A working-class family’s struggle to get enough to eat amid school closures and job layoffs as a result of Covid-19 is the topic of a recent New York Times article. With schools closed, many children no longer have access to the free or reduced-price meals provided through the National School Lunch Program, which serves nearly 30 million children a day. And their families may have lost important sources of income as businesses have closed or scaled back operations. The mother of six in The New York Times article described reducing her meals to one a day while making sure her kids were eating three times a day. She could eat more, but the uncertainties of tomorrow impel her to give up her food needs today in case things get worse next week.
It’s good The New York Times is showing its readers the incredible sacrifices people are making and the unequal effects the novel coronavirus is having on American households. But worrying about not having enough food is a pressing issue for 1 in 9 Americans every single day. And, like the mother in The New York Times article, women in households with children bear the brunt of food insecurity.
Much has been written about how Covid-19 is affecting Americans differently across the class spectrum. (Illustrating the diverging class responses to the coronavirus, a recent breezy column in The New York Times offers readers advice on how to survive self-isolation “with a delicious meal, some self-care and a riveting read”. The piece includes DIY tips such as how to brighten your skin, declutter your life, and prepare for sandal season.) But the effects of Covid-19 aren’t just classed, they are also gendered (and racialized as others have noted).
As a sociologist who studies family, I have been writing about social inequalities within and between families for over a decade. A major theme in my research with low-income mothers is the sacrifices they make daily on behalf of their children. Mothers go without so their children can have, whether it’s going without food so their children can get athletic shoes for gym class or giving up on higher education and better job prospects in the future in order to meet their children’s needs today.
Poor mothers make these sacrifices willingly. It’s what good mothers do, they say. One mother I interviewed described going to extreme lengths to make sure her daughters were able to attend a track meet that required an entrance fee, ending by simply stating, “You know. Sacrifice.”
Low-income mothers also feel held accountable for performing sacrificial motherhood. Mothers spoke of the judgmental gaze of their communities and the punitive arm of the welfare state. Poor, racialized mothers feel the monitoring of their mothering especially keenly and described encountering high levels of regulation. For example, a low-income Black mother interviewed said she was reported to Child Protective Services by a staff member at her children’s school based on a perception that her sons seemed too hungry and therefore must not be getting enough to eat at home.
Low-income mothers’ status as good mothers is precarious in part because they don’t have all the trappings that Americans equate with good mothering. Good mothering today is often synonymous with intensive mothering and requires large amounts of time, money, and cultural capital. Yet everyday low-income mothers take extraordinary measures to prioritize their children’s needs and well-being. They shouldn’t have to.
Covid-19 has laid bare the paltry social safety net in the United States. Far too many families are surviving day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck with no savings, no stores of food, and no healthcare. Within many of those families, mothers may be making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that their children stay healthy and have enough to eat. In doing so, they are risking their own health and well-being.
The low-income mothers I have gotten to know over the years are resourceful. They will make a coronavirus stimulus check stretch if given the opportunity. But a one-time payment is not going to fix the long-term problem of an inadequate safety net. The current Covid-19 crisis presents an opportunity to fundamentally overhaul the US social safety system so that mothers and children—and all families—have what they need to thrive today and into the future. A great deal of evidence shows that American parents—and families—are happier and healthier when they live in a country with supportive policies.
Sinikka Elliott is an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Her work focuses on families, social inequalities, and social policy. She can be reached by email: Sinikka.firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter: @SinikkaElliott