It takes a lot of training and a lot of institutional support to teach people things they would rather not hear. I wonder what kind of training and support the hourly wage baristas at Starbucks will get.”

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Many are also questioning whether these conversations can even do anything toward dismantling the deeply entrenched racism in our country’s systems and practices. In an open letter to the company, Race Forward executive director Rinku Sen notes that effective conversations about race have to be not about “what happens among individuals,” but “what happens as a result of systems.” But that takes a lot of, well, work. “A conversation that leads to something other than frustration requires preparation, a systems analysis, and potential solutions that reach beyond changing individual mindsets or behavior,” she writes.

Schultz is a very wealthy man, reportedly making $21 million a year. If he wants to combat racism, he could do something himself: funding criminal justice reform efforts or groups working on voting rights or economic development projects. Those might be more effective than asking his employees to take on an extra task.


Read Next: Bryce Covert on the dangers of policies that take mothers out of the office

The Danger of Policies That Take Mothers Out of the Office

Working from home


The dilemma is gut wrenching: you’re a new mother and you’ve just ended whatever amount of maternity leave, paid or unpaid, you were able to scrape together. Maybe you work at one of most generous companies, and got six paid months; maybe your employer doesn’t offer any paid leave, and you could only afford a few unpaid weeks away. Or perhaps you couldn’t afford any time off at all. That means returning to work while seeking somewhere to leave a child who’s 6 months old, or younger.

This is a tough challenge financially, logistically and emotionally. Infant childcare can run as much as $16,000 a year. And that’s if you can find somewhere to take such a young child that has open slots, fits into your schedule, and is a place you can trust. Then you have to make peace with leaving a baby you’re just getting to know in someone else’s hands. The problem doesn’t necessarily get better, though, as your child gets older. She still needs care while you go to work, care that is extremely pricey and hard to find.

Given these hurdles, women often feel that it’s easier for them to spend more time with their own children and less time at work. It solves at least part of the emotional, logistical, and financial headaches.

Now some companies are trying to help them do that. Vodafone announced this week that in addition to providing 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, new mothers can opt to work 30-hour weeks at full pay when they come back for up to six months. The startup PowerToFly, meanwhile, has launched with the goal of connecting mothers with work they can do remotely from their homes. Both aim to ease women’s dilemma of balancing work hours against the hours needed to care for a child.

But in doing so, they may end up perpetuating systemic problems with how women, and specifically mothers, are viewed at work.

Mothers are already looked upon as aliens in the workplace. Just having a child makes a woman appear less competent at her job and less committed to her work. Once women become mothers, they are seen as poor candidates for promotions and raises, so their wages take a hit. Too often, coworkers and bosses assume women who give birth will be irrevocably distracted by their children and end up either checking out or leaving altogether.

Though it’s unfair, when a mother becomes absent from the office—no matter how hard she may actually be working—she could be playing into the assumptions people already had that her family will take precedence over her work. Women with a flexible schedule are seen as being less dedicated and less motivated to advance in their careers. Employees who work remotely get lower performance reviews and get fewer raises and promotions. Whether warranted or not, many people still see face time as an indicator of how hard a person works. Programs like the ones Vodafone and PowerToFly are offering could end up further sidelining mothers, not serving them.

Mothers who aren’t in the office don’t just end up making themselves invisible. They also stand out as being different than everyone else. Policies that give them even more ways to be absent—shorter workweeks only for them, flexible schedules, or working from home—serve to put mothers in a separate category, rather than better integrating them and their needs into the workplace.

So the question must be asked as to why only one gender is being offered these ways out. Men are actually rewarded at work when they have children, and they aren’t expected to change their work habits when they have kids. But fathers are increasingly worried about work/life balance and interested in being involved parents. Why shouldn’t Vodafone offer new dads the same reduced schedule? Why shouldn’t a startup aim to connect all parents with remote jobs? Until fathers are also seen as and act like working parents, mothers will be singled out as different.

