Saturday, December 15, 2012
We working married mothers, particularly those of us in the professional realm, are generally well aquainted with the litany of reasons why working full-time after having children is beneficial.
For starters, we're not "wasting" our education - all that time spent in college reading books, taking tests and doing internships. Secondly, we're preserving our autonomy; if our husbands ever get out of hand and we need to leave, or if he loses his job unexpectedly, our paychecks become an invaluable relief valve. Thirdly, we can live better with more financial resources before us. After all, bringing in a second income, for some of us, makes the difference in which neighborhoods we can afford to live in; being able to take our families on vacations; and, certainly, putting aside a little extra for general savings and, hopefully, retirement. Fourthly, working full-time supposedly does something for our self-esteem and emotional state, as working mothers are reportedly less depressed and healthier than our stay-at-home counterparts.
So, in light of all this, why might it not make as much sense to spend about 20 years (and that's if you're just raising one or two children close in age) exhausted, burning both ends at the candle and trying to make lemons into lemonade?
Well, my friends, let me introduce to you the marriage penalty. The essence of the marriage penalty is this: It's not technically, legally, a penalty levied discriminatorily on married couples. Instead, it's a combination of the weighty tax burdens forced upon two-earner households, which commonly consist of a married husband and wife who both work.
I had heard of the marriage penalty for years, but I didn't really have an understanding of what it meant or how it worked. As written in "Women and Taxes" by Edward J. McCaffery, it goes something like this: "When a wife enters the labor market, even if she earns only the minimum wage, she is automatically in her husband's tax bracket. . . . Combine a 28 percent federal income tax with an 8.5 percent state and local income tax, then add a 7.65 Social Security (FICA) payroll tax, and the marginal tax rate of the second earner in the average household is more than 44 percent!" (emphasis and exclamation point mine).
After accounting for this tax burden, then adding the usual expenses associating with working - lunches, office-appropriate attire, gas, transportation and automotive costs, child care, ordering takeout (because you're too damed tired or it's too late to cook), then the average married working woman is actually seeing just about a third of her wages, according to McCafferty. And, additionally, some women, especially those at the lower end of the pay scale, actually lose money by working.
McCaffery goes on to make it plain. He explains why these economic burdens and realities are the reasons why many women at the upper reaches of the economic ladder (those married to high-paid men and who, by themselves, make high salaries, too) tend to opt out and stop working once the children come. He also says that these economic burdens make marriage an unattractive option for low-income mothers, since tying the knot would mean that they, too, would face the marriage penalty and lose their ability to qualify for all the programs and perks single mothers can receive (WIC, special college grants, Section 8 housing, and other types of public assistance).
You really must read the McCaffery paper to understand the full context of the issue and how nefarious it can be for married working mothers. Of course, it does not mean that working is not economically beneficial at all to some married working mothers. After all, even if close to half of your perceived salary is consumed by assorted taxes and work-associated expenses, that's still half of what you earn coming into the household. For me, after I read this paper and did some other research and number-crunching, I realized that I actually benefit from about 60 percent of what I thought I was making and contributing.
I am not saying that figure is inconsequential and meaningless. My income certainly provides the necessities and benefits, plus some, of what I outlined at the start of this entry. However, if I had known eight years ago what I just figured out a few months ago, I probably would have made some different choices. In retrospect, I see how little of what I thought I was making actually came into our household. And when I think about all the stress, arguments, fatigue and sadness I faced while in the earliest trenches of motherhood, I do not think it was worth it. This especially likely would have been true back then when I was earning significantly less than I do now. (Research and studies go on to say at what income level it might not make a lot of economic sense of a married mother to work; I believe it was if she earns under $40K, on average.)
So what now? For me, I'm still not exactly sure. I've got about 13-14 years of active parenting ahead of me, and I don't really plan to spend it the way I have.
Next we'll look at other reasons it might not make sense to keeping working, hustling and striving like a Hebrew slave.