Tough Life for Low-Wage Working Mothers

A new brief from the National Women’s Law Center tells us what we already knew, but not in such detail. Tough as it is to be a working mother with young children, it’s ever so much tougher if you’re in a low-wage job.

About 2.1 million — nearly one in five — mothers with children no older than three have jobs that typically pay, at most, $10.10 an hour, i.e., what the minimum wage bill stalled in Congress would require nationwide.

They’re the workers who care for our children and our elderly and/or disabled family members, the workers who clean our houses, prepare and serve our food when we go out to eat, ring up our purchases at the store and pack the products we’re buying.

More than half — 53% — are single or, for other reasons, raising their children without a husband in the house. Presumably many of them are the sole breadwinners, relying on their own earnings and perhaps some safety net benefits to support themselves and at least one child.

Here are some of the other things we learn about the group as a whole.

Just over half the mothers work full time. Most of the rest — 35.7% — work part time for “non-economic reasons.” These can include an inability to afford what child care would cost if they had to rely on it for more than eight hours a day, five days a week.

The mothers are disproportionately black or Hispanic — 50.3% of the group as a whole. By contrast, only 26.6% of all workers belong to these race/ethnicity groups.

The largest portion of the mothers — 42% — have only a high school diploma or the equivalent. Somewhat under than 17% have less formal education. But that leaves 41.4% who have at least some college education and still work in low-wage jobs.

This may be, to some extent, because low-wage industries, e.g., food service and administrative support, have more than recovered from job losses due to the recession, while there’s still a deficit of more than 1.9 million jobs in mid-wage and high-wage industries.

Similarly, 60% of women’s job gains during the first four years after the recession officially ended are of the low-wage sort. And to make matters worse, the real dollar value of wages in the largest low-wage occupations has dropped.

So what could we give these low-wage working moms for Mother’s Day? On the policy front, NWLC has some answers. They’d benefit all lower-income families with children — and some of them childless workers as well.

Top of the list, as you might expect, are increases in both the regular minimum wage and the tip credit wage, i.e., the minimum cash wage employers must pay workers who regularly receive tips.

Two related policies would require employers to provide some specified amount of paid leave so that workers could afford to take time off when they were sick or needed to care for a sick family member. Other family-related reasons would also qualify, e.g., pregnancy and childbirth.

As of last year, only 30% of low-wage workers in non-government jobs could take even a day off with pay when they were sick. And only 5% had any paid family leave benefit. These workers, needless to say, can least afford a pay loss. And they’re highly vulnerable to a job loss if they must take time off anyway.

On related note, NWLC calls for stronger enforcement of stronger legal protections against discrimination based on pregnancy and caregiver responsibilities.

The latter is a growing problem and not expressly prohibited by federal law, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. Nor broadly by any state, except the (non-state) District of Columbia.

The NWLC agenda would also give workers more control over their work schedules, i.e., some say in when they have to show up and when they can leave. And the schedules wouldn’t be so unpredictable from week to week or subject to daily cutbacks and/or required overtime. Both, as I’ve written before, pose a host of problems for low-wage workers.

Child care would be less problematic. There’d be more of it affordable for low-wage workers — both through subsidies to help pay for care by private-sector providers and through expanded pre-K programs.

As things stand now, our low-wage mothers in 19 states would have to pay, on average, at least half their earnings to have their infants or toddlers cared for in a center — assuming they worked full time, year round and had to cover the full cost.

Both child care and early childhood ed programs would be “high-quality” — an iffy matter now, as recent reviews of state licensing rules for childcare centers and state-funded preschool programs indicate.

And policies for both would “respond to families’ diverse circumstances,” which, I suppose, means, among other things, ensuring they’re available when working families need them.

The last item on the NWLC agenda calls for stronger safety net supports, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP (food stamp) benefits — the latter twice-cut in the past year.

To all this, I’ll add one more Mother’s Day gift for the low-wage single moms. A halt to blaming them for all the ills that beset their children because our public policies leave them in poverty — or at best, on the verge.



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