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And parents aren’t the only ones who need to work less. The 40-hour workweek is a thing of the past; Americans work longer hours than many developed peers whose economies are just as robust. Why even target parents with these policies instead of thinking of ways to reduce hours while keeping productivity high?

I have all the sympathy in the world for women looking at a set of tough choices and concluding they’ll be better off working from home or reducing their hours. It’s understandable that these options can help make a stressful time less stressful. And I’m not one to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But sometimes our individual solutions make progress toward more lasting, important change harder to achieve. The more we take mothers out of the workplace, the more they keep being put in a category all by themselves.

Read Next: Bryce Covert on what’s wrong with #LeanInTogether

Sheryl Sandberg Wants Men to Lean In, but They Really Need to Lean Out


Sheryl Sandberg's #LeanInTogether (leanin.org)

Sheryl Sandberg has a new target demographic: men.

On Wednesday night, Lean In launched a new campaign called Lean In Together. While Sandberg’s original exhortation was for women not to “leave before they leave” their jobs even if they have or might have children, now the organization wants to support and promote “men leaning in for equality.”

Including men is essential if women are going to get closer to equality. As Lean In’s president Rachel Thomas told Bloomberg News, there’s no way “we can get to true equality if men don’t actively participate.” They are, after all, not just half the workforce and half of the world’s parents; they also still hold the most powerful positions in business and politics. On an individual level, family life is a zero-sum game: someone has to feed and bathe the kids at night, arrange the play dates and doctors’ appointments, and make sure the house is clean. Currently, that someone is still overwhelmingly female. If men were to take on more of the unpaid housework, that would free up more of women’s time to spend on paid employment and they wouldn’t have to so often interrupt their careers to have families.

Lean In Together is basically telling men to “lean out” without saying as much. In a video released as part of the campaign launch, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor talk about how their husbands stepped back from their careers to support their ambitious wives. Condoleezza Rice’s father left his university job at the same school as his wife when they got married to avoid a nepotism rule. Others talk about the fathers who spent time raising them and encouraging them. The language the campaign uses, however, is not about leaning out. It’s trying to tell men they can have it all, if “all” means gaining equality while not giving anything up.

Clearly men still need to be convinced to support the basic proposition of fairness. While there is a growing desire among fathers to spend more time with their children and achieve better work/life balance, women are still spending twice the amount of time on childcare and housework. So, maybe men need to be sweet talked into it and promised special treats for doing the bare minimum. In an op-ed to help announce the campaign, Sheryl Sandberg and co-author Adam Grant write, “Some men might wonder whether these benefits…for women[ ] might come at their individual expense.” They answer resoundingly and reassuringly: “No. Equality is not a zero-sum game.”

But gender equality is not all going to be all sunshine and roses for men. Even the video starts to hint at why. In order for Ginsburg and O’Connor to thrive professionally, it meant their husbands had to scale back their own careers. There are a limited number of hours in the day; many men may have to reduce how much they work to spend more time on tasks at home. On a larger level, for women to make advances, men will have to step back. There are only so many CEO jobs at the largest and most successful companies. There are only so many seats in the Senate. There is just one seat in the White House. If those jobs move from being male dominated to half female, some men lose access to power.

Men also shouldn’t get a treat for embracing basic fairness. In the op-ed, Sandberg and Grant argue that we have to go beyond “the usual focus…on fairness” and “articulate why equality is…the desirable thing for us all.” To all the men reading it, they make many promises: happier marriages, longer lives, and even more sex. If a more balanced, less conflicted partnership “isn’t exciting enough,” they write, men should consider this fact: “Couples who share chores equally have more sex.” One man asked his wife as he picked up a pile of dirty clothes whether he was doing “Lean In laundry,” which apparently means laundry that gets rewarded with sex. Beyond the disturbing, if societally pervasive, idea that sex is a prize women bestow on men and not an act they partake with equal desire, it tells men they are doing something special to be rewarded when they don’t act like lazy children.

