There are many things to like about Mother’s Day: tulip bouquets, elegant brunches, and home-made cards from the kids. After all, the idea of honoring Mom for nurturing the next generation is as all-American as apple pie and, well, motherhood.
Yet Mother’s Day also has its unseemly under-belly. It’s not the commercialism of another holiday brought to you by Hallmark, although certainly one can find plenty evidence of consumerism run amok. Dads can be made to feel like cads if they aren’t planning to buy their wives the “Mother’s Day Spa Package,” which, according to Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door, “is everything a mother deserves” and starts at $210. But few families really fall into this trap, and most moms are content receiving cards of pasta glued to construction paper.
What’s really in poor taste are the attempts to use Mother’s Day to push a political agenda. Teresa Heinz Kerry, for example, seized the occasion to pen an op-ed for the Boston Herald, entitled “For mother’s sake, tweak Social Security.” She writes: “Unfortunately there is one entity that doesn’t seem to share this respect for the work our mothers do: the U.S. government and the Social Security system.”
Mrs. Kerry’s chief complaint is that Social Security benefits are calculated based on 35 years of earnings, and since many women take years out of the workforce to care for children, they have several years of “zero” earnings, reducing their monthly payments. Mrs. Kerry offers this tear-jerking policy solution: “We should allow women to drop out the ‘zero years’ instead of telling them that their care for their young children and elderly parents is worth zero when it comes time to calculate Social Security benefits.”
It sounds very nice, but it’s terrible public policy. What would this mean for the millions of single and low-income moms who have to work to make ends meet, paying thousands of dollars in Social Security taxes each year, but would much prefer to be home with their kids? Under Mrs. Kerry’s defined benefit-system, many of these women would get lower benefits than the stay-at-home moms since their extra years of earnings and taxes wouldn’t yield any additional benefits.
Ms. Heinz also ignores the fact that on average women already have higher rates of return on their Social Security payments than men do, and couples with a stay-at-home mom tend to do better than couples in which both spouses work. Undoubtedly, Social Security’s defined benefit-system is inherently arbitrary and unfair: the formula used to calculate benefits ends up rewarding some groups and penalizes others. And married, stay-at-home moms are generally among the advantaged. Social Security provides a spousal benefit, so a stay-at-home mom who never enters the workforce will receive fifty percent of the benefit generated by her husband’s earning history. Working wives, in contrast, get a much worse deal. They get either the higher of the two — the spousal benefit or a benefit based on their own earnings history — which means that many working moms get no additional benefits for their years of work and taxes.
One of the many virtues of creating personal accounts within the Social Security system would be that they would avoid such unfair quirks. At least that portion of a worker’s Social Security contribution that is put into the personal account would fund his own retirement benefits, rather than someone else’s, and with a fair return, too. But Mrs. Kerry would prefer instead to tweak the current system to further favor particular groups like stay-at-home moms. If she looked at the recent report by Social Security’s Trustees, she’d realize that it’s irresponsible to talk about raising anyone’s benefits at a time when the system is spiraling toward financial ruin: It’s the equivalent of a woman demanding her day at the Red Door spa when the bank is preparing to foreclose on the family home. If Mrs. Kerry is concerned about women’s retirement security, she should encourage her husband and the Democrats in Congress to discuss ways to reform the system to reduce Social Security’s unfunded liabilities — something they have steadfastly refused to do.
Mrs. Kerry is just one example of using Mother’s Day as a political tool. Code Pink is holding a “peace festival” with Gloria Steinem to call for an end of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Activities include “speakers, music, arts and crafts and perhaps even imPEACHment pies!” The National Organization for Women’s website urges visitors to honor their mothers by signing their “Mothers Matter and Caregivers Count” petition, which urges Congress to adopt legislation to “increase work/life balance” — code words for more government regulation of the workplace and mandated benefits.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that groups will use any media hook to push their cause. There seems something vaguely sexist, however, in this use of Mother’s Day, which consistently puts women in the position of clamoring for more benefits from Uncle Sam. Father’s Day doesn’t occasion such an unseemly push for favors for men.
Women deserve better on Mother’s Day. No, we don’t all expect full-day spa treatments, but a little respect would be nice.
– Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women’s Forum and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.