Several years ago, in the FMH Facebook group, someone made a comment that if society valued motherhood so much, why wasn’t she paid to stay at home and raise her children? When I read that comment, I had a few strong reactions, the first of which was Who said society values motherhood? It felt to me like something I’ve heard the Church say plenty, *cough*talk is cheap*cough*,[1] but I’ve never really heard “society” say it. And yet, in many countries there are far better financial protections that either encourage through incentives or at least reduce the financial penalties parents otherwise experience. In the US, it feels like parenting is not really encouraged much. It’s long been a net negative to a family’s financial prospects.

I’ve mentioned before my feelings when (as a child) I first learned that the Church opposed the ERA. I was gobsmacked. The ERA was so obviously right, the idea that women should be treated equally under the law, paid equally for equal work, etc. The only “justification” for fighting it that I could wrap my brain around was that when you change from a single breadwinner economy (in which one person can financially support a family of financial dependents on one income) to a single earner model (where one income is designed to cover the needs of one person), the economic eventuality is that most adults must do paid work to survive. For half the citizens (primarily women at the time) this would mean that their unpaid work in the home (that was financially covered by men having outsized incomes to support a family) would become a non-viable option. It wouldn’t happen immediately, but it was an eventual foregone conclusion. However, the existing system was also untenable in that divorced or single parents had dependents to support, and were not able to do so on a single income, particularly if that was on a discounted “woman’s wage,” much lower than men were earning.

Various US politicians have proposed such things as Universal Childcare Coverage (Elizabeth Warren), existing tax credits for parents (Bill Clinton’s 1997 act), and FMLA (also Bill Clinton). All of these fall short of neutralizing the financial penalties for having kids which amount to a pretty big incentive to keep family sizes small or forego kids altogether. Even though FMLA dictates that you can’t be fired for caregiving of family members, including maternity leave, it caps at 12 weeks and does not mandate that the leave be paid. Requiring paid maternity leave would be a burden too heavy to bear for many small businesses, although if you work for a business with fewer than 50 employees on payroll (note the temp and contractor exception inherent there), your company is also exempt from the FMLA requirement. Fire at will.

The other inequitable penalty is when paid (or partially paid) maternity leave is offered, but there is no paternity leave. This inequity results in soft penalties for women who are seen as temporarily exiting the workforce, placing a burden on peers and bosses to cover for their absence. When companies are left to set the terms, and to pay for all the benefits, women who have children disproportionately suffer penalties in terms of raises and promotions. That’s why CEO Sheryl Sandberg told women to “lean in.” It’s not like the companies are going to “lean out” to meet them. They are neither motivated nor regulated to do so. Some countries have sought to remedy this by giving “parental” leave rather than “maternity” leave.

Aside from caring about the equal treatment of all citizens, something the US has consistently failed to demonstrate (as has the Church, let’s be honest), why should the government care if citizens have children? Should they care? Companies honestly should not care about it, and frankly don’t. Parents (both sexes) are less flexible to take clients to dinner, to travel to other cities, to stay at work until after 8PM on a regular basis, and they occasionally have to handle issues for their children, such as care for them when they are sick. Parents are de facto less productive than singles, which often results in additional workload for singles, a tax on their leisure time that parents aren’t asked to cover equally. But the country should care; raising the next generation of Americans is a net positive for the country.

Singapore, like other Asian nations, decided to play around with reproductive choices of its citizens, and that didn’t work out so well. Before I lived there (from 2011-2013), there had been a push by the government to reduce the number of children because the population was outgrowing the small space of its island nation. This propaganda to encourage fewer children per couple paid off too well, and by the time I was there, the country was backpedaling. Suddenly there weren’t enough Singaporean children to replace the adult population which would cause downstream impacts to the economy. That’s a GPD problem, not a company productivity problem. While I was there, the country offered financial incentives to Singaporean citizens for having children, although most of the Singaporeans I knew were still skeptical. The incentives didn’t cover the extremely high cost of raising children in what was at the time the world’s most expensive country. Not even the Mentos-sponsored National Night ad to call citizens to do their patriotic duty / booty call was enough to encourage my co-workers to think having kids was a good financial bet. (Definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before). While I was there, the country was even advertising sex taxis where young couples could have some alone time if they lived with the husband’s parents (customary in many Asian cultures).[2]

If you go back a hundred years or more, family size wasn’t the burden it is now because children often contributed to the family business or farm. Over time, and as the country urbanized (and the industrial age boomed), the focus shifted away from family-run farms and businesses, and child labor laws were instituted to prevent families from hiring out the kids to bring in an income. The focus of society toward children became a focus on educating them through public schools and colleges to create and improve the future workforce and economy. Aside from providing for a free public education, though, there were only meager efforts to offset the cost of raising a brood of dependents. Birth control became safer and more available. Family sizes dropped. If you have been a parent in the last century, you’re aware that kids aren’t exactly pulling their weight financially.

