Every Mother is A Working Mother

By Theresa Funiciello

Every year around this time I recall the Christmas when I had a two and a half month old daughter whose innocent and powerful intelligence I grew more awed by every day. I had recently separated from her abusive father, who I finally realized would always be violent. My heart was breaking - for her, for him, for me. Although she didn't know it, I hadn't been able to buy her a Christmas gift. This was for me a crushing reality, poverty of the deepest and most humiliating sort. Weeks earlier, I had gone to the welfare department in my upstate home town where everyone knew each other's business. And even though it was clear that I had no means of support (my father had died less than penniless; my mother lived on social security) no kindly social worker had yet managed to determine my official eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC).

We were at my brother's house for a traditional Christmas Eve gathering. I left the main room to nurse her. Every now and then I was surprised to be wiping tears from my cheeks and those that dripped onto hers, feeling almost as if they belonged to someone else.

It would be two more years before I would move to New York City and meet other welfare mothers. They said there was nothing wrong with me. I was a mother, a good mother, "and that's important work." After all, I certainly could have gotten a paying job. I had decided, as many others before me and many more to come, that being a full-time mother was the best option for my daughter. How could I have purchased an equivalent mother substitute with the kinds of wages that would have been available to me?

It is now 27 years later. My daughter remains the best Christmas present ever, year after year, all the 27 years she has been alive. She works hard in the marketplace, pays taxes and produces wealth for other people. And I am involved in an organization called Social Agenda, which grew out of the little group I stumbled onto when I came looking for opportunity in the city back in 1975. Mothers and others associated with Social Agenda have decided to launch what we are calling the Caregivers Tax Credit Campaign.

Put simply, what we are asking for is that someone who is taking care of another person (a mother taking care of her child full-time, a son or daughter taking care of an aging parent, a partner taking care of a loved one with an illness, a foster parent taking care of a disabled child) be able to count this work as real work and get a tax break for it. Those caregivers who make little or no wages would receive a "refund" from the Internal Revenue Service.

It is an idea already supported by such prominent New Yorkers as Carl H. McCall, the New York State Comptroller, and Gloria Steinem, and such organizations as the Children's Defense Fund.

CAREGIVERS CREATE WEALTH

Most people agree that caregiving is important. What's probably more contentious, but nevertheless true, is that caregivers actually create wealth. Ask Bill Gates' mother. Or ask Lorna Wendt. In 1987, a Connecticut judge awarded her an estimated $20 million of General Electric executive Gary Wendt's assets. The judge accepted her argument that she was an equal partner working with him to advance his career, that she'd given up her own career to raise their two daughters, and that her support work as wife to him and primary parent to their children enabled his success.

Caregiving is key to the world's economy. Every nation is tethered to it, though most don't bother to count the unwaged labor, especially of women, in their official statistics. The farmer and his chickens count in the Gross Domestic Product, but not his wife - unless she is out taking care of somebody else's children for (substandard) pay. According to a UNICEF publication, "the value of women's unpaid subsistence and household work worldwide was estimated to be $11 trillion in 1995, nearly half the $23 trillion value of the world's total output of goods and services."

SOME CAREGIVERS RECEIVE INDIRECT COMPENSATION, EXCEPT THE POOR

If caregiving creates wealth, even indirectly, it is countable and arguably worthy of some form of compensation, even when seemingly outside of direct market activity. In fact, there are many ways in which that is already done. In addition to court cases like Lorna Wendt's, the private sector covers wives (or husbands) for health care in part because they acknowledge that if there weren't somebody taking care of the children or the ill at home, their employee would have to do so. Most public and private pension plans extend benefits to the surviving spouse upon death of the "market" spouse.

In the public sphere Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (social security) sends payments to widows and widowers in order to support children who are still minors. The mothers (usually) are allowed to take the money and use it to continue as full time nurturers. If they take a wage-paying job, though, they can still keep the payment as extra income. In other words, the decision as to whether or when to enter or exit the marketplace is left to the parent, not the state. They lose nothing either way. They have "productive choice."

Until 1996 when "welfare reform" killed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the program distributed a meager income to single mothers with children who fell outside social security guidelines, in order to take care of their children in their own homes. Unfortunately, AFDC was never as rational nor as generous as social security. (For instance, when a mother got a paying job, she lost income.) The program had many failings but its central premise was that mothering was respectable and socially responsible.

Now, with welfare reform, for some three million poor mothers in the country -- as many as 350,000 in New York City alone -- the consequence of deciding, for example, to stay home with a sick child could be disastrous. Everything is always at stake as mothers unavoidably seesaw into and out of the market place.

A more reasonable social policy could help stabilize poor families during children's "shaky years," rather than lop off their heads. Current welfare policy says, in effect, anyone but Mom may take care of her children. The bizarre corollary in this same package is, Mom may take care of anyone but her own children, as long as it is for pay.

