Economic Inequality and the New Mommy Divide

BY Paul Solman  November 23, 2011 at 5:33 PM EDT

Lifestyle During Pregnancy

Paul Solman: Today’s Making Sen$e post comes courtesy of the page’s web chief, Elizabeth Shell.

A majority of first-time working mothers are now receiving paid maternity leave — a first since the government started tracking the data in the early 1980s — according to a new study by the U.S. Census Bureau. They’re also much likelier to work longer into their pregnancy and return to work sooner than their mothers did.

However, whether or not a first-time mother can expect to receive some sort of paid maternity leave from her employer is closely tied to the number of years she spent in school: women with a bachelor’s degree or more are nearly four times more likely to have access to paid leave than their cohorts with less than a high school diploma.

“It’s a mix of economic needs and professional goals. Women have formed an attachment to the workplace,” said Lynda L. Laughlin, author of the Census report. “The high percentage of women we’re seeing who stay at work longer into their pregnancy and then return soon after birth sends a signal to employers that they’re dedicated.”

But, adds Kristin Smith, assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, “women who don’t have leave tend to curtail their employment and tend not to come back to work. Families are relying more and more on mothers as breadwinners, so this has an important economic impact.”

The report also highlighted the various types of leave moms are cobbling together in order to have time with their first born child, including maternity leave, vacation time and paid sick days. More than two-fifths of new moms said they had to rely at least in part on unpaid leave. More than one in five quit their job.

“New mothers are more likely to stay in the labor force if they have higher education and earnings. A lot comes down to the nature of the work and of the employment — if they have the ability to cut hours or to come back,” said Jennifer Cheesman Day, co-author of “Opting Out: An Exploration of Labor Force Participation of New Mothers.” “Certainly there are costs associated with having someone watch your child. If new mothers are not earning enough and there are no maternity leave options, then it’s just not worth their while to hang on to that job.”

Maternity leave depends on the employer and various state laws. Nationally, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees 12 weeks job-protected leave — unpaid — to care for a newborn or an ailing family member. But companies with fewer than 50 employees are excluded. According to a Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year, the United States is one of only a handful of countries that does not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave.

From the report:

At least 178 countries have national laws that guarantee paid leave for new mothers, and more than 50 also guarantee paid leave for new fathers. More than 100 countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave for new mothers, including Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), among the world’s most developed countries, provide on average 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, with an average of 13 weeks at full pay.

We were interested to see what a new mom’s maternity leave in the U.S. might look like today, based on her ethnicity and education. So we dug deeper into the Census data. Using our tool below, select a value for the two indicators to see the breakdown of how long an expectant mother worked into her pregnancy, what type of leave was used, and when she returned to work.

Interactive by Justin Myers and Vanessa Dennis.

“Race is so closely tied to economic inequality in the U.S. When we look at those with less than a high school degree, minority women tend to be more represented in those groups,” Laughlin added, noting that the report used education as a proxy for job and income. “There’s a wide gap in access to paid leave by education. So those are the women that would benefit the most from these benefits but are the least likely to get them.”

Photo at top by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. Follow Paul on Twitter.