The most salient fact about the economic reality for families today is that two-thirds of families rely on the earnings of women to stay afloat. This became increasingly evident in the 1980s and 1990s but came to dominate everyday economic family life in the 21st Century.
Yet despite the heightened importance of women’s earning power for today’s families, women continue to face real barriers to staying in the labor market at the same earnings level when family caregiving needs arise, including the birth of a child or the serious illness of a family member. In fact, women are more likely than men to leave a job or shift from full-time to part-time work when they have a child. Women are also more likely to leave a job or make the shift from full-time to part-time work in order to provide ongoing care to an elderly, ailing parent. Many women are left with little option but to make such a choice as they face workplaces with no paid family leave policies or inflexible scheduling practices.
The consequences of these decisions can lead to a lifetime of greater economic insecurity for these women and their families. As workers with care responsibilities withdraw from the workforce or limit their time at work, they bring home less income in the short run, are less likely to earn raises and promotions at the same pace as those without care responsibilities, have more restricted access to workplace retirement benefits, earn less in Social Security retirement benefits, and accumulate lower lifetime earnings. This quadruple whammy means too many American middle-class families today are treading water or worse throughout their working lives without adequate savings for retirement, while those families struggling to enter the middle class can barely stay afloat.
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