Politics & Policy

What Moms Really Want

Candidates should pay attention to the new Pew survey results.

It’s an electoral cliché, albeit a true one, that candidates for president will always chase the “female vote.” The pandering is especially gratuitous during primary season. Women tend to be more open to political persuasion, decide who to support later in an election cycle, and vote in larger numbers than men — all which makes them a regular target of political messages.

If candidates feel they must wow the girls, at least do it sensibly. Anyone with half a brain can peruse the National Organization for Women’s wish list and promise ever more government handouts. Geez people — put some effort into it! Instead of more NOW-approved trinkets, why not consider what women themselves say they want and offer policies to help achieve these goals?

A good place to start would be a new survey by the Pew Research Center that provides a window into women’s preferences. This survey (a follow-up to one conducted ten years ago) examines mothers’ attitudes toward paid work. Just 20 percent of mothers described full-time work as their ideal, while half wanted part-time employment and 29 percent wanted no paid job at all. The appeal of full-time work has fallen considerably among those mothers who are employed: In 1997, nearly one-third of working mothers described full-time work as their ideal, compared to just one-fifth of working mothers today.

Mothers with young children were even less inclined to favor full-time work. Just 16 percent described full-time work as their ideal (down from 31 percent in 1997). Almost half thought part-time work was best, and one third wanted to stay at home without paid employment.

Unfortunately, most American women today aren’t able to follow these preferences. The Department of Labor reports that 70 percent of women with children under eighteen are employed, including 57 percent of women with children under three. Only about a quarter of working women have part-time arrangements, which means many women — particularly women with small children — wish they could work less than they do.

What might this mean for candidates? Instead of focusing on policies that supposedly make it easier for mothers to work more (like subsidized daycare or mandatory employer-provided leave), policymakers should pave the way for market-based flexibility. In other words, kill policies that make it difficult for mothers to cut back their hours.

Financial pressure keeps many mothers reluctantly in full-time jobs. To reduce that pressure, policymakers should cut spending and lower taxes. As George Mason University’s Professor Todd Zywicki recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the typical family pays substantially more in taxes than the combined expenses of their mortgage, automobile, and health insurance. Zywicki also notes the “secondary earner bias” of our tax system, which causes all of a wife’s income to effectively be taxed at a much higher marginal rate than her husband’s. Easing this crushing tax burden would allow many more women to reduce their paid work.

Policymakers also should consider how government drives up the cost of the products and services which families need. Barriers to trade increase the price of groceries and clothing, among other goods, and eat up the family budget. Children are forced into government-run schools based on their zip codes; so many families swallow high mortgages on homes in one of the few neighborhoods with “good” public schools. The extra debt and higher monthly payments compel many moms into the workforce.

Although the greatest number of mothers surveyed by Pew wanted to work less, many stay-at-home moms welcomed part-time employment opportunities. Typically, when candidates think about part-time jobs, they focus on compelling higher pay. They tout laws that would require companies to give part-time workers the same benefits as full-time workers.

As usual, simplistic but wrong. Requiring employers to provide leave or other benefits raises the cost of hiring. Employers who might have considered offering part-time positions instead condense jobs and reduce staff. Eliminating such regulations would encourage more companies to offer alternative work arrangements, and thus new options for women.

Big government may seem an easy sell to women. If candidates really listen to what women want, it’s less government and more time with family. So candidates take note: Listen to women, not to the professional feminists. There’s a difference.

— 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.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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