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What do women want for Mother’s Day? Biden hopes he has some answers.

A roundup of political science research on what mothers want from public policy

A woman and two children wear masks at a playground in Los Angeles on July 11. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
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Recently President Biden announced his American Families Plan, which would support American access to community college, preschool, affordable child care and paid leave and other subsidies and tax credits for households with children — all funded by increasing taxes on wealth. The White House is promoting the plan as offering security for families who may have been shut out of opportunities to build wealth because of racial, class, and regional disparities and bias.

Mothers hit hard by the pandemic

Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support the plan, in no small part because the pandemic changed attitudes toward government offering social supports to people in need. And it will particularly help women. Research consistently finds that mothers take on a disproportionate amount of caregiving responsibilities.

According to recent research, the pandemic has especially harmed parents who have struggled to work, care for children and manage remote schooling without in-person schools, child-care facilities, or other social support networks. And that burden has particularly hit women. Mothers have disproportionately lost jobs in comparison with fathers, taken on more caregiving burdens and increasingly said that caring for children while trying to work has been difficult. Unpartnered or single mothers have left the workforce in large numbers because of that lack of child care.

Latina and Black women lost jobs in record numbers. Policies designed for 'all women' don't necessarily help.

Will mothers support Biden’s plan?

Past research suggests that mothers are likely to welcome the Biden plan. As one of us (Greenlee) has found, mothers — defined as women with children under the age of 18 — tend to be more likely than men or women without children to support policies that provide for the economically vulnerable. Mothers, particularly single mothers, are more likely to believe that the federal government should play a bigger role in ensuring that Americans have jobs and a good standard of living. Mothers also express higher levels of support for funding food stamp programs. This is particularly true for single mothers, who may be more economically vulnerable themselves. Even Republican mothers support food stamp programs, despite influential female activists on the political right who oppose “big government.” Other researchers have found that mothers are also more likely to support policies that offer social supports for the poor and those without health care.

In political contexts where issues of caretaking and education are emphasized — like an election that puts these questions in front of voters — there is evidence that mothers are more likely to support policies that fund child care and schools than women who do not have children. Given the accumulated strains of the pandemic, we expect mothers to embrace the increased access to child care, early education, and school funding offered by the Biden plan. And single mothers may become more politically active down the road because of these supportive policies. In European countries where governments provide single women with early childhood expenditures and cash benefits, those women become more likely to vote. This may be the result of increased financial security, a greater ability to enter the labor market and a stronger personal investment in maintaining government policies that meet their needs.

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The diversity of American mothers

While existing research suggests that mothers will welcome care subsidies, scholars know too little about how race, ethnicity, immigration status, or economic precarity shape their experiences and political views. As various outlets have reported, Black women, Latinas, Indigenous women, and other women of color have been hit harder by the pandemic than have White women. To care for their children and families, non-White mothers, both with and without spouses or partners, have had to quit their jobs at higher rates than White or women without children at home. Recent research suggests that this may influence their political views and mothers’ sense that their fates are linked with those of other women who have had to drop out of working to fulfill caregiving responsibilities. Higher levels of perceived “linked fate” among women are associated with a greater likelihood of supporting the Democratic Party and identifying as liberal. But scholars have a great deal more to learn about how the pandemic may affect the future political attitudes and behavior of mothers and other caregivers.

The pandemic may also offer insight into existing gaps in social supports and provide examples of policy innovations that can help vulnerable populations.

For example, both non-White and immigrant mothers, specifically those who are undocumented, make up a large portion of essential workers and are in low-income jobs. Undocumented mothers have not been eligible for any covid-19 relief distributed by the federal government. A recent study of Latina immigrant mothers in Los Angeles found that, as with other low-income mothers, this group struggles with food insecurity and accessing financial assistance. Some states such as California have created mini-relief programs specifically to help undocumented mothers and families, but researchers may wish to investigate additional struggles confronting these particularly vulnerable mothers.

Check out TMC's Gender and Politics classroom topic guide for more relevant analyses.

Help for American mothers

American mothers are digging their way out of record job losses, worrying about how to overcome their children’s learning deficits from a year spent at home, and repairing the damage that the pandemic brought upon their work and family lives. While some political activists, unions, and celebrities have called for a different approach such as the Marshall Plan for Moms, introduced in Congress by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), the Biden proposal would begin to build a policy infrastructure to support all mothers and caregivers. Some may consider that a more significant Mother’s Day gift than flowers.

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Ivy AM Cargile (@IvyAMCargile) is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Bakersfield and co-editor of “The Hillary Effect: Perspectives on Clinton’s Legacy” (Bloomsbury Press, 2020).

Jill Greenlee (@greenlee_jill) is an associate professor of politics and women’s, gender & sexuality studies at Brandeis University and author of “The Political Consequences of Motherhood” (University of Michigan Press, 2014).

Sarah Hayes (@sarahvhayes) is a graduate student in political science at the University of California at Riverside and an American Political Science Association diversity fellow.

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