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(DV) Sandronsky: US Working Mothers and the Market







US Working Mothers and the Market 
by Seth Sandronsky 
March 23, 2006

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How has mainstream media covered the subject of U.S. working mothers leaving the labor force to stay at home and rear children?  First, let us define our terms.  By working mothers, I mean adult females with kids who labor for paychecks away from their households.  Of course stay-at-home moms work.  It is noteworthy that their labor is not counted in the official measure of the economy, or the gross domestic product, the prices of the output of goods and services (Associated Press, 1-28-06).  The GDP can go up, go down or stay flat, but the daily work of women who change diapers, cook meals and clean house is hidden in plain sight when mainstream journalists report on the economy. 

We turn to mainstream coverage of working women with kids in the New York Times Magazine.  In an article titled “The Opt-Out Revolution” about the life choices of some women who became stay-at-home moms, reporter Lisa Belkin wrote: “It is not just that the workplace has failed women.  It is also that women are rejecting the workplace” (10-26-03).  Ms. Belkin interviewed women employed in high-paying jobs.  One woman was a TV reporter.  Another was a lawyer.  They had the privileges of advanced education that paved the way to high salaries. 
A sub-headline in a Time Magazine article by Claudia Wallis read: “Caught between the pressures of the workplace and the demands of being a mom, more women are sticking with the kids” (3-22-04).  The story about working women’s careers and their kids pulling them from the labor market was getting legs in mainstream media. 
New York Times reporter Louise Story wrote: “Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children.”  The women students she cited and interviewed at Harvard, Princeton and Yale “are likely to marry men who will make enough money to give them a real choice about whether to be full-time mothers, unlike those women who must work out of economic necessity” (9-2-05). 
Well, government data does in fact show that the rate of women with children working and looking for employment has declined since the 2001 recession. In a recession, the economy’s production of goods and services shrinks for six straight months.  This half-year process usually leads to employers hiring fewer workers. 
Increased employer spending creates new jobs.  Speaking of new hiring, if the economy had been growing now as it was in 2000, about 4 million people more would be employed.  This includes women workers. 
“The recession of the early 2000s was harder on women than the recession of the 1980s or 1990s, and in particular, harder on younger women,” wrote Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC (“Are Women Opting Out?  Debunking the Myth,” Briefing Paper, 12-05). In other words, women have been leaving the work force because of the failure of the economy to create the number of jobs that it had during the 10-year economic expansion that ended in March 2001. The end of that decade’s rate of job growth was to blame for the exodus of women from paid employment. 
Think of women workers employed in the high-tech boom of the 1990s. Think of the telecom firms such as WorldCom that boomed then busted as the new decade began. This process put local women out of work such as Janie Foydl. She “worked for troubled corporate giant WorldCom, and was one of 200 local employees who were fired when the company shuttered its Rancho Cordova call center” (Sacramento News & Review, 9-1-02). For Ms. Foydl and other women, employment in high-tech industry has not returned to what it was last decade. 
What of the “child penalty,” meaning the effects of what having a child actually does to the careers of some working women interviewed by Ms. Belkin? That penalty has shrunk during the past 20 years, according to Ms. Boushey, who analyzed national jobs data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. She continued: “The reality is that mothers are now less likely to leave the labor market because of their children.” 
This reality reflects far-reaching changes in the US market for the labor of mothers. The impacts on the lives of them and their families are real and really worth the widest possible public discussion. 
Some reporters in mainstream outlets missed the story on mothers’ participation in the labor market by a kind of willful blindness to the real lives of the vast female majority.  Media hype about women opting out of the  workplace to become stay-at-home moms distorted a daily reality for millions of mothers and their families. 
Ms. Boushey sums up the effects of the business cycle on working women and their families: “For many mothers, the slack labor market has not only meant fewer jobs, but also an inability to find a job with the benefits or flexibility needed to support a family both economically and emotionally. The majority of children are being raised in a home where both their parents are working, creating a time crunch at home and added stress when there is no one available to take time off work to care for a sick child or attend a parent-teacher meeting. Hoping for an opt out by mothers is not going to change this. Rather than hyping anecdotes, we’d be better off focusing on solutions for the very real struggles families face in finding the time and resources to care for one another.” 
In brief, we need to find ways to make the economy work for women and everybody else. Economics as if people mattered. Imagine that. 

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive paper. He can be reached at: ssandron@hotmail.com.

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