Lady business with equal parts lady and business.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Last week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sparked a firestorm of criticism for comments he made at a women-in-tech conference in which he suggested that employees who feel underpaid should wait it out rather than ask for more money. But he went even further, saying something many headlines missed: a woman who doesn’t ask for a raise, he added, is “the kind of person that I want to trust. That’s the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to.” Executive to pushy women who ask for more: Could you not?
The backlash was so swift and severe that he had issued a backpedaling e-mail by the end of the business day. While he didn’t apologize, he did reverse his position—now he claims to be pro–asking for more money.
He’s only the latest tech executive to put his well-paid foot in his mouth when giving advice to female employees. Just weeks before, Australian Evan Thornley, who founded the online advertising company LookSmart, told an audience that he could hire talented women “relatively cheap to someone less good of a different gender.” The pay gap, for him, represents “great arbitrage.” Women: talent on the cheap thanks to the gender wage gap.
He also later backtracked, saying that his intention didn’t come out right—he meant to deride gender inequality in the tech industry and urge other companies to “hire talented women and pay them properly” instead of hiring incompetent men and giving them top dollar.
But what leaked out of these two executives’ mouths likely contains a good deal of truth. It is a narrow window into what they, and many of their peers, really think about women—which usually goes unsaid. And it exposes the fact that all the nice talk about wanting greater diversity may stand little chance against the unconscious (and sometimes very conscious) biases women face in the tech industry. The misconceptions and unfair perceptions of women swirling in men’s heads hold women back. And the reality is, women are underpaid in tech. Women working in science, technology, engineering or math (commonly known as STEM) jobs make $15,900 less than men a year. College-educated women in Silicon Valley make $21,599 less. Even with various factors taken into consideration, female computer scientists make 89 percent of what male ones make. Looking at the data, it’s obvious that politely waiting until bosses offer raises isn’t working.
But they’re not just paid less. They’re also scarce. A new trend emerged recently: starting with Google in May, tech companies finally began releasing the demographic breakdowns of their workforces. Nearly every one has come with the familiar caveat that they want to do better and improve the numbers. Even so, as it stands, they all look eerily similar. Here’s women’s share of technical (not administrative or supportive) jobs at each: Twitter, 10 percent; Yahoo!, 15 percent; Facebook, 15 percent; Google, 17 percent; Apple, 20 percent; Pinterest, 21 percent; eBay, 24 percent; and Microsoft, where women are probably now thinking twice about asking for a raise, 17 percent.
Not a single company has a tech workforce that is fully a quarter female—which in itself would be a pitiful milestone anyway since women get 40 percent of science and engineering degrees and make up half of the overall workforce. These companies say they want to do better. Why haven’t they yet?
Perhaps because they say one thing but do another. They want us to believe that they seek men and women equally and simply come up short in finding qualified female candidates. But what counts as “qualified” may be different if you’re quick to see woman as too aggressive or undervalued. They say they want more women, but they fail to hire more women.
Nadella is hardly unique in wanting to stay away from pushy broads. Both genders are less likely to want to work with or hire women who ask for raises. Men get away with asking for money, though, and even get rewarded with higher paychecks. Generally, when a woman acts assertively at work, she faces a backlash, both socially and financially. So if a woman gets up the gumption to try to break into the male-dominated tech field, it’s very possible that the men she has to win over at the top will just see her as pushy.
Even when just doing their work, women in tech face a backlash. When Kieran Snyder of Fortune magazine asked men and women in the industry to share their performance reviews with her, she found that women were far more likely to get criticism, and when the feedback was negative it focused on their personalities, not how to improve their skills. Guess what words kept coming up in women’s reviews? “Abrasive,” “bossy,” “strident,” and “aggressive.” Outside of performance reviews, women are called bossy nearly three times as frequently as men and pushy twice as frequently.
The attitudes that Nadella and Thornley revealed aren’t only found in tech. Women are presumed to have all professional doors open to them today, but the gatekeepers still harbor ideas about them that will stymie progress. Tech executives want us to think they’re working on their gender problems. But then they say things that belie a different attitude toward the opposite sex. It takes more than lip service to achieve gender parity in any workplace or industry—or better representation of race, sexual orientation and other identities. It takes deliberate, across-the-board effort that is accountable to the very top. It may even take quotas, at least at the very top.
And clearly waiting for bosses to close the gender wage gap isn’t going to cut it if they get queasy at being asked for more or even use it to their advantage. Closing the gap, in tech and elsewhere, has to be done with government legislation, regulation, and enforcement.
These two executives can walk back their words. But what is said off the cuff, even in front of an audience full of women, gives us insight into what women are still up against.