Still, Lean In and Sandberg’s focus on men is welcome. Too many of these conversations are by and about women as if fathers don’t exist. But just as the original Lean In was criticized for focusing on the individual over the systemic—it mentions a lack of child care, paid leave, and flexibility at work while spending more time on the “barriers that exist within ourselves”—we have to think about systemic solutions that get men more involved and not just rely on them to voluntarily change our entire society.

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One huge piece of that is paternity leave. When men take leave, truly remarkable things happen. They become more invested parents, which means they’re more likely to take on their half of the work raising a child later in its life. It also increases how much time they spend on other household duties, which gives mothers more time to work longer hours at full-time jobs. That also helps boost mothers’ wages.

But men need to be offered paid leave in order to take it and to see that it’s a common practice for other men to leave work when their children arrive. Currently, just 15 percent of American men get paid leave at their jobs.

The tug of war between having a family life and having a career is slowly but steadily becoming understood as not just afflicting women, but both genders. President Obama recognized as much in his recent State of the Union address when he called for affordable child care not to be seen “as a woman’s issue,” but as “the national economic priority that it is for all of us.” Lean In Together is a partial step toward a conversation that is gender neutral. But we can’t sugar coat what it will take to achieve real gender equality at home and at work.


Read Next: Why do Americans feel entitled to tell poor people what to eat?

Why Do Americans Feel Entitled to Tell Poor People What to Eat?

EBT sign

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Last weekend, consumers all across America were buying their slice of the 2.2 billion pounds of chocolate that would be sold for Valentine’s Day. For those who make enough income to afford their basic necessities, that necessitates setting aside some of the money they would have normally spent on rent, clothes or regular groceries to buy candies. For the poor, that could mean using some of their meager food-stamp allocation to give a gift to their loved ones.

The latter method, however, riled up some local news stations. “SNAP accepted for Valentine’s Day candy raises questions,” blared a headline for one station in Tennessee. Reporter Felicia Bolton asked two shoppers what they thought about EBT cards being used to buy candy. They didn’t approve: “If it’s supposed to be nutritional, candy’s not really nutritional,” said one. Curt Autry, at the Richmond, Virginia, NBC affiliate, conducted his own investigation into just how much candy comes in baskets that the poor can buy with food stamps.

Food stamp resentment, as Arthur Delaney has coined it, is a year-round phenomenon. It’s when a random shopper decides that he or she has the authority to dictate what poor people buy with the food stamps that come to a tiny bit over $4 a day, on average. The reason: that this food is being bought with “our” tax dollars, so we should have a say in what it can buy.

It’s an old complaint, as Delaney documents. A 1993 Columbus Dispatch letter to the editor decried a recipient who bought “two bottles of wine, steak and a large bag of king crab legs” with food stamps. Beyond candy, steaks and crab legs come up a lot. Texas Representative Louie Gohmert told a story on the floor of the House about a supposed constituent who was buying king crab legs in line ahead of him with an EBT card. “Because he does pay income tax…he is actually helping pay for the king crab legs when he can’t pay for them for himself,” Gohmert claimed. Wisconsin State Representative Dean Kaufert told a similar story, but the person in line watched a food stamp recipient buy “the tenderloin, the porterhouse” with the benefits.

Why do people think they’re entitled to decide how food stamps, in particular, are used? Not all government benefits elicit such feelings. When we give people assistance through the home-mortgage interest deduction, we don’t feel entitled to tell them what house to buy or what neighborhood to live in; when we subsidize a college education through student loans, we don’t tell students what school to go to or what to major in. When we tax capital gains income at a lower rate than income made from labor, we certainly don’t tell those stock pickers what to do with the extra cash.

