Chapter 16: Low-wage mothers on the edge in the US
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A defining aspect of the study of gender in economic life is the exploration of the ways women’s earnings and paid work opportunities have been circumscribed by the economic and social conventions surrounding their care giving roles. A key consistent empirical finding is that when the quintessential caregivers – mothers – do paid work, they work fewer hours and earn lower wages, even when adjusting for hours worked, than men and other women (see Budig and England, 2001; Anderson et al., 2003; Sigle - Rushton and Waldfogel, 2007). Mothers in low-wage work face the highest wage penalties (Budig and Hodges, 2010).The role of mothers as caregivers and its counterpart of fathers as breadwinners have also shaped key US social protection policies, the set of programs that minimize any individual’s risk associated with the loss of earnings income (Nelson, 1990; Orloff, 1993; Fraser, 1994; Lewis, 2002). In the United States, the 1930s brought key sets of federally legislated employment-based protections that included unemployment insurance and old-age and disability payments. The programs were developed to provide supplementary income to breadwinners (and by extension wives) when breadwinners’ earnings are suspended (see Gordon, 1994). At the same time, a less generous and means-tested (income-based) anti-poverty policy emerged that targeted female caregivers without husbands. Both types of programs expanded through the early 1970s with employment-based policies mostly protecting workers in higher-paying, family-supporting jobs, while means-tested programs covered single mothers and others with little or no earnings.

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