Last week, Marriott launched a campaign to encourage its guests to tip the housekeepers who clean their rooms every day. Tipping hotel cleaners is considered good practice, even if many people don’t know it—somewhere around 30 percent of Americans don’t tip these workers. (It’s recommended that you leave between $1 and $5 for each day.)
Marriott is, of course, a highly profitable hotel chain, bringing in $364 in net income for the first half of this year and $626 million in profits last year. If it wanted to make sure that its employees made more than the current $8.30 an hour, it could simply pay them more. Many pointed out this fact (myself included) when the announcement came out. By making it customary to tip, employers get away with shifting the cost of a decent wage onto us consumers. It’s even built into our federal minimum wage laws: tipped workers like waitresses, taxi drivers and bartenders can be paid just $2.13 an hour, not the $7.25 floor for everyone else, so long as their tips make up the difference. That’s a real discount for employers, and they have fought mightily to keep things this way—against raising the tipped minimum wage, which has stayed at its current level for two decades. By comparison, hotel housekeepers are lucky, in that they must make at least minimum wage.
But those who have called for us to boycott tipping hotel workers as a way to push Marriott to pay a fair wage are taking things too far. At New York magazine, Annie Lowrey argues that “tipping is a terrible, terrible custom, and as such, this is a terrible, terrible way to shunt these workers a little more money” and asks, “Why introduce a new class of workers to the phenomenon at all?”
Here’s why: Because all that failing to tip will do, in the end, is hurt the workers themselves.
Yes, tipping sucks in lots of ways. Tipping doesn’t actually rewarding good service, as we like to think. The perception of service quality only accounts for about a percentage point in the difference between tip sizes. Instead, it perpetuates sexism and racism by rewarding attractive, young, large-breasted, blond and petite women over others and white servers over black ones.
But many low-wage workers survive on tips. Withholding your gratuity doesn’t change the rules employers face when determining what base pay to grant their workers. It just means that employees are bringing home less. Yes, employers are required to make sure tipped workers still bring home at least $7.25, regardless of tips, but many don’t. Tipped workers are already twice as likely to live in poverty and restaurant servers in particular have a poverty rate nearly three times the overall rate. The loss of an extra 20 percent of the bill could be devastating.
In the case of hotel housekeeping, workers are doing literally backbreaking work to clean your room for very little. Median pay for all maids and housekeepers is $9.41 an hour, or just $19,570 a year. Hotel workers have a 40 percent higher injury rate than other people who work in the service sector, and most of that is for housekeepers, who have a 50 percent higher injury rate than their other hotel coworkers. About 80 percent of them report work-related pain, unsurprising given that they have to lift, bend and twist with heavy loads, get down on their hands and knees to clean. And the grind is getting worse, not better: workers report that their employers are requiring them to clean ever-more rooms in one shift.
It may feel more customary to tip the bellhop for bringing your luggage to your room or the car valet for getting your vehicle from the garage, but that’s probably because their work is visible to you. Housekeepers are working much harder, but you rarely see them face-to-face. Invisible work still deserves a tip. And the (most likely) women who clean your room deserve a tip as much as the (most likely) men who park your car.
What we need is an “and” response, not an “or” response, to something like Marriott’s campaign. We need to push the company, all hotel chains, and in fact all employers to pay a living wage. And we need to push to raise the federal minimum wage so that all workers have a more secure wage floor beneath them. And, while working on these goals, we need to keep giving people tips. Until we live in a world where all work pays well and we’ve abolished the practice of tipping—certainly a world that is far off from our current one—we have to do it. The theoreticals against tipping may be strong, and doing it may be inconvenient, but it is often a lifeline for the person on the receiving end.
Read Next: “Aging Jazz Artists Sound Note of Protest”
Saturday marks twenty years since the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law. The country has made real progress toward reducing domestic violence, thanks in many ways to VAWA. Domestic violence incidents rates have dropped 64 percent since 1993; murders have also decreased. VAWA vastly expanded resources for shelters, crisis centers and hotlines, as well as education programs, safe public transportation and research, all meant to prevent violence.
Clearly, there is work to be done. And much of the unfinished work of VAWA is increasing the economic security of women in abusive situations.
Intimate partner violence and economic status are inextricably intertwined. Three-quarters of victims say they stayed with their abusers longer because of economic reasons. It’s not hard to see why: a woman leaving an abusive partner will need housing and employment to stay independent, but both are put at risk by the abuse itself. Workplaces are public spaces that can be easy for abusers to access: the leading cause of death for women at work is homicide. And controlling women financially by threatening their jobs is a way of making them stay longer.