One big difference is that mortgage and student loan help usually comes in the form of tax credits, part of what political scientist Suzanne Mettler has dubbed the “submerged state.” Benefits delivered through a tax break or subsidy to a private entity, rather than an EBT card or check, are made invisible to those who use them and everyone around them. Even Medicare, one of the largest government programs, is often delivered through private insurance, thus masking the fact that it’s a benefit. Mettler conducted a survey in 2008 that found that, while 57 percent of people said they’d never used a government program, 94 percent of those who denied it had benefited from at least one, usually one that was “submerged.”

The reason people in line at a grocery store get to feel morally superior to someone on food stamps is because she has to whip out a card that tells the world that she gets assistance buying food. No such card exists when applying for a mortgage or getting a federally subsidized student loan.

The other difference, of course, is that food stamps help the poor. (Tax expenditures, including mortgage assistance, overwhelmingly help the wealthy.) And the poor are assumed to be poor because they’re bad with money. More often than not, they’re poor because they can’t get work that pays them enough to not be poor. And they’re not any worse with their money than the rest of the country. In fact, low-income Americans spend larger percentages of their budgets on the necessities like housing, utilities, transportation and home-cooked food. The richest 20 percent spend more on “luxuries” like eating out and entertainment. The rich even spend more of their budgets on alcoholic beverages—so much for poor people’s wasteful spending on fine wine.

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The same holds true if you just examine people who receive public benefits like welfare cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid: they spend a bigger portion of their budgets on food, housing and transportation and a smaller portion on restaurants and movies than the population that doesn’t rely on those benefits. Food stamp use also shows smart budgeting. While it’s not up to date, a survey from the late 1990s found that meats made up more than a third of food stamp purchases, which grains and fruits and veggies made up nearly 20 percent each. Dairy products took up another 12.5 percent. Sweets, on the other hand, came to just 2.5 percent.

Also: being poor doesn’t mean you should be condemned to a life of austerity and abstinence. More than 45 million people live below the federal poverty line, and even more hover close enough to it that they struggle to get by. More people are slipping downward as income inequality stretches the distance between them and the very top. When work doesn’t pay you enough to cover the bills, you should seek out public assistance. But you should also be able to enjoy some of life’s joys—including giving a box of chocolates to a loved one for Valentine’s Day.


Read Next: Bryce Covert on the singing and dancing now required of McDonald’s employees

A Job at McDonald’s Now Includes Singing and Dancing on Demand

McDonald's "Pay With Lovin'" commercial


TV spectators of last night’s Super Bowl were treated to many slick, high-concept ads, but one probably stuck out to the millions of McDonald’s employees who were watching: the company’s spot trumpeting its new “pay with lovin’” campaign. The company is rolling out a new way to bribe customer loyalty amid declining sales by randomly picking some who will get their food and drink for free. Instead of money, they have to pay with “lovin.’”

According to the Super Bowl ad, this can range from being told by the cashier to call your mother and tell her you love her (no word on what happens if you don’t have a mother) to being commanded to dance to giving the cashier a fist bump. Leaving aside what customers may think of being asked to perform these tasks in return for their food, little attention is given to the other side of the register: the workers themselves.

McDonald’s employees are notoriously low-paid. Average hourly pay, according to Glassdoor, is $8.25 for a crew member. (It’s just slightly more for the food and beverage industry generally at $8.84.) Even in a low-paid service job, of course, there is a minimum expectation of professional behavior at work that would require being polite and even friendly to customers.

But McDonald’s is now asking its employees to do even more. They have to come up with cutesy tasks for their customers. And if the ad itself is any indication, they can’t just deadpan a request that a family hug. If someone dances, they have to dance too. If someone doesn’t seem too pumped to call his mom, they have to needle him into it. And they have to react with joy when the asked-for response is delivered. The workers are being told to put on a performance for customers in order to get a performance back.

