Working mothers reach record number in 1984 Essay

Working mothers have become a familiar feature of today’s
economy. A record 19.5 million, or 6 out of 10 with children under 18
years old, were in the labor force in March 1984. In contrast, 14 years
earlier, 6 out of 10 stayed at home. Moreover, according to data from
the Current Population Survey, the majority of employed mothers work
full time. (See table 1 on page 32.)

Labor force. Since 1970, the rise in mothers’ labor force
participation rates has been phenomenal–about 20 percentage points. The
increase was about the same for mothers of preschoolers as it was for
mothers of school age children. Most of the gain was among married
mothers, whose participation rate rose from 40 percent in 1970 to 59
percent in 1984. The rates for other mothers also advanced, but at much
slower pace. Among divorced women, for example, 79 percent of the
mothers were working or looking for work in March 1984, compared with 76
percent in 1970.

One important aspect of this increase is the degree to which
mothers today do not leave the job market after childbirth. This is
clearly demonstrated in the following comparison of married
mothers’ labor force participation rates:

Nearly half of the mothers with a child age 1 or younger were in
the labor force in 1984. By the time the youngest is 3 years old,
married mothers’ participation rates approach 60 percent, and
nursery school attendance or day care in some form becomes increasingly

The relatively high current participation rates of married mothers,
especially those with infants, attest, in part, to the turnaround in
society’s attitudes regarding the employment of such mothers. The
rates also reflect the fact that married women often delay having
children until they have established themselves in the labor market.

Most employed mothers–71 percent in March 1984–work full time (35
hours a week or more). Even when the youngest child is under 3, about
65 percent of employed mothers are full-time workers. Divorced mothers
are the most likely to work full time, partly because relatively few
have preschoolers. Moreover, whether they work full or part time, the
majority of working mothers have jobs throughout most of the year. For
instance, 2 of 3 employed married mothers worked 40 weeks or more in
1983, mostly at year-round, full-time jobs.

Children. About 56 percent of the Nation’s 58 million
children under age 18 had mothers in the labor force in March 1984. In
1970, the proportion was 39 percent. The vast majority of these
children were under 14 years–age groups for which all-day care,
after-school care, or a combination of both is likely to be needed over
the year. (See table 2 on page 31.)

Parents’ employment status clearly has a major impact on
children’s welfare. In 1984, almost half the children in
two-parent familes had both an employed father and mother, and nearly
all of the remainder were in homes with an employed father. Only about
2.8 million, or 6 percent, were in families where neither parent was
employed. As might be expected, children in single-parent
families–especially those in families maintained by women–were much
less likely to have a working parent in the home. About 2 of 10
children in families maintained by men and nearly 5 of 10 in families
maintained by women did not have an employed prent. Overall,
approximately 1 child in 7 lived in a home where there was no employed
parent, and income was consequently low (a median of $6,782 in 1983).

Single-parent families. A record 6.2 million families with
children were maintained by the mother alone (widowed, divorced,
separated, or never married), and they accounted for one-fifth of all
families with children. In 1970, there were fewer than half as many
such families, and they constituted only one-tenth of the families with

Families maintained by the mother alone are less likely than
two-parent families to contain a wage earner. Largely for this reason,
almost half the families maintained by a mother in 1983 had incomes
below the official poverty levels.sup.4 compared with 10 percent of
two-parent families.

Whatever the number of children, the proportion of two-parent
families with earners substantially exceeded 90 percent, while the ratio
for families maintained by women varied from a high of 78 percent where
there was only one child to 43 percent where there were four children or
more. Childcare presponsibilities are undoubtedly a prime reason for
the differences in the percent of families maintained by mothers that
had an earner. Even in two-parent families, the proportion where the
wife was an earner ranged from nearly 70 percent in which there was only
one child, to below half where there were four children or more. (See
table 3.)

Minorities. A higher percentage of black than white or Hispanic mothers were in the labor force in March 1984. (See table 4.) However,
when labor force participation is examined by marital status, a
different picture emerges. While black married mothers are much more
likely to be in the labor force than their white counterparts, the
opposite is true among divorced or separated mothers. Age, education,
and the number of children are important factors underlying these
differences. On average, black mothers without husbands are younger,
have completed fewer years of education, and have more children than
their white counterparts and, thus, are likely to have a harder time
finding and holding jobs.

The labor force participation rates of Hispanic mothers, regardless
of their marital status, are lower than those of white of black women.
Part of this difference undoubtedly lies in Hispanics’ cultural
heritage, and part may stem from the fact that Hispanics, on average,
have completed fewer years of school than whites or blacks.

Black and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to
be living in one-parent households and, consequently, are more likely to
be living in poverty. More than 60 percent of the black and Hispanic
one-parent families had incomes below the poverty threshold, as did 36
percent of similar white families. In contrast, the poverty rate was 20
percent for black and Hispanic two-parent families and 9 percent for


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