(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
This weekend, America will observe Mother’s Day for the 98th time since it was officially added to the calendar in 1914. Of the 85 million mothers in America, about 5 million are stay-at-home moms, society’s great good-for-nothings.
Officially, motherhood is worthless. Unpaid work does not count in economic statistics, so moms officially contribute nothing to the economy – unless they also take a paying job. We all know this is nonsense, but there it is. The numbers don’t lie, right?
Every year at this time, a small flurry of articles, not all of them silly, discuss the dollar-equivalent value of motherhood. Mothers aren’t paid for being moms – but if they were, what would be their base pay? Should we believe the insure.com estimate that Mom could be outsourced for about $60,000 per year? (Dads, knock that smug look off your face. The same source pegs your dollar-equivalent annual value at around $20,000.)
The usual reaction to these articles is a wave of the hand. How silly, right? Some things have price tags. Those things exist in the world of money. Other things don’t have a clear price, and they exist in the world of stuff-we-take-for-granted.
Money is valuable for what it can buy, but not everything valuable is for sale. Savvy teachers and school leaders are aces at recruiting help for free. Many moms (and some dads) are eager volunteers. They bring commitment and skills of tremendous value to the kids, schools, and programs they support. They tutor students who need help, including their own. They organize activities. They chaperone field trips. They organize fundraisers. They help in the office, or the library, or at the curb. They translate for parents who have trouble with English. They support after-school programs or coach teams.
Unfortunately, this river of unpaid, mostly mom-powered volunteer capacity flows unevenly through America’s communities. In the most privileged communities, parents are eager, able, and available to help. But in places where moms and dads are just scraping by or struggling with English, it can be difficult even to arrange parent-teacher conferences.
This is more than just an impression, or a stereotype. In 2011, a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported major differences in volunteering activity by ethnicity, marital status, and educational attainment.
Volunteerism is a valuable resource everywhere, but it is unevenly distributed. Some communities and schools are in a better position than others to recruit moms and dads and put their skills to work for kids. This difference plays a very real and usually overlooked role in the gaps between schools of privilege and schools of poverty. Addressing this disadvantage is part of the reason why states allocate extra funds to schools where there are concentrations of students in poverty and with limited English skills.
Mother’s Day is a good time to remember that while money can buy things of value, not everything of value has a price.
Jeff Camp is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. He co-chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an organization of “good for nothings” in the Bay Area. Full Circle coordinates small teams of volunteers working in support of great nonprofit organizations that need a little help to get to the next level, whatever that may be. A visual summary of Ed100 can be found at http://bit.ly/edprezi .