This is a pretty blatant example of emotional labor: the requirement that a low-wage employee not just show up to work and adequately perform her duties, but that she put on a veneer of happiness and cheer for the customer to elicit an emotional response in him. For example, in 2013 Pret A Manger put up on its website (and then subsequently took down) expected “behaviours” its employees were supposed to exhibit, like creating a “sense of fun” and appearing “genuinely friendly.” The ones it wouldn’t allow, on the other hand, were bad moods and acting like they were “just here for the money.” Because ordering a sandwich is now supposed to be a delightful experience, and of course a low-wage clerk is at work for something other than a paycheck.

This is what’s pernicious about emotional labor: it requires poorly paid people to slather a smile onto their face and cover up the real conditions under which they labor. McDonald’s has been one of the fast-food companies hit by massive, repeated waves of labor unrest by striking workers demanding better pay, the ability to form a union and an end to retaliation for their actions. Workers have been vocal about the fact that they and their families can’t survive on the money they make. But the company instead wants its customers to see employees who are genuinely delighted that a mother hugged her son in front of them.

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The demand that people perform emotional labor has become more and more widespread: researcher Arlie Hochschild originally estimated a third of all jobs required it in 1983 but that half of them do today. Yet workers don’t get more money when they’re required to do more at a menial job than just show up. Men get a significant wage boost when they move into a job that requires more cognitive labor, but they see a 6 percent pay penalty for moving to one that demands more emotional labor. Women don’t see this penalty, although they do get a boost for cognitive work—likely because we view smiling and catering to a customer’s emotions as women’s work.

Emotional labor can be even trickier for women, however, because it can be seen as an invitation. Waitresses know this conundrum well. If they touch someone or leave a smiley face on a check, they’ll get a bigger tip. But they also might get a pinch in the ass. Working for tips and knowing that putting on a show of friendliness leads to an atmosphere where nearly 80 percent of women say they’ve been sexually harassed by customers.

McDonald’s might want to consider, then, what an invitation to “pay with lovin’” could sound like to a customer in this industry. It was just sued over alleged sexual harassment of its employees by their managers. What does it invite on its workers by asking customers to come up with ways to show their lovin’?

Read Next: Bryce Covert on the mythological war against stay-at-home mothers

No, Obama Isn’t Waging a War on Stay-at-Home Mothers

Woman and son at employment office

A woman looks at job postings with her son at the Virginia Employment Commission office in Alexandria, Virginia. (Reuters/Molly Riley)

It’s a war. It’s playing favorites. It’s harmful and divisive. Conservatives have heard President Obama’s proposal to increase the Child Tax Credit and give working parents an extra bonus and have decided he thinks, in Tim Carney’s words, “Moms who stay at home with their children are less valuable than moms who work for pay.”

Some might say that this tax credit is piddling. Under Obama’s plan, parents would get an extra $3,000 a year to cover childcare, a service that costs more than three times that. But conservatives are miffed that families with one earner and one stay-at-home caretaker get penalized because they can’t get that credit.

What they don’t mention, however, is that families modeled after the 1950s vision of one working parent and one staying at home get plenty of tax preferences. The tax code has marriage penalties and bonuses for joint filers, and couples in which one spouse earns income and the other earns nothing “never incur a marriage penalty and almost always receive a marriage bonus,” according to the Tax Policy Center. This bonus is a remnant of policies that were put into place in the early twentieth century to keep women at home. We haven’t gotten rid of it even though more than 70 percent of mothers of young children are in the labor force. Couples where both spouses earn about the same figure, on the other hand, tend to see a penalty. Even if these couples get Obama’s new Second Earner Tax Credit of $500, it won’t come close to the $2,000-plus bonus that a middle-class married couple with unequal earnings got last year.

And as Josh Barro points out, single-earner households are getting a bonus another way: the labor a mother or father performs in the home caring for a kid or wiping down a counter is unpaid and therefore goes untaxed. When two parents work outside the home and pay someone to watch their children, both those incomes are taxed.

The conservative rush to defend stay-at-home mothers also usually only applies to a certain class of mothers. While the tax code has some benefits for families in which one parent stays home, the welfare system has huge penalties for any poor mother who might make the same choice. Welfare reform in the 1990s instituted stringent requirements that those who get assistance also work. The policy change was aimed at “welfare queens” who supposedly had more and more children to increase their benefits without wanting to work for money. Now, if a poor mother wants some cash assistance, she can’t make the choice to stay home.

