Mothers Are Back At Work. Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Quick To Celebrate | Old North State Wealth News
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Mothers are back at work. Here’s why we shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate

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America celebrated as mothers returned to the workforce in the aftermath of the pandemic. But just because mothers are back in the workforce at pre-pandemic numbers, we shouldn’t be so quick to call it a win. Why? Because, in our current economy, having a job doesn’t protect mothers or their children from precarity, and it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll ever get ahead.

Take a mom I’ll call Akari, who is biracial Japanese and white. Before the pandemic, she was a stay-at-home mom of two young kids. She left the workforce when her oldest was born, because, at the time, she didn’t have access to paid family leave, and she and her fiancé together earned too much to qualify for childcare subsidies but not enough to pay market rates for infant care. Money was tight since they had to get by on the $30,000 her fiancé brought home from his small business. But things were stable until the summer of 2020 when Akari’s fiancé died suddenly. Without life insurance or much in savings, Akari couldn’t afford to keep paying rent. So, still reeling from grief, she moved herself and the kids into a shelter, got on a waitlist for subsidized housing, and signed up for food stamps and welfare.

Welfare rules required that Akari find a paid job as soon as possible, even though her welfare benefits would be docked for every dollar that she earned. Of course, this all happened at the height of pandemic layoffs. And so, the best job Akari could find was a very part-time job in retail that paid less than $10 an hour. Given how little she was making, Akari added a second weekday part-time job in 2021, and, a few months after that, a third weekend job at a manufacturing facility. Akari did receive some support through pandemic relief programs, but that money mostly went to pay off some of the more than $20,000 in debts that she owed, including on legal fees related to her fiancé’s death, and many of those programs—like the expanded child tax credit—were cut off almost as soon as they began.

With three jobs, Akari now barely gets to see her kids. And she’s actually worse off financially than she was on welfare because she now makes just a bit too much to qualify for programs like food stamps and subsidized housing and childcare. Yet, Akari doesn’t feel she has the option to quit any of her jobs, because of lifetime caps on benefits and because welfare rules prevent her from saving money for retirement or a rainy day.  

Thus, while Akari was one of those women whose return to the workforce was celebrated as evidence of a post-COVID return to normal, her story makes clear that some of those women returned not because of how we supported them in doing so but because of how we forced their hands.

That kind of coercion is why women hold roughly 70% of the lowest-wage jobs in the U.S. economy, and why, like Akari, those women are disproportionately moms of young kids. In the absence of a sturdy social safety net, moms like Akari end up filling low-wage, no-benefit, dead-end jobs in fields like retail, food service, home health, house cleaning, and childcare.

The message to these mothers is often some version of “You should have…” Should have gone to college. Should have majored in engineering. Should have gotten married and waited to start having kids. And yet, the evidence tells us that good choices won’t grant women a seat at the table or even guarantee a roof over their heads.

Why? Because you can’t lean in if you’re being leaned on. And, because, due to the giant holes we’ve left in our social safety net, women are still bearing the brunt of the weight. Like Akari, they’re the default parents—the ones forced to fill in gaps in our childcare system. They’re also the default caregivers for sick and elderly family members. And they’re often the ones who pick up the slack at work for colleagues who need support, as well.

All that responsibility—and the risk that comes with it—makes it hard for women, especially mothers, to find a foothold on the corporate ladder, let alone demand high salaries or compete with men for a spot at the top.  

And so, I for one will be holding off on celebrating American mothers’ return to the workforce until we invest in a social safety net that offers universal paid family leave and sick leave, universal childcare and healthcare, decent welfare benefits without punitive work requirements, subsidies for families with dependents, and a robust minimum wage. That kind of safety net would eliminate the kind of coercion that drove mothers back to the workforce in the wake of COVID-19 all while making it easier for mothers to choose to rejoin the workforce—and likely leading more of them to do so overall.

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