Hey, moms, you’re on your own

Mayfest in Gratz Park is a Mother’s Day weekend tradition in Lexington.
Mayfest in Gratz Park is a Mother’s Day weekend tradition in Lexington. 2013 Herald-Leader file photo

This is the weekend when mothers tuck away crayoned endearments to keep forever and tuck into brunch specials.

Enjoy your day, moms, but don’t expect many favors the rest of the year. If you think this country cherishes mothers, you haven’t been paying attention.

Start with pregnancy and birth. And then get back to work. The United States is a rarity. Of 186 countries analyzed in 2013, only eight mandated no paid maternity leave. We’re one of the eight, and the only high-income nation in that family-hostile category.

Mexico provides new moms 12 weeks of paid leave, Canada 52 weeks. Nearly every country in the European Union provides at least 14 weeks of job-guaranteed maternity leave, during which workers receive two-thirds or more of their regular earnings.

In the United States? Zero weeks, zero pay. (New moms who work in companies with more than 50 employees are guaranteed unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and many women cobble together sick and vacation days, disability and employer-provided maternity benefits to take time off with newborns.)

Other countries use public dollars to give moms and babies a good start because they recognize it as a public good. The payoffs include healthier children, higher participation in the workforce which is good for the economy and less spending on public assistance.

In Kentucky, we don’t even guarantee a pregnant worker a stool at her cash register. Despite all the political platitudes about family values and sanctity of life, Kentucky gives more workplace rights to smokers than to pregnant and breastfeeding women. Happy Mother’s Day.

We are spending less on public assistance by demanding that mothers work, even mothers of young children, at a minimum wage that won’t pay for basic necessities.

Cash assistance to families has been frozen at the same level since 1997 when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich “reformed” welfare by turning it into a block grant. Inflation has whittled the value of that block grant by 30 percent. Few families receive assistance. In Kentucky, about 260,00 children live in poverty. But only 32,124 children and 7,778 adults were receiving cash assistance at this year’s start, averaging a little over $100 a person a month.

In 1995-96, for every 100 poor Kentucky families with children, 55 received Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Now 19 of 100 receive assistance through AFDC’s successor the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program or K-TAP. No wonder the number of Kentucky children in poverty and deep poverty has increased.

More than 1 in 3 Kentucky households with kids or about 193,000 are headed by a single parent, the majority of whom (about 145,000) are women. More than anyone, they and their kids would gain from increasing the minimum wage. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy projects that increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour would benefit 42 percent of all women workers in Kentucky. But the Republicans who control the legislature and Congress have blocked such a raise.

While we as a country have dictated that moms must work to support themselves and their kids, we are not providing the best child-care options. So every day women must ask themselves: What will be the lesser harm, missing work or leaving a child with a less than reliable caretaker?

Being a mom isn’t supposed to be easy. But a smarter country would be kinder to mothers and the children who are its future.