How Much Is Your Mother Worth?

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I saw on CNN today that Salary.com had released its most recent numbers valuing the unpaid services of being a mother. This whole line of thought interests me a lot from a financial and tax policy perspective. I tried a few times to draft a post about this subject but kept coming back to the post that I wrote last year. So here it is, in its entirety (note that the numbers in the post are from 2007):

Years ago, in my Tax Policy class, we had a discussion about the value of intangible labor. The discussion was whether it was appropriate to quantify (and therefore, tax) the value of work brought into a home.

Sound “out there”? Not really. Salary.com basically does the same thing (minus the taxing part) every year as part of its efforts to determine the “worth” of a the work of a stay at home mom. This year, they’ve determined that the predicted annual salary of a stay at home mom, if paid out, would be $138,095. Working moms are valued at $85,939, in addition to the mother’s “professional” salary.

I have been highly critical of the report in the past, and am again. And it’s not because I don’t think being a mother is hard work – as the mother of three small children, I heartily agree that there are challenges that we face every day that would make grown men cry.

But the point of the article is to assign a dollar value per hour to each of the tasks that a mom does during the day. I assume that quantifying it by breaking the “duties” into discreet tasks is meant to add some sense of value to what it is that we do every day. But I think using terms like “CEO”, “computer operator” and “psychologist” both devalue and trivialize what it is that we mothers do.

When I get paid as an attorney, my worth is based on a number which takes into consideration my level of education, my level of experience and the hours that I work. My salary is not based on how many hours I do my own typing, answer my own phone or counsel my staff on issues. In fact, I don’t know of any job that is compensated based on individual job activities. Additionally, there are no adjustments for sick days, vacation days and other “perks” that employees receive but mothers do not. So, realistically, I think the study falls flat.

Salary.com also references being a stay at home mother as a “Dream Job”, another euphemism that I think cheapens the role of mother. “Dream Jobs” are usually those jobs which are viewed as cushy, those that pay a great deal or carry considerable clout or prestige. Being a mother doesn’t do that. There’s no “pay” and arguably, the amount of clout and prestige that we assign to motherhood as a job, is woeful.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I think that being a mother, whether a stay at home mother or a working mother, is an enormous job. I do believe that the contributions of mothers to society are routinely ignored and/or undervalued. But attempting to classify the job of being a mom into artful roles doesn’t change that – and I would argue that it makes it worse. Why can’t we just say that being a mom, in and of itself is important? Why do we feel the need to “boost our image” by comparing ourselves with CEOs? Why do we need to attach an hourly rate to our daily activities to give validation to what it is that we do?

What the authors of that article are really attempting to do (my cynical views aside) is, I hope, craft a discussion about human capital, which was detailed by salary.com last year. Human capital can be defined in a number of ways, but I like Gary Becker’s definition best:

…because people cannot be separated from their knowledge, skills, health, or values in the way they can be separated from their financial and physical assets.

In other words, there are some things that you just can’t put a price on. I think that the benefits of mothering qualify.

Yes, you can always pay someone to do your laundry, to clean your house, to do all of those things that salary.com has defined as the roles of a mother. But if it were that simple, mothers would be defined by those things alone. Talking to your children, playing with your children, comforting your children – these things can’t actually be valued in terms of dollars. They are priceless.

And this idea of human capital necessarily attaches itself to tax issues. There are folks who advocate for the “marriage penalty” because they claim that the services of a wife and mother add tangible value to a family and are therefore, taxable. No, those folks are not on hallucinogens. The idea is that if you have to outsource services such as cleaning, cooking and child care (i.e. traditional women’s roles), then your overall net income is lower. If you believe that (and it is theoretically true), the converse should also make sense, right? The theoretical “net income” of a married couple should be higher because those duties that might be outsourced otherwise probably aren’t – this is especially true if the mother is a stays at home. Confused?

Let’s think back to those studies. Salary.com believes that a stay at home mom would add almost $140k of “salary” to a family if a mom received such a paycheck. In other words, salary.com is saying that a family receives the “benefit” of nearly $140k in services that a single person would have to pay for. And in the case of the working mom, salary.com is similarly arguing that a family receives the “benefit” of an additional $85k in services. If this is, in fact, true, that mothers add a quantifiable value, why not tax it?

The funny thing is, on some level, we actually reward those families who choose not to embrace this concept – for whatever reason (religion, necessity, moral values). If you choose to place your child care outside of the home, you can get a tax break. You can receive similar “breaks” for outsourcing other kinds of services, depending on what they are. Would it make sense from a tax policy perspective to allow us to tax those services if performed by a mom, but still allow a deduction?

Yeah, it’s a little over the top. But you see where I’m headed here. I don’t like attempts to quantify a mother’s job because I think it’s missing the bigger picture. Moms are a valuable and irremovable piece of our greater society. It would be impossible to actually define and quantify the value that moms add to our lives – and dads, too. There are some things, as MasterCard points out, that money just can’t buy.

So, I say ignore those silly studies. Don’t think about your mother’s worth in terms of dollars. Just give her a big hug and say “Thanks!”

Happy Mother’s Day!

(Psst… An especially wonderful Mother’s Day to my own mom, who taught me the importance of love, respect and tolerance. Most importantly, my mom taught me that there is a bigger world out there and encouraged me to go find it, even though it took me away from home. I love you, Mom!)

If you read the blog, including the b5media blog, you may notice that I talk about my parents from time to time – and with good reason. They are an enormous part of my life, despite the fact that they live miles away.

Now, as a parent, I have renewed respect for my parents. I can look back now and see that I wasn’t the easiest child (hey, I’m only saying this once, Mom, so drink it up). I was loud. I was bossy. I was stubborn. I knew what I wanted and I didn’t much take “no” for an answer. And as a parent, it’s hard to know what to do with that kind of kid sometimes. I should know since my mother apparently wished it on me with my kids…

But my mother really didn’t try to change me. She accepted that I would wear crinoline dresses and Mary Janes while I played soccer. She let me put on theatrical productions in our living room and watched as I spun myself dizzy, hopeful that I would turn into Wonder Woman if I twirled fast enough. She saw me through bad perms, stirrup pants and an unfortunate Miami Vice fashion phase. And even though she didn’t want to let me go, she did, at the age of 14 to see what else was “out there” in the world (don’t freak out, I didn’t run away, I went to an academic boarding school).

So Salary.com can analyze and crunch numbers and do all kinds of economic voo-doo to put a value on a mother. But mine? She is priceless. Thanks Mom!

(image source: Kelly Phillips Erb)

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