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Congress Must Do More to Support Mothers—Viewpoints | EPI

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Congress Must Do More to Support Mothers

by Heather Boushey

This month marks the fifth anniversary of welfare reform, inaugurated when President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act on August 22, 1996. Next year, Congress must decide whether to reauthorize this legislation or to change the conditions for receiving welfare.

Most former welfare recipients, having been pushed off the roles by time limits set in the 1996 reforms, are now working. But they’re having serious trouble earning wages sufficient for supporting a family. The main culprit is the gender pay gap, the difference in wages between men and women, that affects the 90 percent of former welfare recipients who are mothers.

Lucky for many mothers forced off welfare, its reform was passed in the middle of the longest economic boom in the past 40 years. Sustained low unemployment allowed 50 to 60 percent of former welfare recipients to find at least some employment. This is the good news.

The bad news is that not all of these people work full time or have worked consistently since leaving welfare, and that most earn a scant $6 to $8 per hour, leaving the average welfare family — a mother and two children — with an income that is below the federal poverty line, even with full-time work.

Instead of ignoring one of the most fundamental causes of child poverty, Congress should do what it can to ensure that work pays enough to enable all families to afford a safe and decent standard of living. One of the most important steps toward achieving this goal is eliminating the gender pay gap.

Welfare reform was an epoch in the history of U.S. social policy. For the first time in nearly a century, our government stepped back from an obligation to provide financial support to single mothers and instead demanded that they take financial responsibility for their families. To evaluate the success of welfare reform, we must consider whether single mothers are able to accomplish this on their wages alone.

Women’s wages, and especially mother’s wages, still lag far behind men’s. Right now, the gender wage ratio (that is, women’s wages as a percentage of men’s) among full-time workers is 81 percent. This is one economic indicator that did not benefit from the long economic boom. The ratio is even lower for parents: mothers’ earnings amount to less than two-thirds of fathers’ earnings.

The pay gap persists partly because of the high degree of segregation of women and men into different types of jobs. Women, particularly those who have recently left welfare, are concentrated in the “caring professions” that offer low wages and limited upward mobility.

Jobs that have historically been designated as “female,” such as child care, nursing, or secretarial work, often require the same degree of skill as historically male jobs, but they are grossly underpaid.

Legislation has been introduced in 14 states to prohibit wage discrimination for jobs that require comparable skills and responsibilities. There’s great potential for this legislation, and for similar bills pending in other state legislatures around the country, to reduce the wage gap and help low-wage workers without placing an excessive burden on employers.

Millions of former stay-at-home moms have become working moms. Yet this has happened without the necessary policy changes that help families adapt to their new arrangements. Not only are wages too low, but many jobs held by women do not provide the important work supports they need, like employer-provided health insurance, to balance work and family.

With wages too low and benefits too scarce, the reauthorization of welfare reform is an opportunity to enact policies that could help millions of mothers begin to do what we’ve been stubbornly demanding of them for five years: support their families by working.

Heather Boushey is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.


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