What Works for Working Mothers?

by Reihan Salam

Though Carrie Lukas makes a compelling case for “providing tax relief to parents across the board” rather than pushing parents towards institutional day-care centers here at NRO, I thought I’d share a passage from Abby McCloskey’s new National Affairs essay on how conservatives ought to advance the interests of working women:

Approximately one-third of stay-at-home mothers live in poverty, compared with 12% of working mothers. Work is a central component of upward economic mobility, and we should make it as easy as possible for women to re-enter the work force by reducing barriers to employment.

Republicans would do well to propose an expansion of child-care subsidies, as such programs consistently demonstrate positive labor-market effects. A robust academic literature suggests that offsetting child-care costs increases employment and decreases government dependency — two primary conservative objectives. Using data from the 1999 National Survey of America’s Families, David Blau and Erdal Tekin found that the child-care subsidies for welfare recipients resulted in a 13-percentage-point increase in the likelihood of employment for single mothers. Another study found that the introduction of subsidized child care in Quebec in the late 1990s resulted in a significant employment boost for married women.

McCloskey’s case for treating child care as a necessary work expense that ought to be treated as such in the tax code certainly doesn’t preclude also making the case for an expanded child credit. But she does make the important point that while a work-dependent child-care subsidy would likely increase work, we don’t have strong evidence that a larger child credit would do the same. Of course, that’s not necessarily a case against choosing a larger child credit over a more generous child-care subsidy: Stay-at-home parents make significant civic contributions that aren’t captured by our measure of GDP. As the University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox recently observed, support for stay-at-home parenting is extremely widespread. One wonders, however, if we can do both — if we can expand the child credit while also improving the tax treatment of child-care expenses. 

With this in mind, we might consider supporting another one of McCloskey’s proposals. She opposes either mandating that employers provide new mothers with paid leave or financing such a benefit through new taxes, on the grounds that an employer mandate might discourage employers from hiring women in the first place and that higher taxes have a particularly negative effect on female labor-force participation, but she calls for a modest benefit comparable to the average unemployment benefit that, if extended to all working mothers, would cost roughly $5 billion a year: 

Conservatives can avoid the pitfalls that the Democrats have fallen into by having the government pay for maternity-leave benefits directly, not through tax hikes and employer mandates, but by reducing waste in other programs. By reforming the vastly more expensive unemployment-insurance or disability-insurance programs, both of which are riddled with waste, the federal government could cover the expense. The savings could be used to provide a safety net for women, especially those who are hourly workers and have access to no other form of paid leave.

McCloskey’s central motivation is ensuring that women stay engaged in the workforce. Extended absences from the world of work can prove costly, as one foregoes work experience that can translate into higher wages over time. This is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff for those parents who are married to spouses earning decent incomes; it’s a much tougher one for those married to spouses with low earning potential, or for those raising children on their own. If McCloskey’s approach to maternity-leave benefits helps at least some mothers keep their jobs, it could yield significant dividends. 

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