The Motherhood Penalty

Most women know that having a child is costly and leaves them vulnerable to poverty. But most probably don’t know how these costs and risks actually measure up, especially considering important differences across women and their families. Even as you read this, highly-skilled researchers are figuring out how to “do the numbers.”

About ten years ago, a new genre of empirical research on the costs of motherhood within the U.S. was born—authored by Jane Waldfogel and entitled “The Effects of Children on Women’s Wages” [American Sociological Review 62:2 (1997): 209-17]. Closely akin to research by Heather Joshi and others on the British case, this article laid out a clear methodology for estimating the economic impact of motherhood controlling for important confounding factors such as education and labor market experience. A host of other studies have confirmed findings of a negative impact, spinning off additional experimental research by Shelley Correll and others on the unfortunate effects of revealing motherhood to a potential employer.

Today the UMass Amherst Sociology Department hosts a presentation by Michelle Budig and Melissa Hodges titled “Differences in Disadvantage: How the Wage Penalty for Motherhood Varies Across Women’s Earnings Distribution” (copy potentially available on request from The paper uses an innovative statistical method (quantile regression) to examine the relative size of the motherhood penalty for women at different points in the income distribution. The results suggest—counter to some previous research—that low-income women pay a particularly large penalty. This finding holds important policy implications—among them the need for major reforms of U.S. family policy.

I invite participants, readers, and the authors to add comments on the specifics of the article here—where they can be shared with a larger virtual audience.