Would Focusing on Women Reduce Inequality?

March 14, 2019

Professor Janet Gornick, head of the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, explains how cutting the "mommy tax" would benefit society.

adult and child walking near building

With Elizabeth Warren and other presidential candidates calling for universal child care and other social benefit programs, we asked Graduate Center Professor Janet Gornick, director of the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, how these proposals would help workers in the United States.
Gornick has spent the last 25 years comparing social welfare policies in the United States with those in other rich countries. She explained how the United States could reduce its “mommy tax,” how Americans tend to view kids more as pets than as part of the fabric of society, and how helping women balance work and family could help everyone.
Do you think that focusing on women and their economic needs would lead to less inequality overall?

Janet Gornick_standing in room

Professor and Stone Center Director Janet Gornick

There’s no question that there's a strong link between strengthening women's success and status in paid work and mitigating income inequality. Women’s employment has been a protective factor, tamping down on income inequality across households. In other words, we would have more inequality if women had not increased their involvement in paid work over the last several decades, as they have.
In 1990, women in the United States had the sixth highest labor force participation rate among the world’s richest 22 countries. By 2017, we were down to 20th. That’s not so much because women's employment fell — although it has fallen slightly — it is because other countries surpassed us dramatically.
And that’s because other countries have strengthened what’s called work-family reconciliation policy, which is a fancy name for policies that help people to balance parenthood and employment. European countries in particular, and also Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — other high-income countries — have steadily put more and more of these policies into place, or strengthened the ones already operating. The United States has not followed suit. I think this is a simple piece of evidence that the lack of these policies in the United States is having an effect.
How might universal child care and paid leave contribute to reducing women’s inequality? 
Publicly-supported child care unambiguously increases women’s employment rates. Workers are more likely to work for pay if they have affordable, accessible, high-quality child care. In many European countries, young children actually have a legal right to a child care slot. Employers, of course, are typically in favor of public child care because they understand that it strengthens their employees’ capacity to come to work.
Paid leave is more complicated because, while child care pretty much unambiguously decreases workplace absences and increases the time that workers spend at work, paid leave gives workers the opportunity to be away from the factory or the desk for a period of time.
However, years of research have shown that, when new parents have access to publicly-provided, highly-paid, relatively short leaves — say six to nine months, which Americans might find to be long but most Europeans would think is moderate or even short — that leave has many positive effects. One year after the birth or adoption of a baby, women who have access to leave are more likely than those who don’t have leave to be back at work — and with the same employer. That helps women to preserve their job quality and earnings, and for the employer, it reduces turnover, which can be costly.
On the other hand, in the shorter term — say two or three months after birth — women without leave are more likely to be back at their jobs. That’s often the case in the United States. For many American women, they have a baby but have no paid leave benefits, so they quit their jobs to care for their newborn, temporarily. Then, in a few months, they need income so they get a new job and go back to work — typically with a new employer and sometimes at lower pay. Meanwhile, her counterpart in France or Norway is at home on paid leave. But again, at the one-year mark and at the two-year mark, it’s the reverse. The American woman is more likely to be out of employment, because she could not find a new job that was adequate — and also because her child care situation remains challenging.
So while leave might reduce women’s likelihood of being at the workplace in the short run, it increases their likelihood of being employed and possibly their job quality in the longer run.
All told, having access to paid leave reduces the “mommy tax” — the loss in women’s wages associated with having a baby. It also increases women’s employment rates even among women who don’t have children, because in many countries, in order to build eligibility for benefits, you have to have an employment history.
What about involving fathers? What would be an ideal scenario in terms of paid leave policies?
Imagine that men and women had absolutely identical leave entitlements. I’ve written that they should.
There are no cases yet where men and women have absolutely identical entitlements. But there are some countries that are coming close. Yet, the sticky issue is the take-up rate — the percentage of people who claim a benefit for which they’re eligible — is still higher everywhere among women than among men.
So the question is, how can we change the architecture of paid leave policies? How can we increase the incentives for men to take up the leaves for which they’re eligible?
The first factor is leaves have to be highly paid. If leaves were 100 percent paid, that would really help, because otherwise, if you’re, say, looking at a husband and wife, it’s still more likely that her earnings are lower than his. If the benefit rate on the leave is anything less than 100 percent, the rational decision for the couple is for the lower earner to take the leave. But if everyone’s leave is paid at 100 percent, even if she earns $20,000 a year and he earns $40,000 a year, it doesn't matter who takes the leave.
