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The Mommy Tax

Author: Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow for Digital Policy
January 5, 2001
New America Foundation


In attempting to "unite" the country, Gov. George W. Bush should focus attention on women. Women voters favored Vice President Gore by 11 points in the recent election. For the first time, women will make up more than 10 percent of the Senate -- and could form the basis for a bipartisan coalition supporting policies that favor women, children and families. Most important, women are in need of solutions to the daily dilemma they face: balancing family and work, and the high price they and their families pay despite their efforts.

More than two decades after Betty Friedan's equality revolution and the passage of Title VII, women remain second-class economic citizens. They earn three-quarters of what men earn for every hour worked and, despite the flood of women into entry-level professional positions, they hold only 5 percent of top-level jobs.

Existing gender discrimination laws have helped, but they cannot do the job alone. It turns out that women pay a penalty not only for being women but also for becoming mothers. In fact, Columbia University's Jane Waldfogel has found that the wage gap for women without children is small: They earn 90 percent of what men earn per hour. Mothers earn only 73 percent of what men earn, even controlling for occupation, experience and education. A first child lowers a woman's earnings by 7.5 percent while a second child lowers her earnings by another 8 percent.

But that doesn't make conservatives -- and plenty of women I know -- right in believing that women have the same options as men, that they simply choose family over career. Sure, women make choices, but their options are severely constrained by the largely invisible choices made by employers, families and government. Our economy and society treat having a child as if it were a woman's private whim -- and extract a penalty from those who indulge. Call it, if you must, a mommy tax.

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