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Robert Reich: Working Mother’s Day

May 14, 2013

In 1966, only 20 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home. By the late 1990s, 60 percent did.

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Image from Flickr via ian murchison

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

My mother went into paid work soon after my father’s clothing store was flooded out in a hurricane, almost wiping him out. She had no choice. We needed the money.

This was some two decades before a tidal wave of wives and mothers went into paid work.

For the few with four-year college degrees the transformation was the consequence of wider educational opportunity and new laws against gender discrimination that opened professions to well-educated women. But for the vast majority it was because male wages were dropping, and wives and mothers had to get paid jobs in order to prop up family incomes.

In 1966, only 20 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home. By the late 1990s, 60 percent. For married women with children under age six, the transformation was even more dramatic: from 12 percent in the 1960s to 55 percent by the late 1990s.

Unlike most rich nations, we don’t require that employers offer paid leave. Nor do we require equal pay for equal work.

Yet America hasn’t accommodated this shift.

I was proud to have implemented the Family and Medical Leave Act when I was Labor Secretary, but, unlike most rich nations, we don’t require that employers offer paid leave.

Nor do we require equal pay for equal work (women’s pay still lags behind male pay for the same job).

Nor, like most rich nations, do we provide universal child care.

More women workers are in minimum-wage jobs than men, yet our minimum wage hasn’t kept up. (If it had kept up with inflation since 1968 it would be over $10 today.)

We’ve even cut aid pre-natal and post-natal medical care for poor infants and mothers.

And we have put a five-year limit on aid to single women with children—a limit that the ongoing effects of the Great Recession have already proved to be too limited.

Nor have we begun to cope with the reality of stagnant or declining real wages that has caused families to work so much harder and longer. Almost all of the economic gains since the late 1970s have gone to the top 1 percent, but our representatives in Washington refuse to acknowledge this or take steps to reverse the trend.

The best way to celebrate Mother’s Day would be to acknowledge that most mothers are now in paid work—or seek to be—and, as working mothers, deserve better.

Robert B. Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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