The second factor is that the leave has to be non-transferrable. In other words, a man can’t give his leave rights and benefits to his wife. That sounds odd to Americans, but in a lot of the European systems, the policies were originally designed such that a couple received a set amount of leave — typically 12 months — and the law allowed them to share that time however they wished.
If a man has leave that he can give to his female partner, he often does exactly that: He transfers his leave rights and benefits to her. In Norway in the old days, when a substantial share of leave was transferrable, a Norwegian worker — Jon — might say to his boss, “Greta and I had a baby and I’m going to take three months of leave.” And his boss would say, “Oh, let Greta take the three months.” But, now, most European countries have restructured their leaves, limiting the amount that can be transferred from men to their female partners.
What’s your take on funding universal child care?
I’m absolutely in favor of governments making extensive public investments in child care. I’ve studied this a lot, mostly in Europe. The United States is a tremendous outlier. We spend much less from public budgets than nearly all other rich countries.
One of the most celebrated models is in France, where public school basically starts at the age of two and a half, and every kid is enrolled. In Luxembourg, preschool is compulsory from the age of four. Even so, across Europe, we see a variety of models — governments may provide the care directly, or they might subcontract to private providers, or grant vouchers to parents.
So, policy designs abroad are diverse. They could be adapted to a more Americanized culture, which would probably mean making heavy use of market-based care and granting more parental choice.
Compare systems operating in other countries with the current situation in the United States. Here, most affluent three- and four-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality preschool — paid for privately by their parents. Yet middle- and lower-income three- and four-year olds are spending their time in less-expensive or even free care settings with little to no educational components. Many are plunked in front of a TV set. To make things worse, a lot of U.S. child care, due to meager financing and limited oversight, is not even physically safe for the children who attend.
This is an inequality issue. It’s about investing in children.
Are there other benefits to investing in children, beyond improving their educational prospects and making it easier for their mothers to work?
When some people talk about child care, they talk about it in instrumental terms: “We need to invest in child care in order to allow their mothers to work, and to prevent kids from getting into trouble when they are older, or even ending up incarcerated. Plus, studies indicate that experiencing good early care raises people’s earnings later in life. All told, if we invest in child care, society will reap a financial return.”
That’s all well and good, but I also think that there are normative issues. It’s a question of values. In a rich country, having access to the best possible care at a very young age is a moral issue. I think child care is a social right. I think that all children, regardless of their family’s economic means, should have a right to high-quality care.
The feminist economist Nancy Folbre, who’s a mentor and a friend, often observes that Americans tend to think of children as pets. We think like this about our neighbors with children: “You decided to have a kid. You feed it, you raise it, you care for it. It’s cute and it brings you pleasure. But it’s your business, not my business; any benefits gained, or costs incurred, are internal to your family.”
That idea is bolstered by some economists who understand children to be, essentially, consumer goods. They would say to parents: “You could have bought a boat, but instead, you had a kid. Your childbearing and childrearing decisions are private; they concern only your family.”
In contrast, many social scientists and policy scholars argue that children are “public goods”. That means, essentially, that children belong to society. They’re not exclusively the concern of their own parents. When children do well, the benefits of their well-being are widely shared.
Viewing children as public goods is a different notion. It means understanding that, today, your child is the peer of my child. Tomorrow, you child will serve in the labor market in this city that I live in and love. Your child will contribute to my Social Security. Because your child’s well-being will have far-reaching effects, my whole community wants him or her to be healthy and well cared for. So we should all contribute.
Now, relying only on the more instrumental arguments only — that is, claiming that we want to invest in young children because those investments will bring future financial gains to our community — may be politically expedient in the United States given Americans’ general skepticism about public spending and our historic resistance to the idea of social rights. But as some critics have pointed out, if that’s your view of child care — that it’s simply to invest in children because you’re going get a financial return later — then what about a child with a severe disability? And extending that to other types of care, what about caring for a frail elderly adult, who has no future labor market prospects or capacity to contribute financially? Do we throw him or her out of the boat?
So what if your child has low-quality child care, or is poorly fed — is that my business? Sadly, too many Americans would say it’s not. But I find that a highly unappealing concept of society.
Janet Gornick is a professor of political science and sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY, which is home to The Stone Center.
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