The Federal Earned Income Tax Credit: What Does It Mean for Women?

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which lifted 6.2 million people out of poverty in 2013, receives greater adoration than it should. While the program supplements the low wages of  27 million people, it also forces parents, especially women, to choose between being a good employee and being a good parent. 

 The federal tax credit, originally enacted in 1975 under the Ford administration, serves to offset payroll and income taxes for America’s low- and moderate-income populations. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) touts the success of the program, stating that, “This creates an incentive for people to leave welfare for work and for low-wage workers to increase their work hours.”

 On average, a married couple with children receives $3,054 in federal EITC. The average married couple without children earns $281. Single, childless individuals are ineligible for the credit if their income rests just above the federal poverty line at $14,800. Families can earn above the average if they work more, until the credit phases out at roughly $53,000 annual income. With the supplemental monies provided by the federal EITC, working American families have been able to afford basic necessities, home repairs, vehicle maintenance, and, in some cases, additional education or job training.

 Certainly, the above figures demonstrate the undeniable benefit of the federal EITC in America’s low-wage working households, especially in the midst of continually stagnant wages. What CBPP and many other reporting organizations miss with such statistics, however, are the finer details of who receives the federal EITC and the implications for their incentivized work schedule.

 Because the federal EITC is targeted toward low- and moderate-income workers, it is targeted more specifically, though seemingly indirectly, to incentivize women’s work and departure from welfare rolls because women represent two-thirds of the 23 million low-wage workers in this country. In low-wage working households, seventy percent of women are the primary breadwinner. According to data provided by Sharon Hays in Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, women with children dominate the welfare rolls, representing over ninety percent of all welfare clients. More strikingly, only seven percent of welfare cases are two-parent households. 

 Exacerbating the stark reality of that data is the pressure and guilt the public sphere continues to place on women to choose between being a good, working, wage-earning citizen and being a good, present, and attentive mother. Low-wage, single mothers are at a particularly unfair advantage as they are confined by fewer options in terms of familial financial stability and familial care. In Flat Broke With Children, Sharon Hays coined this dichotomy as the Work Plan and the Family Plan. Hays used the two theoretical terms to explain that in the Work Plan of welfare reform, work requirements rehabilitate mothers into productive, independent, self-sufficient members of society. The Family Plan of welfare reform, on the other hand, punishes mothers for their inability to get and stay married.

 The CBPP released a report in January of this year indicating that a low-wage worker working full-time making the federal minimum wage will only earn $15,000 in a year. Thus, while the EITC helps make up for an unjustifiably unjust wage, its goal to remove people from welfare and place them in the job market overlooks the detriment of low wages, and it serves to rather force parents, single mothers especially, to choose between being good parents and being good workers.  

 Incentivizing low-wage work then serves more to perpetuates untrue theories about elements of poverty, welfare, and participants in the workplace by overlooking the forced decision parents have to make between work or caring for children. Financially, additional work hours are necessary given current wages. But morally, it is unfair to further remove parents – mothers specifically – from their children, thus eroding various familial and support networks and perpetuating cycles of poverty.

 Furthermore, the work incentive ignores the cultural values attached to motherhood. While women’s participation in the workforce has grown exponentially in recent decades, their expected roles at home remain rooted in traditionalism. Arlie Hochschild captures this dynamic dilemma well through a series of anecdotes in The Second Shift. By detailing the housework and childrearing responsibilities that working women are still expected to champion after their market-place work on a daily basis, Hochschild explains that women work an additional month every year caring for their families.

 Consequently, praising the EITC for its ability to encourage people to work more hours in low-paying service sector jobs dismisses and devalues the impacts of the intended goals of women and the expectations of women’s womanhood. Female-headed, dual-income households and single-mother households may be better off financially because of the EITC, but it does little more than burden mothers to be the supermoms of an unrealistic superhero story.

Anna Mahathey
Dual MPP/MA WGSS ‘17

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