Welfare reform, in other words, tossed out the baby instead of the bath water. Income of poor single mothers (in the lowest fifth of income distribution in the U.S.) has declined. And surely not by coincidence, infant mortality has risen in 16 states. Preliminary 1998 data indicate a rise in the death rate of babies up to one year of age, of most ethnicities, including white, and both sexes.

A Caregivers Tax Credit would be a modest benefit for low-income families, and for other families as well. Through the campaign for it, we hope as well to resurrect the issue of women's unpaid labor and, more generally, to explore ways to initiate new dialogue on income distribution.

POOR MOTHERS AND CHILDREN ARE CUT OUT OF THE CHILD TAX CREDIT

Shortly after the enactment of "welfare reform" President Clinton and Congress inadvertently produced the best handle for leveraging more income support for families since the Social Security Act of 1935. It is known as the Child Tax Credit. To date, however, few organizers or policy experts have zeroed in on the opportunity provided by this surprisingly no-fuss addition to IRS law.

The Child Tax Credit delivers income directly and indirectly to most families with children. Last year, families at or below fairly generous income ceilings (currently $110,000 for joint filers and $55,000 for single caregivers) took off $500 per child from their tax bills, in some unusual cases through refunds...unless they were poor, that is.

Most poor parents in or out of the wage market do not yet qualify. The President and Congress claimed the credit was for "all America's children." At the eleventh hour, however, indescribably complex formulas were slipped into the legislation to knock out those at the lowest end of the income scale. As a result, the vast majority of poor families get no benefits from this credit. Nor, as the name implies, is the credit available to those who are caring for adults in need.

Washington finally enacts legislation tantamount to a Children's or Family Allowance but doesn't cover poor kids! And, amazingly, it does this after passing welfare legislation to force many poor mothers into some type of market job.

Most western industrialized nations have these allowances because children are the future of any society and are expensive to raise. Checks are sent to mothers to use either at home or to defray costs of alternative care. Most public policy analysts agree that in these countries (most of the European Union, for instance) the frequency and depth of child poverty is significantly lowered. Compared to them, the United States has among the worst child and women's poverty rates. Extending the Child Tax Credit to all children below the income ceilings would go a long way toward closing that gap.

What we are suggesting is that the government transform the Child Tax Credit Into a Caregivers Tax Credit.

MAKE THE CHILD TAX CREDIT A CAREGIVERS TAX CREDIT

A true Caregiver Credit should:

  1. Cover all children. The law is really mind boggling. For instance, poor mothers are required to have at least three children before even qualifying to apply and even then they are not likely to be eligible because of other rules. Middle class families successfully self-certify at the first child.
  2. Retain the current provision that mothers or fathers who give direct care at home be covered as well as those employed outside the home. Raising kids costs money under all circumstances. In other words, the credit should remain "mommy neutral".
  3. Make the credits fully refundable for all parents (if you don't owe taxes you get it in a check.)
  4. Extend to cover caring for adults and all types of families, including non-blood related. In other words, go to all who give care to everyone who needs care. The primary responsible party giving direct care or overseeing alternative care, should get the credit.
  5. Increase the per person dollar value of the credits so they more closely resemble actual costs of giving care.

THE POLITICS OF WINNING A CAREGIVERS CREDIT

The greatest impediment to achieving the credit is not the money. That in fact is the easy part. The real impediment is political, of course.

The credit need not and should not be financed through taxes on labor, in other words from income taxes. If there is no budget surplus, it could be funded as in some European countries through what are called consumption or "green" taxes. These by-pass the poorest people by exempting from taxation essentials and items costing under a specific amount. The more you consume, the more you pay. Other sources of funding could be cyberwealth, land trusts, or "sky taxes." But, if done right, the credit would make some current programs unnecessary, and free up the funds currently used for them.

Many people still make the misguided assumption that wages are the only way for society to distribute income and that market or paying work is the only appropriate form of human toil. It is true that millions of mothers nowadays have wage jobs. Still, the majority of mothers in households where the income is below the median remain in the home. Tens of millions work as full time caregivers for their own children or for needy parents or spouses.

And even the many "market-moms" will take time from the marketplace during some part of their children's life to care for them. There are also millions of others who care for ailing partners, husbands and wives, adult children, and needy parents or other aging loved ones. Nearly all caregivers find their resources stretched beyond the limit and need financial as well as social support. The potential coalition is huge.

Until women's unwaged work in the home is acknowledged not only as a social but also an economic good, women will remain underpaid in the marketplace. All women's work counts. Now it is time to make it pay.

Theresa Funiciello, former welfare mother, organizer, and author of Tyranny of Kindness (which calls for the dismantling of the welfare system), is executive director of Social Agenda, the organizers of the Caregivers Tax Credit Campaign.

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