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And in some states, she also can’t make a choice about how many children to have. In most states, families get more money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program if they have more children. This makes sense, given that it is costly to raise a child. Yet sixteen states have instituted caps on their welfare benefits, refusing to give poor mothers more money if they have more than a certain number of children. The caps were explicitly adopted to try to dissuade poor women from having more babies, although there’s little evidence that they work and people on public assistance have families that are the same size as those who aren’t.

There are policies that could help defray the sky-high cost of parenthood for all family types. One, as pointed out by Matt Bruenig, would be a simple, universal child benefit, paid out to all families for each kid they have as they do in the UK, Canada, and Nordic countries. But to say that giving two working parents a little more help constitutes a war on stay-at-home mothers ignores all the ways we already value—or don’t, depending on whether they’re poor—these women’s choices.


Read Next: Bryce Covert on gender, work and the State of the Union

Obama Brings the Work/Family Debate Out of Women’s Heads and Into the Mainstream

President Obama

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on January 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

In 1970, President Nixon was poised to sign into law bipartisan legislation passed by both houses of Congress that would have addressed one of the biggest unfinished fights from the women’s liberation movement: universal childcare. He was in favor of it, too, until his adviser Pat Buchanan convinced him to veto it. Veto it he did, with such scathing force that the issue all but disappeared from the political radar for decades.

Until last night’s State of the Union address. President Obama has called for universal preschool before, but he has consistently couched it in terms of educating future workers, rarely talking about how quality care—starting at age zero—could help working parents. And he’s also called for more affordable childcare, particularly at the White House Summit on Working Families last June. But for the first time, he not only brought up childcare as national priority in his State of the Union address; he not only talked about universal childcare; he also talked about it as a gender-neutral crisis.

With last night’s State of the Union, Obama moved work/family issues like unaffordable childcare and an absence of paid leave into the mainstream—for everyone, not just women.

About halfway through the speech, he mentioned that during World War II the country provided universal childcare because getting more women into the workforce “was a national security priority.” After the Lantham Act created a universal childcare system, the employment gap between mothers and childless women shrunk by 4.4 percentage points. Each dollar spent increased women’s employment rate by 0.1 percent and their weekly work by 0.04 hours. But the program ended all too soon, when the war effort wound down.

Today childcare isn’t just about what’s good for working mothers. Fathers also want to parent but struggle to make it work. Equal shares of both parents—about half—say they feel stressed about juggling work and family. Fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend caring for their kids since the 1960s. Childcare, however, is still too often thought of as the domain of women. Not for Obama. “In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever,” he said last night. “It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”

American workers don’t just need childcare either. As Obama pointed out, “Today, we are the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.” We are nearly the only country in the world not to require paid maternity leave, not to mention paternity leave, and the only developed one without paid sick days. “And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home,” Obama continued. Not women, not mothers. Parents. When fathers are given the chance to take paid leave, they do, but just 14 percent have the opportunity.

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If these aren’t economic priorities, they should be. Even though both genders increasingly spend time parenting, women are still usually the ones who are asked to choose between family and career when it becomes impossible to make them both work. Our lack of paid leave, affordable childcare and flexible work schedules are the direct cause of women’s flatlining labor force participation, which means we’re getting far outpaced by other developed countries. Mothers with regular childcare arrangements are twice as likely to stay in their jobs, and fully funding early childhood education would increase their employment by 10 percent. If women hadn’t dramatically increased how much time they spend working outside the home since the 1970s, GDP would be 11 percent smaller. And a shrinking labor force could take the economy down a notch with it, to the tune of a 28 percent drop in GDP.

