The Motherhood Penalty

Nancy Folbre
7 October 2008

Most women know that having a child is costly and leaves them vulnerable to poverty. But most probably don’t know how these costs and risks actually measure up, especially considering important differences across women and their families. Even as you read this, highly-skilled researchers are figuring out how to “do the numbers.”

About ten years ago, a new genre of empirical research on the costs of motherhood within the U.S. was born—authored by Jane Waldfogel and entitled “The Effects of Children on Women’s Wages” [American Sociological Review 62:2 (1997): 209-17].

Closely akin to research by Heather Joshi and others on the British case, this article laid out a clear methodology for estimating the economic impact of motherhood controlling for important confounding factors such as education and labor market experience. A host of other studies have confirmed findings of a negative impact, spinning off additional experimental research by Shelley Correll and others on the unfortunate effects of revealing motherhood to a potential employer.

Today the UMass Amherst Sociology Department hosts a presentation by Michelle Budig and Melissa Hodges titled “Differences in Disadvantage: How the Wage Penalty for Motherhood Varies Across Women’s Earnings Distribution” (copy potentially available on request from

The paper uses an innovative statistical method (quantile regression) to examine the relative size of the motherhood penalty for women at different points in the income distribution. The results suggest—counter to some previous research—that low-income women pay a particularly large penalty. This finding holds important policy implications—among them the need for major reforms of U.S. family policy.

I invite participants, readers, and the authors to add comments on the specifics of the article here—where they can be shared with a larger virtual audience.

3 comments on "The Motherhood Penalty"

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    I can understand that there is greater cost to having a child today. but there are many things that cost more now then in the past but to counter act that the amount of money made now is more then in the past and there are many more advances in technology that have made having childern much more easyer then in the past. I’ve been hearing that the cost of childern is not worth the financial risk that is involed but for some people having a family that they can raise and care for and have care back from is worth more then money itself. Money isnt everything if it was society would of never had a chance to make it into the world that we have today and if it wants to continue it must be realized that with out reproduction of the humen species that there will be no future to even care about having money because money is only accepted if someone else is willing to accept as a means of exchange, for a good or service.

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    Melissa Hodges

    My work on this project has really brought home the need for policy reform to address the care needs of mothers, especially given the extreme variation among women’s returns for having children. In our study, we find that net of human capital and labor supply factors (educational attainment, work experience and seniority and hours worked per week, etc.), women at the lowest earnings levels lose roughly 5% per year. We argue that this is because low wage jobs pay too little for mothers to arrange for consistent and high quality child care and usually lack employer health insurance, maternity leave, and other benefits, increasing the need for mothers to care for children. This is further complicated because low wage jobs usually entail strict supervision and offer less scheduling flexibility and are thus less likely to provide flexibility and support for family responsibilities.

    Another interesting aspect is that we find wage premiums for select groups of women: women at the highest earnings levels who are educated, and/or postpone motherhood past age 30. This contradicts recent arguments about the speed-up of demands in professional careers how this makes motherhood even less compatible with work, compared to non-professional careers. Perhaps these women are better able to afford quality childcare that may reduce the loss of earnings they experience over the course of their career.

    Stu is correct that “money isn’t everything” and that children provide an important social resource for the future. However, this would indicate the need for comprehensive policy reforms regarding access to quality childcare in the U.S. to alleviate pressures on working mothers at all levels of earnings.

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    Motherhood is extremely costly — and what’s even worse is getting yourself on your feet after a divorce only to have the ex file custody suit — at taxpayer expense.

    Not making this up — There are fatherhood grants that were erroneously put into the 1996 budget act — state block mandatory grants that are NOT supposed to continue at risk to other programs, and yet they flourish while medical care to our military/families is cut — and medicare/medicaid cuts discussed. Let’s cut this funding. It’s horrendous what is happening.

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