Yet in forty-three states, there is no legal protection to keep women from being fired because they are victims of domestic abuse. Just four states that do have protections go further and mandate that reasonable accommodations, like changing phone numbers or desk locations, be given to victims so they can stay on the job without risking their health.
The lack of employment protections can lead to situations like the one Carie Charlesworth, a teacher in California, found herself in. Her abusive husband invaded her school’s parking lot and put the school on lockdown—and then the school fired her because of the endangerment. Many women go through this: in a study of thirty-two women in abusive relationships, 91 percent ended up fired or resigning from their jobs because of their abuse. Firing someone for these reasons doesn’t just re-victimize her, it also cuts off a lifeline she’ll need to be able to escape the situation.
A federal law to protect all victims from employment discrimination was introduced in March, but it hasn’t even been referred to committee or scheduled for a vote.
Troubles don’t end for women once they’re fired for their abuse, however. Eighteen states ensure that these women can get unemployment benefits, but women in the remaining thirty-two may not even be able to tap that lifeline once they’re out of work, leaving them even more vulnerable. Ensuring that all women can get unemployment benefits if their abusers succeed in getting them fired would create the most basic baseline of support.
Housing is also a huge issue for victims of violence. As Monica McLaughlin of the National Network to End Domestic Violence told MSNBC’s Irin Carmon, “When we do our survey every year, we ask service providers, ‘What are survivors asking from you?’ And housing rises to the top every time.” Nearly 10,000 victims are turned away from services on a typical day, and more than 40 percent of those women are seeking emergency housing, while 18 percent need transitional housing. Twenty percent of homeless women say that domestic violence is the primary reason they don’t have housing.
And over the past twenty-five years, communities began adopting “crime-free housing” ordinances, which mean landlords can kick out tenants who have a certain number of visits from police. That may mean victims of abuse face a choice between calling the authorities when they’re being hurt and risking eviction or not calling and staying in their homes. RH Reality Check’s Annamarya Scaccia found sixty known ordinances like these around the country. VAWA protects those in federally subsidized housing, while twenty-five states and Washington, DC, have laws that are meant to protect victims from eviction. But some, such as North Carolina’s, are weak—merely prohibiting housing discrimination against victims. In all other states, victims put their private housing at risk simply for calling for help.
There are certainly other measures that can protect more women. As Carmon writes, it can be all too easy for an abuser to get a gun, something that significantly increases the chance that a woman will be killed by her partner, and there are ways to keep those guns out of abusers’ hands. Increasing funding for existing services, which have been starved in recent years, would also help. But until we address the economic barriers victims face, many will continue to be trapped in dangerous, and often deadly, situations.
Imagine you’re a single mother working a minimum-wage job with a toddler at home. You don’t make enough to cover all of your family’s necessities (a minimum-wage income isn’t enough to even afford rent), so you have the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and WIC to help you afford food. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to get Section 8 vouchers to help cover rent. You’re also fortunate enough to be one of the 26 percent of poor families with children who qualify for welfare assistance, but that runs out by mid-month.
So when your diaper supply also runs out mid-month, where can you turn to help you afford that incredibly basic necessity? Not SNAP, nor WIC, nor most other programs. They won’t let you spend benefits on diapers. Your daycare center won’t take your toddler without some, so you’re forced to stay home with him. You do what Shanique Brown did: she skipped work and constantly asked her son if he needed to go to the bathroom while she “cried and cried.”
A lawmaker in California wants to change that and has penned the first-ever bill to address diaper need, which would give families on welfare with children under two $80 a month to cover diapers. That would mean mothers who can’t afford diapers—30 percent of women across incomes and demographics say they’ve faced this problem at some point—won’t have to resort to stretching dirty diapers, risking infections and rashes, or go hat in hand to friends and family.
Sounds pretty logical, no? But every time the fact that mothers struggle to afford diapers—not just low-income ones, as the survey linked to above indicates—crops up, the same reaction can be counted on: “Why should I subsidize the choices of a woman who had a baby she couldn’t afford?” (Thoughts to this effect have dogged the lawmaker who introduced California’s bill.)
This isn’t an idle question among trolls, however. This idea, that poor women who want to be mothers shouldn’t be subsidized, has driven public policy. Take welfare reform, which implemented work requirements as a condition of getting cash assistance and, while it promised to help mothers with childcare, has dropped the ball. Worse, while benefits are meant to rise for each child in a family—given that the family will need more resources to cover another person—sixteen have capped benefits at a certain number of children in the idea that it will discourage poor women from having more.
Never mind that the caps don’t seem to have that impact, but do end up pushing poor moms further into poverty.
