by Marilyn Watkins
The sentimental gloss of Mother’s Day ads only shows the joys and comforts of being a mom, ignoring how tough it often is. The anxieties of sleepless nights, health crises, and potential dangers as our children explore the world may be in part unavoidable, but public policy and cultural norms sure make being a mother harder than it should be.
From the high cost of childcare and housing, to traffic jams, encounters with the legal system, and income inequality, many of the biggest challenges the mothers of the Seattle area face could be significantly eased by better public policy choices, especially for women of color or women with limited financial means.
The typical childcare facility in the city charges well over $1,000 per month per child. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle is $1,900 a month – around $1,600 in Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill. Two- and three- bedrooms tend to be over $2,000. The transportation meltdowns that routinely paralyze the region make shuttling between home, childcare, work, school activities, and shopping a nightmarish time-suck.
Childcare, housing costs and transportation problems collide and compound for working parents. The lack of affordable housing forces people to move to lower-cost neighborhoods or out of the city altogether, leaving parents with fewer family members and friends who are able to take care of the kids or help out in an emergency.
The benefits of Seattle’s booming economy are not trickling out evenly. By 2016, 25 percent of Seattle households had annual incomes over $150,000, but nearly as many had incomes below $35,000. According to American Community Survey data, over 14 percent of Seattle children live in poverty – with incomes below $25,100 for a family of four. The differences by race are dramatic. Fewer than 4 percent of White preschoolers are in poor families, but 60 percent of Black, 46 percent of Native American, and 26 percent of Latinx preschoolers are.
Meanwhile, Congress is threatening to cut food stamps, or SNAP, which keeps millions out of poverty in every region of the country. Nearly two out of three recipients are children, the elderly, or people with disabilities. Right-wing advocates are now using last year’s tax cut on corporations and the wealthy to justify slashing programs that provide economic security and opportunity throughout our communities – and that particularly benefit mothers, from children’s health care to Social Security to transportation infrastructure modernization.
Families with comfortable incomes can afford high-quality early learning and after-school programs, as well as music lessons, summer camps, and other enrichment programs that give their kids a leg up. Kids in families that struggle to keep a roof over their heads rarely get these advantages and can also suffer significant trauma from the uncertainties and stresses that financial insecurity imposes.
The continuing gender and racial wage gaps keep women economically insecure and contribute to child poverty. Those high-paying tech jobs that put so much pressure on our city go largely to men. Women currently hold only 26 percent of software jobs and 30 percent of other computer-related jobs in King County – lower than in the year 2000. Women who work for software firms in King County brought home a whopping $52,000 less on average than the men in 2016, according to U.S. Census Quarterly Workforce Indicators data.
Not coincidentally, these same fields are also far less racially diverse than our workforce. Tech companies in particular have shut out Black, Native, and Latino men along with women. Amazon, for instance, has an all-White board of directors that is currently actively fighting a shareholder proposal to diversify this month.
The gender and racial wage gaps also persist in lower wage, more diverse, and women-dominated industries, including restaurants, retail, and health occupations.
Seattle and Washington State have made significant policy progress over the past few years, adopting a bouquet of policies that build economic security and empower the whole workforce, while particularly benefitting employed mothers and addressing gender and economic inequities. These include raising the minimum wage, requiring employers to provide paid sick days, providing childcare subsidies for lower-income working families, and expanding access to publically-provided quality preschool.
In the past two years, the Legislature passed laws requiring employers to grant pregnant employees reasonable accommodations to protect their health, requiring insurance companies to cover 12-month prescriptions for contraception, and significantly strengthening our state’s equal pay law.
The Legislature also established a new paid family and medical leave insurance program, which, starting in January 2020, will provide 12 to 18 weeks of paid time off work to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member, deal with a family member’s military deployment, or recover from one’s own serious health condition.
There’s a lot more to do, though, to change the rules of our economy so that women and children of all income levels and races have access to opportunity and the ability to pursue happiness. Democracy requires our active participation. So this Mother’s Day, choose an issue or two. Show up at a rally, send an email to an elected official, join an organization that works for justice – and stay involved.
Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building an economy that works for everyone.