Which parents earn less over the lifecourse and when?

New DIAL Working Paper from Equal Lives’ Zachary Van Winkle and Anette Fasang examines wage gaps over the life course for parents in the United States.

New research from Equal Lives team members Zachary Van Winkle and Anette Fasang investigates the wage penalties and premiums for parents and how they play out over their lives depending on how many children they have and their race and gender.

Parenthood Wage Gaps across the Life-Course: An Intersectional Comparison by Gender and Race, published as a DIAL Working Paper, maps parenthood wage gaps for men and women aged 20-45 using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79 and NLSY97).

The research showed that white mothers in their late twenties with two/three or more children earned 20-30 percent less than their childless peers and that this penalty lasted until they were in their mid forties.

Black women with three and more children earned around 20 percent and the penalty appeared to be concentrated in a brief age window around 30, whilst for Hispanic women the pay penalty was higher at 25 percent but again concentrated around the same age as Black women.

Penalties for mothers with one child were considerably smaller. At age 30, white women with one child earn roughly 11 percent less than childless white women, while Black and Hispanic women with one child earn around 15 percent less than their peers. However, these one-child motherhood wage penalties dissipated by age 45.

Explaining the findings, Zachary commented:

Our research indicates that wage gaps for parents are concentrated in brief periods of the life course. Enduring penalties only occur for white mothers with many children, which, on the face of it might look as if things are worse for them. However, this in fact indicates their advantage compared to women of colour, because the comparison is with the high earnings of childless white women, which are unattainable for childless women of colour. White mothers with many children also tend to enjoy higher household incomes compared to their Black and Hispanic peers, decreasing the economic pressure to earn their own income.

For men of all racial backgrounds, the story was very different. Men with two children earned more than their childless peers. For white men the figure was 50 percent more, dropping to 18 percent for Black men and 10 percent for Hispanic men. These premiums evened out over time, however and disappeared after the age of 30.

The authors say the research demonstrates the importance of life course timing for motherhood wage penalties and fatherhood wage premiums for different family sizes across racial groups. Zachary added:

We need to dig deeper into the mechanisms that account for these differences. We need to investigate what else might be at play here such as discrimination, work and family preferences, or access to affordable childcare. And it’s important to understand the role of social class.