A case for equal pay and universal day care

Recently Hilary Rosen questioned Ann Romney’s wisdom on the economy’s effect on women, claiming that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life. Ann then quipped back via twitter that she worked very hard raising her five boys. Then all hell broke lose in the bored media and blogosphere. Eventually, people pulled up an old Mitt Romney speech where he talks about welfare mothers needing to go to work:

I said even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that day care, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’

With this apparent contradiction found, the media and blogs were off to the races once again with a dizzying array of coverage and commentary. The sheer amount of reaction is actually understandable in this case. Unlike the usual campaign drama, this particular flare up raises some very fascinating and interesting questions about how we should understand issues of gender equality, class, and child-rearing.

It is hard to know what Mitt Romney meant when he said “dignity of work.” To the extent that he clearly understood work to mean non-household labor, he would have to agree with Rosen’s claim that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life. After all, welfare mothers raise children, but are being said to not have the “dignity of work.”

Beyond that somewhat superficial take, a deeper question about workforce attachment is raised. As research on the effects of unemployment have demonstrated, staying out of the workforce for long periods of time is problematic. Among other things, skills atrophy, work experience does not accumulate, and one’s ability to get back into the workforce diminishes.

Crucially though, this is the case for single parents on government assistance just as much as it is for stay-at-home parents with a partner that works outside the home. If the partner leaves the stay-at-home parent, they will have a very difficult time finding a job, especially a good one that can sustain a family. The stay-at-home parent scenario creates a relationship of dependency that is at least as problematic as welfare dependency, and arguably more so.

So the Romneys are necessarily inconsistent on this front. Either unemployed parents are dangerously dependent, do not know the dignity of work, and would be better off with workforce attachment, or they are not. Whatever conclusion one reaches on that question must apply across the board.

If one thinks — as is reasonable — that mothers should be attached to the workforce, then one should consider what stands in the way of that. Social norms certainly play a role. Where parents have stayed home to take care of children in the past, it has often been women who did so. Those norms, although declining, still have residual impact.

In addition to those norms, economic factors play a significant role. Day care is expensive. Although rates vary across the country, one can easily drop $6,000/yr per child on day care. If a family has 2 or 3 kids, that can be so expensive that it actually saves money to not work. Even where that’s not the case, day care expenses greatly decrease the benefit of working. If 75% of your wages go to day care costs which only exist because you are working, dropping out of the workforce altogether becomes more attractive.

On top of day care expenses, women continue to be plagued by economic injustice. When women make a fraction of what men make for the same positions and on average occupy less lucrative jobs, it is their job that becomes less expensive to sacrifice. The lower wages also put them, on average, closer to the line that makes dropping out of the workforce to avoid day care expenses an attractive option.

If one is truly interested in keeping women and parents in general attached to the workforce, then one has to do more than just threaten to cut off assistance to struggling single parents. Making day care more affordable — either through vouchers or some other universal scheme — and eliminating the economic discrimination women face are necessary first steps. Vague bromides about lazy welfare mothers gets you nowhere.

This post was originally posted at Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice.