The most popular gifts on Mother’s Day are flowers, jewelry, restaurant meals, cards, and clothing. In recent years we’ve spent a whopping $9.6 billion on these gifts for Mom. I have nothing against bouquets and brunches, necklaces and nightgowns. And it’s wonderful that mothers get a holiday named for them. But at a time when millions of mothers are squeezed by family responsibilities and job demands, they could use more than a pretty sweater and cards decorated with hearts.
Today’s moms need policies that reflect 21st-century realities. After all, 77 percent of mothers with children under 6 years of age are in the workforce today—up from 11.9 percent in 1950. Women make up almost half of all U.S. workers, and their wages are crucial to the health and well-being of their families.
Unfortunately, this reality is not reflected in our nation’s outmoded and inadequate public policies. According to a new report by the Center for American Progress:
The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee working mothers paid time off to care for a new child. We are the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave … What child-care “system” we have—Head Start for the most at-risk young children and Child Care Development Fund vouchers for the working poor to purchase what care they can—is both grossly inadequate in the number of families it serves and also chaotic, haphazard, and starved of the funds that could guarantee young children an acceptable standard of care.
For those who think there is no connection between the political and the personal, think again. Insufficient public policies add stress and anxiety to people’s lives.
The CAP report cited above, “Lessons Learned: Reflections on 4 Decades of Fighting for Families,” finds that:
Nearly three-quarters of Americans now say that they, their neighbors, and their friends experience hardship in balancing work, family, and professional responsibilities at least somewhat often, and nearly 40 percent say that they experience such conflict “all the time” or “very often.” In addition, a whopping 72 percent report that they and their families would be likely to suffer significant financial hardships if they had a serious illness or needed to care for a new child or a family member who was ill.
So what do today’s working mothers need?
High on the list is paid sick leave. Nearly 40 million workers in the United States lack this basic standard. What’s more, 53 percent of working mothers do not have paid leave to care for a sick child. This means that too many workers are forced to be on the job when they are sick and send an ill child to school or day care. Providing paid sick leave is the decent thing to do. It also makes economic sense: Paid sick leave lowers health care costs, reduces the spread of contagious diseases, and improves worker productivity and morale.
High-quality and affordable child care and preschool are also on the list of working mothers’ needs. About 40 percent of children under the age of 5 in this country are in child care, yet a 2007 survey found that only 10 percent of providers offer high-quality care. Despite the low quality of these facilities, costs are high. In 22 states, families pay more for day care than they do for rent. In terms of preschool, the United States trails other nations, falling behind in enrollment, investment, and quality. High-quality affordable child care and preschool prepares children for success and is crucial to working mothers’ job and economic security. Investing in both is essential in order to build a globally competitive workforce and a society where all citizens have the opportunity to thrive.
Another policy item on the list is paid family leave. Nearly 40 percent of the workforce is ineligible for the Family Medical Leave Act, a 20-year-old law that provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers to care for a newborn or ill family member. Expanding the law to include smaller businesses, part-time workers, and paid leave is crucial in an economy where people are patching together part-time jobs and where millions of workers—especially women in low-wage jobs and single mothers—cannot afford to go without a paycheck for 12 weeks. Some states such as California and New Jersey have already passed paid-family-leave laws, thanks to the work of broad-based coalitions made up of business, public health organizations, women’s groups, faith groups, labor unions, and others. California passed its paid-family-leave law in 2002, and research shows that it has saved employers money because of reduced worker turnover and more efficient coordination of benefits—not to mention boosted employee morale.
Mother’s Day is just four days away—not nearly enough time to wrap any of these family-friendly policies with a bow and give them as a gift. But it is long overdue to make it clear that family struggles are not just private concerns and that the pressures working mothers and fathers face each day can be eased by public policy solutions. It is also past time to showcase the benefits of these policies for all of us in 21st-century America—where investing in children and providing support for families is the right and smart thing to do.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.