No amount of logic or powerful rhetoric means that these policies will get passed in this Congress. They won’t. But the importance of bringing them up in the State of the Union can’t be overstated. It lays out the boundaries of the debate the next Democratic presidential candidate, be it Hillary Clinton or otherwise, has to operate within. It stakes a claim to these issues as those valued by the party itself. And it moves them out of the conversation women, and in particular feminists, have long had among themselves, into one we should all be having together.

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Why Women Should Get the Rest of the Year Off

retail worker

(Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)  

As of October 11, the average American woman who works full time, year-round started working for free.

That’s because she makes just 78 percent of what a man makes. If a man’s pay lasts the whole year long, hers doesn’t even make it to Halloween.

Women of color have been putting in even more time. Black women have been working for free since August 21. Hispanic women have been doing so since July 16.

Even if we take into account things like the fact that women tend to go into different industries and occupations, stay in the labor force for less time (often thanks to raising children), and are less likely to be in a union, women should still walk away from work beginning Black Friday and not come back until New Years Day.

The fact that women’s work comes so heavily discounted has inspired unions in Denmark for the last five years to call on Danish women to take the rest of the year off after they reach that point—and they have just a 17 cent pay gap, one of the world’s smallest. “It’s a way to remove the gender pay gap in a split second,” Lise Johansen, who heads the campaign for the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, told Bloomberg News. “Go to a tropical island for the rest of the year!”

Women aren’t just working for free when they leave their houses, of course. They’re working for free every day of the year when they go home and raise children, cook meals, and clean house. They devote far more time to this than men: they spend a half hour more on child care, housework, cooking, and household management each day compared to men. That’s double the time men spend on child care.

That time may not be rewarded, but it still has a value. Take the effort women put in caring for elderly parents, which they are far more likely to do compared to men. If all the informal elderly caregiving by family and friends were instead replaced by someone paid to do it, the total would be $522 billion a year. That’s a half trillion dollar gift (mostly) women give to society.

So maybe they should get even more time off than just what the gender wage gap allows, since they’re putting in so much unpaid, unrewarded labor. Given that they do seven hours more housework each week, or fifteen extra days a year, and eight hours more child care a week, or seventeen days a year, let’s call it even if they get another month tacked on to their early vacations. Being generous, that means women could have thrown in the towel when we reached the end of October.

What would happen if American women stopped working inside and outside the home for two months out of the year? It’s all obviously relegated to the world of thought experiments. Even in Denmark, where three-quarters of the workforce belongs to a union, women won’t actually heed the mostly joking call to stay away from work, and here in the United States union power is far lower.

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But desperate times call for desperate measures, and when it comes to the wage gap, these are increasingly desperate times. The gap was closing quickly and steadily between the 1960s and 1990s and continued to shrink in the 2000s, but over the last decade, it’s only budged by 1.7 percentage points. At this rate, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates it won’t close until 2058. While President Obama has issued executive orders related to equal pay and Democrats in Congress have proposed bills like the Paycheck Fairness Act, none of these measures will close the gap on their own. In the meantime, the pay gap contributes to more women living in poverty, relying on government benefits, and facing economic instability in their retirement years.

Maybe what’s needed is for this issue to jump from a talking point to a day of action. Perhaps if the country witnessed what it would be like for half the population to refuse to type a word, ring up a purchase, pick up a wrench, or to wipe a booger or a counter, women’s value would be brought into sharp focus. Then we might see some aggressive action to correct for the discrimination that still suppresses women’s wages. Until then, women should at least slack off as much as they can for the remainder of the year.

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Freezing Eggs Is an Extreme Example of How We’ve Privatized the Work/Family Clash

cell eggs


When news broke that Facebook and Apple will now cover the costs of freezing female employees’ eggs, a procedure that can run to $10,000 on top of another $500 a year for storage, the debate over whether this was good or bad for women erupted immediately. Certainly having one more reproductive choice available without incurring such a steep cost is good for women. Men, who are generally fertile until much later in life (even if their sperm quality decreases), get to delay parenthood for free. And women may choose to freeze their eggs for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they don’t yet have a partner with whom they want to have a child. Maybe they don’t feel ready to be a parent. Maybe they don’t know if they’ll ever be ready, but want to have the possibility open later in life. And, of course, they may feel that they can’t have a child at a given point in their careers and want to delay childbirth until they’re further along the career track.