Worse is the fact that these policies and the reactions to diaper assistance are both based on faulty, if not completely incorrect, premises. The welfare queen, the boogeyman held up by President Reagan as a woman who drives a Cadillac and commits extensive welfare fraud, was a myth, but it hasn’t stopped many after him from expanding the caricature to describe women who supposedly have more children to get more benefits. Before welfare reform, just 10 percent of the families who got welfare had three or more children. Today, average family size is the same whether a family gets public assistance or none. Your family probably looks a lot like a family on welfare.
This is true despite the fact that poor women have a much harder time getting the contraception they need. In 2012, 20 million women needed publicly funded contraception, but just 6.1 million were served by publicly funded clinics, meeting a mere 31 percent of the need. So poor women get it both coming and going: we penalize them when they don’t want to be mothers and then penalize them when they do want to have kids.
While low-income women get punished for having children, however, we still think of ourselves a country with strong family values that upholds the virtue of motherhood. Remember how quickly Democrats had to scramble to reaffirm that Ann Romney’s role as a stay-at-home mother over her husband’s career was the “most important” job during the 2012 campaign? Or the ads for the 2012 Olympics declaring that being a mom is “the best” job? We endlessly defend the choices of the middle- to upper-class women who don’t work and instead parent. We even subsidize higher-income parents through the tax code, giving the middle, second highest and highest income brackets nearly $30 billion through the Child Tax Credit. Republicans want to expand it further so that the wealthy get more.
But when a poor mother or a mother of color wants to have children and needs a small, small thing like help buying a diaper to make it all work, we recoil from her need. We have no right to dictate how many children a poor or a rich woman can have, and we owe it to all mothers to ensure that they have a simple thing like a diaper when they do.
You’ve probably heard the name Shanesha Taylor at this point. She’s the Arizona mother who was arrested for leaving her children in the car while she went to a job interview. Her story went viral thanks likely to a truly heart-wrenching, tear-stained mugshot. Taylor, who was homeless, says her babysitter flaked on her and she didn’t know what else to do while she went to a job interview for a position that would have significantly improved her family’s financial situation.
You may also have heard the name Debra Harrell. She’s the South Carolina mother arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a park alone while she worked her shifts at McDonalds. It’s the summer, so Harrell had had her daughter play on a laptop at her McDonalds location until the laptop was stolen from their home. Instead, she let her daughter go to the park with a cell phone for emergencies.
Neither of these are ideal situations for children. Being locked in a hot car can cause heat stroke, and thirty-eight children die from it every year. About 58,200 children are abducted by non-family members in a given year, many of them from parks. Considering there are about 74 million children in the country, both of these events are relatively rare, and neither Taylor’s nor Harrell’s children were actually harmed. But a slight danger remains.
Whose fault is it that these children were put in these situations to begin with? These weren’t mothers doing drugs or other dangerous activities and neglecting their children; they were both mothers trying to hold down jobs to provide for their children while stuck swirling in a Catch-22. Can’t work or interview without childcare, but can’t afford childcare without a job that pays enough to cover the ever-increasing cost. Taylor and Harrell are both holding up their end of the deal: don’t rely on public assistance, go out and get work to provide for your children. Our country has reneged on its end of that deal: we’ll help you pay for someone to watch your children if you go to work.
In the mid-1990s, President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law that changed welfare in America profoundly. One of the major changes welfare reform brought about was the work requirement. Now, even women with young children were required to be working, or looking for work, in order to receive benefits. In a radio address after signing the bill, Clinton promised that if poor people went to work, “we will protect the guarantees of health care, nutrition, and child care, all of which are critical to helping families move from welfare to work.”
We broke that promise. State and federal childcare spending last year fell to the lowest level since 2002. Much of the money available for childcare comes to states through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or today’s version of welfare, but TANF hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1996. It’s lost a third of its value since then. The money spent on childcare has declined from a high of $4 billion in 2000 to $2.6 billion in 2013. That means fewer and fewer children get subsidized care. The number of children served by subsidies is at the lowest level since 1998. In Taylor’s home state of Arizona, childcare spending has been axed by 40 percent, dropping 33,000 kids. In Harrell’s, it was cut by more than 30 percent, dropping 2,500 children.
We’ve also taken the rug out from under any mothers who might need assistance because they can’t find work or the work doesn’t pay enough. In 1996, welfare reached 72 percent of poor families with children. That had dropped to a mere 26 percent by 2012.
So when a homeless mother needs to go to a job interview or a mother making less than $8 an hour needs to go to work, what options have we given them? Few, if any.
