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Helping Mothers Raise Good Kids

Commentary
September 1, 2001By Michael Leachman

In Oregon and the rest of the United States, public policies that support mothers have not kept up with changes in the economy. We have fallen behind other developed nations in this regard, and our mothers and children are feeling the results.

From the moment they become mothers, too many women in Oregon are forced to choose paid work over the care and nurturing of their children. Oregon guarantees only unpaid leave, forcing moms who can't afford to live on their savings, or whose partners don't make enough income alone, to go back to work shortly after childbirth. New moms working for small businesses and some working in part-time jobs are promised no leave at all. The exceedingly poor women who receive cash assistance from the State must begin work activities and put their infants in expensive infant child care 90 days after giving birth.

For those fortunate enough to qualify for it, the right to unpaid leave has become less attractive as an employee benefit as families increasingly need the mother's income just to meet their basic needs. Oregon's jobs pay less than they did twenty years ago. As a result, even though employed women in Oregon are typically working 211 more hours outside the home than they were twenty years ago, their families have not made any real income gains. The proliferation of low-pay jobs has taken away the gains families expected when mothers joined the paid workforce.

At the same time, housing and other costs have increased. Over the 1990s, single-family home prices rose about twice as fast as household incomes in Oregon. The average cost of child care increased 44 percent from 1984 to 1995, and has continued to rise.

The result: the typical Oregon family is squeezed more for money and time. Our mothers are especially stressed, since mothers still bear the bulk of homemaking chores. Oregon's single moms have it the worst; about one in three can't always be sure they'll be able to pay for the family's next meal.

If that weren't enough, the situation may be getting worse. In an economic downturn, mothers will be turning to a safety net that is no longer designed to catch them, despite all their work. Thanks to welfare reform, Oregon now gets only a set amount of money from the federal government to support very poor mothers who can't find work. When the economy sours and the need for assistance to families with children rises, Oregon will have to dig into its own tight budget or refuse to help many of those in need. Moreover, the outdated unemployment insurance program denies benefits to many mothers who can only work part-time.

Oregon mothers need to be better protected from financial disaster when their children get sick, when they have a baby, or when they lose their jobs in a recession. It's time for Oregon to catch up with the economy of the 21st century.

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