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Motherhood is associated with lower hourly pay, but the causes of this are not well
understood. Mothers may earn less than other women because having children
causes them to (1) lose job experience, (2) be less productive at work, (3) trade off
higher wages for mother-friendly jobs, or (4) be discriminated against by employers.
Or the relationship may be spurious rather than causal—women with lower earning
potential may have children at relatively higher rates. The authors use data from the
1982–1993 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth with fixed-effects models to exam-
ine the wage penalty for motherhood. Results show a wage penalty of 7 percent per
child. Penalties are larger for married women than for unmarried women. Women
with (more) children have fewer years of job experience, and after controlling for
experience a penalty of 5 percent per child remains. “Mother-friendly” characteris-
tics of the jobs held by mothers explain little of the penalty beyond the tendency of
more mothers than non-mothers to work part-time. The portion of the motherhood
penalty unexplained probably results from the effect of motherhood on productivity
and/or from discrimination by employers against mothers. While the benefits of
mothering diffuse widely—to the employers, neighbors, friends, spouses, and chil-
dren of the adults who received the mothering—the costs of child rearing are borne
disproportionately by mothers.
Work that produces a physical
product or a business service often has few
beneficiaries beyond those who buy the
product and thus indirectly pay the worker.
In contrast, “caring” labor also benefits
those who make no payments to the worker.
Good parenting, for example, increases the
likelihood that a child will grow up to be a
caring, well-behaved, and productive adult.
This lowers crime rates, increases the level
of care for the next generation, and contrib-
utes to economic productivity. Most of those
who benefit—the future employers, neigh-
bors, spouses, friends, and children of the
person who has been well reared—pay noth-
ing to the parent. Thus, mothers pay a price
in lowered wages for doing child rearing,
while most of the rest of us are “free riders”
on their labor.