(That doesn’t even to get into the fact that Harrell may wrestle with erratic schedules, finding out when she has to be at work a week ahead of time or less and making it challenging just to find childcare, let alone afford it. Or that Taylor may face a long time without another job interview in an economy with an unemployment rate for black women currently at 9 percent, compared to the overall 6.1 percent rate, and the next one may not pay enough to cover care.)
Both of these women are now out of jail. Taylor’s charges are likely to be dropped and she is also close to getting her children back, while Harrell’s case is pending but she’s been reunited with her daughter.
Yet both are still being punished. Taylor’s charges will only disappear if she completes not just parenting classes, but substance abuse classes despite drugs not playing any role in why her kids were left in the car. The message is that she is a “bad” mom because she tried to get a better job without a babysitter. Harrell has lost her job at McDonalds, which means she now has time to be with her daughter but no income to cover care if she tries to get interviews for another one. And in Harrell’s case, her neighbors were quick to cast blame on her, tsking her for daring to think she could leave her child in a public park because she might get “snatched.”
Low-income mothers of color are trying to fulfill their end of the bargain. But they face multiple roadblocks, many of which we’ve set up in front of them. No one should be surprised when they end up making choices we don’t think are best.
Read Next: What do recent conservative Supreme Court rulings mean for women’s economic security?
Call it the Sheryl Sandberg theory of feminist progress: help more women get into the tippy top of the company pyramid and change will spread to the bottom ranks. You could also call it trickle-down feminism: focus on equality at the top and the rewards will flow downward. There are some real life examples that show this doesn’t always pan out. Take Marissa Mayer reducing flexible scheduling after she became the first female CEO at Yahoo, or Sandberg herself, who didn’t realize pregnant women needed reserved parking lots close to the building until she was pregnant.
But a new study quantifies just how far the effects of putting women in leadership can, and can’t, go. Marianne Bertrand, Sandra E. Black and Sissel Jensen examined what happened after Norway instituted a quota in 2003 that required public companies to make their boards at least 40 percent female. The quota did get many more women onto corporate boards, and it may have helped boost their pay, as the wage gap between male and female board members fell.
Additionally, it may have helped increase the number of female executives at these companies. While the researchers couldn’t look at the exact genders of those in the C-suite, when they looked at the gender makeup of the five most highly paid people at the companies they found that more female board members begot more women in that group. “[A] higher share of female directors may increase the chance that a female employee…is one of the top five earners,” they report. Women who joined a company’s board were also more likely to end up among its top executives.
The march of progress, however, mostly stops there. An increased number of women on a company’s board had no impact on increasing women’s ranks at any other wage levels below the very top. And not much else got better for the lower-downs. “We also see no improvements on gender wage gaps…and find no evidence of changing work environments,” the researchers write. Generally, they found no evidence that increasing women’s representation on boards boosted female employment overall or employment for women with business degrees or children in particular. They also didn’t find evidence that seeing more women at the top spurred younger women to get a business degree or go into the field.
So does this mean quotas are a public policy failure? Not at all. That’s not what quotas do. The study shows that quotas increase women’s representation among top leadership and even narrow their pay gaps. But to believe that setting aside a certain share of seats that the top for women will mean that everyone below them does better is to believe change can come more easily than it does.
Quotas, instead, serve to bring gender equality to one specific area: positions of power. We can never say we live in a country rid of patriarchy while women hold less than a quarter of all political offices, 5 percent of CEO positions and less than 15 percent of executive officer positions, and less than 17 percent of board seats. And change isn’t coming voluntarily. Women have held about the same share of executive officer roles for four years and the same share of board seats for eight. Countries that have quotas, or even just strongly suggested goals, are making much faster progress.
There are a variety of reasons why individual women in leadership don’t signal broader change. Patriarchy still has a very firm stranglehold on our society, and trying to loosen its grip can prove to be too hard a task for a woman all on her own. (In fact, research has found that it takes at least three women on a company’s board to make a real difference.) Individual people are also flawed and have limited perspectives—had Sandberg never become pregnant, she may not have realized what pregnant women at work need, as many well-meaning male bosses likely don’t. And women are put into these roles to do their jobs and often to focus on shareholder value, not to stage a gender revolution, and those two things can sometimes be in conflict, as with Mayer and her belief that telework was hurting Yahoo’s work culture.
Still, we could use a quota, or at least a strongly suggested target to make equality at the top move faster. That doesn’t mean it would transform things for everyone else. There’s plenty of other of work to do to bring about gender equality in the workplace. But it would start to dilute the white male cabal currently running our largest institutions.
Read Next: Does feminism have a class problem?