Can Being a Mother Set You Up for Poverty?

by TTMK on December 2, 2013 · 10 comments

The following is a post from staff writer Melissa Batai.  My own editor’s comments are at the end of the post.

I have 3 kids, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.  However, in the process of raising these three kids, I quit my full-time job as a teacher at a community college where I was making a decent salary and instead became a freelance writer working from home.  Now, I work about half the hours I did at the community college and make about half the money.

Since we homeschool, I see myself working part-time as a freelancer for the next several years.

(Just to be fair, in the year before I quit my job, I disliked it and likely would have quit whether I had children or not, though if I didn’t have kids, I would have found a different full-time job.)

I certainly could have chosen to continue to work full-time.  However, when I did the math and looked at paying the daycare costs for our two youngest who are only 17 months apart and also paying for afterschool care for my oldest, I’d be working almost entirely to pay for childcare.  I chose instead to quit the good paying job and take care of our kids myself.

This is a decision that many women make, at least temporarily, before their kids are in school.  After the kids are in school, many women find it difficult to reenter the workforce or decide to continue to be stay at home moms.

According to a post on BlogHer, this decision is one that can set women up for a lifetime of poverty.  BlogHer notes that according to the US Census Bureau, “In the 50 years since poverty has been tracked, women have had a higher poverty rate than men every single year.”  In fact, “a woman in 2012 was 31 times more likely to be poor than a man.”  Even more startling, “single mothers are 81% more likely to be poor than single fathers.”

BlogHer explains this difference in the poverty rate between men and women in part because women are often the ones who leave the workforce to be caregivers, both to their own children and their parents.  Not surprisingly, “women over 65 are 67% more likely to be poor than men of the same age, as older women hit the cumulative effect of a lifetime of lower wages, more caregiving, (and thus more years out of the workforce), smaller Social Security benefits, and more meager (or non-existent) pensions.”

Making the decision to stay home with your kids is often a good one at the time.  However, if the woman decides to reenter the workforce later, she may not be able to, or she may not find a job as good as the one she left previously.  Of course, if the couple gets divorced and the woman has lost many of her marketable skills, she is certainly at a disadvantage over her husband.

My Questions for You 

Do you think being a mother sets women up for a lifetime of financial uncertainty and struggle, especially if the woman is to get divorced?

Or, would you argue that part of the reason why women earn less over their lifetimes is because of the majors they choose and the careers they pursue?

Editor’s comments from Ray: 

I think this is a great topic, as there are probably strong opinions on it.  Personally, I don’t think that being a mother automatically sets someone up for poverty.

The reason is that there is no rule that states that the person who stays home to care for kids (or elders) needs to be the woman.  A man can do this just the same.  It’s a choice that people make together.  In a time where women earn slightly more undergraduate and graduate degrees than do men, there is no reason to automatically assume that a woman needs to be the one to cut her work for her family.

Also, if a marriage ends, there are men who end up paying onerous amounts of alimony and/or child support.  In that case, one could make the similarly one-sided argument that being a father sets men up for poverty.  This could also be the case if the man is the one who sacrificed his career to be a stay at home parent.

Overall, I see this as an issue that is more a matter of choices than gender.  I welcome your comments to the post, the questions posed above, and my comments.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle December 2, 2013 at 11:32 am

Personally, and I say this not as a mother, but Western culture does not make it easy for women to go back to work. Daycare is almost as expensive as a monthly salary. Access to healthcare is a mess. And spousal support systems are not monitored or enforced quickly enough to make a difference. Now with food stamps and family aid programs being cut, it’s even a bigger issue.

Another issue is with maternity leave. The US is way under in terms of how much time a woman can take off. And there is never a guarantee that her job will be waiting for her when she comes back. Forcing a new mom to take vacation or sick time limits her ability to parent and work.

There are interesting studies about cultures in Europe that provide a year off+ in maternity time and early schooling or daycare at a very low or no cost. In those societies, the vast majority of those women will go back in to the workforce.

While I think women (and men) should choose what is right for their family, I think we would see a higher tick in working women or women working in higher level jobs if we offered better child care and longer maternity time, especially for disadvantaged single mothers.


Melissa December 3, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Michelle–You’ve made excellent points. My husband is from Japan, and his sister took a year off each time she had a child. (She had two.) Now, she’s a workaholic (literally working 60 plus hours a week) and loves her job. Japan also has a daycare and preschool program that is based on your income and how much you can pay.


TTMK December 5, 2013 at 9:19 pm

That’s actually pretty interesting that school programs are based on ability to pay. Is that government run or regulated?


TTMK December 5, 2013 at 9:23 pm

There is much that can we can learn from other cultures, no doubt.


krantcents December 2, 2013 at 7:43 pm

It starts with what choices you make. Since there is a 50% divorce rate, many people make bad choices. If you wait to get married and have children, you are more likely to have a successful marriage.


jim December 3, 2013 at 1:16 am

This is kind of a scary question for me ’cause our daughter (who holds a degree in finance – valedictorian) has been a stay at home mom for 10 years. Although I don’t see a divorce in their future – ever – it does concern me because I don’t think she’d be able to compete in the work place now, after staying at home for 10 years.


TTMK December 5, 2013 at 9:22 pm

First off, congrats on having such a bright child. That’s very cool. As for the concern – while I’m a parent of a much younger daughter, I can totally appreciate how that would be a scary question for a Dad. It’s good that this is apparently just a scare and not a realistic future event based on your assessment.


Little House December 5, 2013 at 8:59 am

I’m a teacher, not a parent, and though I think a parent should stay home for a few years raising a child to give them a good start, it does impact the home finances. It’s too bad that our society doesn’t appreciate a parent staying home and reward them with decent maternity leave, companies that support flex-time hours, and daycare’s onsite supplemented by companies. There’s no reason why women or stay-at-home parents should be dinged financially for raising responsible children.


TTMK December 5, 2013 at 9:19 pm

There is some coldness to our society, no question about it in my view. Given that this is the case, we have to adapt to the environment – and husbands/wives should do so as a team.


Tushar @ Everything Finance December 7, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Interesting topic – I think that motherhood (and fatherhood) can create more of a volatile financial environment. I think that the expectations that society puts on women is unrealistic, and unfortunately sharing responsibility isn’t the norm yet.


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