On a societal level, however, the increasing prevalence of putting eggs on ice should raise red flags. The procedure is becoming a booming trend: the number of women seeking to freeze their eggs has risen fourfold in the last four years. Doctors in New York and San Francisco say cases have nearly doubled over the last year. While most women say they freeze their eggs because they don’t have a partner yet, a quarter does it for professional reasons. It’s a hyper-individualized answer to a collective problem: the fact that both men and women work, but our workplaces don’t allow for a family life.

The choices working mothers face are stark. More than 40 percent of women with children say they have at some point had to cut back on their hours to care for children or other family members, but just 28 percent of men have had to do the same. More than a quarter of mothers quit their jobs at some point for this reason, while just 10 percent of fathers have. Today’s mothers don’t just do more housework than men, they do more childcare than mothers of past generations. Plus, women take a compensation hit when they have children.

For a woman in the early stages of her career, this tug of war could yank her off her intended professional track. So some women turn to egg freezing as a way of putting off parenthood, at least until they are more established, have gotten the position they’re after, or just have more bargaining power at work. It’s not an unreasonable choice, given the way mothers are viewed in the workplace.

But the increasing adoption of egg freezing suggests that women are undergoing risky, expensive medical procedures with a low success rate to circumvent a societal failing to enable them to stay at work while parenting. How successful is the practice? Studies that have found successful pregnancies from frozen eggs have looked at women who did the freezing in their 20s or early 30s. Even for women 38 and under, the chance that a frozen egg will later become a baby is just 2 to 12 percent. And even if an egg is successfully unfrozen and fertilized with sperm, there’s just a 50 percent “take-home baby rate.” It’s also an invasive procedure that will take about thirty days, including self-administered daily shots, ultrasounds and blood work for two weeks.

That’s a lot of money to shell out for pretty low baby rates. And if women literally put all their eggs in this basket, they could end up sorely disappointed. All this because our country still hasn’t come to grips with the fact that women make up about half the workforce, including more than 70 percent of women with young children.

Egg freezing is just the most recent example of how we’ve made this collective problem an individual one. The individualistic American ethos has relegated the struggle to balance kids and careers to a private matter. That’s why President Obama’s statement at the Working Families Summit in June—“Part of the point of this summit is to make clear you’re not alone”—was so radical. For decades, parents have been told that they are on their own.

Parents are expected to figure out their own child care arrangements until their children are school-aged; we have a patchwork of poorly regulated, highly expensive private daycare centers, nannies and a few government-subsidized preschool programs. The tax credits we give parents for going to the trouble of raising children are pitiful. We don’t guarantee anyone paid leave when a new child arrives and just 12 percent of employers provide it. The supposed forty-hour workweek is now much longer than that and no one is guaranteed paid sick or vacation time. Even when children are ready for school, a school schedule looks nothing like the typical working person’s schedule. No wonder many moms end up pushed out of the workforce.

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Policy changes are a more comprehensive solution to the challenges of working and parenting than egg freezing. They would ease the pressure on working women to mess with biology among those who can and can’t afford to freeze eggs alike. Child care and paid family leave both have been found to help keep mothers at work. Not to mention that the challenges don’t end once the baby arrives, whether delayed or not.

Egg freezing would probably still be an important choice for some women even if we had all of these policies in place. But the practice alone can’t remedy our failure to weave parenthood and careers together. We have to take the question of work/family balance out of women’s heads and put it into the national dialogue.

And one more thing: companies can take these steps too. If Facebook and Apple want to offer benefits that will woo women workers, why not take a page from Google or Cisco and offer on-site daycare?


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