So, while companies have no desire for employees to procreate, governments do have a stake in it. That’s why the only way you can solve the parenting penalties is through government regulations (which piss off and penalize companies for hiring parents, particularly women who traditionally bear more of the child care burden) or subsidy (which all taxpayers bear, regardless of their own parenting choices, but at least it’s spread out across everyone). Given the Church’s poor track record on women and employment [3], at least one prominent Mormon is making the best proposal I’ve heard to date to address the parenting penalty: Mitt Romney. His plan would pay people (no gender restriction, heterosexual or marital requirement) who have children up to $1250 per month. That’s finally addressing the true penalty: the cost of childcare. And the best part? You can use that money to pay for child care, or a parent can choose to exit the workforce and remain in the home while still being paid the subsidy (unlike Warren’s plan that caps at 7% of a family’s income, essentially requiring parents to work to get it). It’s a subsidy that actually puts more choice in the hands of parents, avoiding the pitfalls of so many other proposals. The subsidy would still be given to parents with up to $400K combined income ($200K for single income earners)! That’s a pro-family policy actually designed to take the financial sting out of having kids. (Biden’s proposed stimulus caps parents out at $150K combined income, and is only for the remainder of the year).

Some have criticized the plan as likely to cause women to leave the workforce, and sure, that might happen (or men might to become full-time caregivers in the home). While that’s a risk, it’s not that there’s no benefit to society when parents choose to stay home to raise the next generation. Romney’s plan does what Benson’s disastrously bad advice to women in the late 80s never did: putting our money where our mouth is. He also proposes eliminating the out-of-date “head of household” filing status. About. Damn. Time.[4]

As a small business owner that primarily employs women, I’d be a little nervous that it would motivate more women to leave the workforce, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that they would. Most women can still earn more by working, and use the subsidy to pay for childcare if they prefer. It’s on par with educational subsidies, in that it’s an investment for the parent who might otherwise be unemployed. It lets women (or other parents) stay in the workforce so they don’t suffer the financial penalties of stepping out for years to provide in home parenting. But for those close to the poverty line, yes, it could be an incentive to stay out of the workforce altogether. If that makes life easier for them and strengthens families, I would still support it, even if it hurt my business.

Unfortunately, his proposal is unlikely to come to fruition (unlike the ACA which is still causing fistfights) because the GOP doesn’t like government to govern, and the Democrats prefer to expand child tax credits (although Biden’s proposed stimulus does pay some parents $300/month per child for the rest of the year). By contrast, Romney’s bipartisan proposal is projected to reduce child poverty by a third. Most importantly, it does something I never even fathomed: it places a monetary value parenting. Until we quit seeing “women’s work” in the home as free labor for all, we will never truly value it.[5] It is, up to now, a luxury to have a parent in the home, one fewer and fewer families can afford. That discussion in the FMH Facebook group was prescient in ways I would not have foreseen.

  • Do you think we should pay parents? Why or why not?
  • Do you like or dislike Romney’s proposal? Explain your answer.
  • Why are Republicans so hostile to his plan when even Trump was big on spending for populist programs?
  • Do you agree that the advice to women to stay home unpaid is an untenable financial disadvantage for the majority of families in our modern economy?


[1] At the same time the Church’s CES department was outright firing women seminary teachers for having a baby and claiming that “they didn’t want to work” similar to how flight attendants who gained five pounds in the 1960s (or got pregnant as recently as 2010 in Singapore) “didn’t want to work” and how rape victims who got pregnant while at BYU “didn’t want to finish their education.”

[2] They might have been taking a cue from the Vietnamese sex “hotels” that were a line of lawn chairs along the riverfront that could be rented by young couples for 20 minutes at a time. Necessity is the mother of invention.

[3] “Abysmal” is far too generous a word.

[4] Definitely something the Church should also quit. It’s patriarchal and usually demeaning/infantilizing to women.

[5] Protip: we don’t value it in the Church where it’s a foregone conclusion that women will do all the entertaining, planning, food, and clean up.