What Are Mothers Worth?

Listener 17 March, 1979, republished in The Listener Bedside Book 2 (1998) p.209-11.

Keywords: Social Policy;

Sentiment sings that one’s mother is worth more than all the world, but we don’t always follow our singing. Anyway, for social policy purposes we need a more hard-headed assessment of the worth of mothers.

One would be to look at the loss of output due to mothers not being able to work because they are caring for their children. One estimate comes to eight percent of National Income, or around $3000 a year for each mother.

For a number of obvious reasons this is an underestimate of the value of mothering, but even so it is a reminder of the substantial commitment of resources the community has in its child rearing, and the loss of income to a family as a consequence of having children.

An alternative assessment is the cost of a substitute mother when the usual mother is not available. The going rate for a Karitane nurse in sole charge of a home with two children is $38.32 for a full day, or $14,000 a year, plus subsistence if she worked every day. Since few of our parents are as well trained as Karitane nurses perhaps we can take $14,000 a year as an upper estimate, with the true economic worth of a mother between $14,000 and $4000 a year.

(It may be necessary to cxplain that by ..mother” is meant the person with prime responsibility tor the care of the chi1d, who is not necessarily the female parent. Thus the more than 1000 solo male parents on the Domestic Purposes Benefit would be “mothers” under this definition. And the father who stumbles out of bed at three o’ clock in the morning for a crying child would be said to be “mothering”. Of course, traditionally mothers were women. In recent times the “symmetrical” family, where parenting and other activities are shared, has applied to a small but growing number of families. If the growth continues we may need a new terminology.)

It is interesting not only to contrast the sentimental value put on mothers with their economic worth but also to look at the amount the community actually pays. There are three going rates. First, the mother may be a social security beneficiary. The rate for a mother on Widow’s or Domestic Purposes Benefit is currently $48.87 a week, plus allowances tor the children and the possibility of supplementary benefits. (Some of these costs will be paid through maintenance rather, than the state.)

Second, working mothers can receive a tax rebate of up to $3 a week for childcare costs, while the childcare centre she uses may be receiving a $7.80 a week subsidy. You will notice that if the father, or other family member, is used while the mother is working there is no such payment. It seems to me to be anomalous that commercial childcare should be subsidised but cooperative childcare is not.

Third, many non-working mothers are entitled to a tax rebate of up to $17 a week (made up of the wife, young family, and single income rebates of $3, $9 and $5 a week respectively). However, the rebate is added to the father’s pay packet rather than given to the mother.

I wish I could report that this did not matter, but I am afraid it does, because in many families the mother’s financial contribution is not being recognised, and nor does she have the financial independence she deserves.

Moreover, the arrangement causes misunderstandings in the tax system. For instance, last year the tax rate on the supplement to the family income which low-income recipients received was raised to 14.5 percent. Perhaps the anger this generated could have been softened if mothers had appreciated that the $17 a week tax rebate was part of the same package. Perhaps their anger would have been usefully diverted to the apparent anomaly of paying fathers for mothering.

Examining the level of the three types of state support we might conclude that the support is by no means generous, whether we compare it with sentiment or economic worth. Whether we should be more generous is a social judgment.

However, a second conclusion has a wider application. Because we have developed this support for mothers in three separate ways, it is clear there are anomalies and gaps, only some of which I have mentioned. This is a typical example of our lack of coherence in social planning. Instead, we have responded to separate pressures from widows and other solo mothers, from childcare centre users and from single income families.

Perhaps we could make more progress if we were to recognise that there is a basic activity called mothering which is deserving of state support; and, while the payment should vary by the age and number of children involved, ‘we should aim to minimise differences such as whether the mother is working, who is caring for her children, and whether there is another parent.

The following letters appeared in The Listener of April 14. 1979

Sir, Brian Easton’s article “What are mother’s worth?” mentioned that there are anomalies which he has not covered. An exceptionally large question is how much “mothers” save the taxpayer in health care, especially when a member of the family suffers from a chronic illness like schizophrenia. More recognition should and must be given to those who care for these people at home. Of ourse one cannot discuss any health problem on a purely economic level. Can we as a society accept that many caring parents with much to offer the community are so emotionally blunted by the unremitting anxiety of how to care and provide for this member of their family with no support or advice, that they are themselves fast becoming inadequate people? Can we afford a health system which condemns large numbers of people to a half-existence because willy-nilly they have to provide care which no one else is prepared to give or even recognise? C B Staniforth, President, Schizophrenia Fellowship {Christchurch)

Sir, Considering our current low rates of pay, I am interested to know where Brian Easton obtained the figure $14,000 per’ annum for a Karitane nurse doing sole-charge work with two children. J.C.
Windsor (Titahi Bay)

(Brian Easton replies: A Karitane nurse in sole charge of two children for a whole day earns $38.32, or $1.60 an hour; close to $14,000 for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Of course, while mothers work these hours, Karitane nurses don’t. They earn between $4500-$6800 a year, a result of the pathetically low hourly rate for skilled workers.)