While Mother’s Day conjures up images of flowers and handprints and sticky kisses, the study of motherhood is critical social science with meaning for women and public policy makers. Both will find After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers, just released by Pew Research, an illuminating essay about who we are and what we are doing.
It would be a mistake to simply glance at the headline and assume most women with children want to stay out of the paid work force. This is not a replay of the alleged “opt out revolution” years ago spurring headlines about women exchanging the boardroom for the playroom.
Rather than describing a major social trend, those reports concerned mostly highly educated white women with employed husbands in upper income brackets. Women of color, minorities, and at other income levels – in other words most mothers – rarely have choices to make. Historically, they have always worked. Their income was, and remains, absolutely essential to their families.
This new Pew study reveals a slight reversal of the established trend that saw more mothers going to work in the closing decades of the 20th century. As women’s work force participation increased, the number of mothers at home decreased.
Now, however, a small reversal can be seen. “The share of mothers who do not work outside the home rose to 29% in 2012, up from a modern-era low of 23% in 1999,” according to a new Pew Research.
In spite of the increase, more than two-thirds of women with children, the vast majority, remain anchored to the work force.
About 30% of the 10.4 million US mothers at home are single, living with a partner, or married to a husband out of work. The rest, about 7 million, are married to employed husbands.
While many report that their reason for being home is to care for their children, a significant number are in school, disabled, or unable to find work. The recent rise in mothers at home comes from an increase in women saying they cannot find a job. It is not the result of more women deciding to stay home for the purpose of raising their children.
Economic realities make sense of the uptick. The recovery from the recession is very slow, and job growth has been sluggish. Wages have not gone up for years, so jobs are not paying more even while inflation eats away at buying power.
At the same time, the cost of child care, which parents must have in order to work, has increased by leaps and bounds, and now exceeds the cost of in-state public college tuition in 31 states. Mothers like others struggle to find jobs, certainly. But even when they do, they must overcome the economic dilemma of finding one that at least covers the cost of the care and the hours they need so they can show up to work.
Pew researchers found that most mothers at home say they want to work, at least part-time. Compared with employed mothers, those at home are less-educated, younger, less likely to be white, and more likely to be immigrants from other countries.
This could be the flip side of the “opt-out revolution”, which was largely limited to educated white women with access to other income supposedly motivated by a preference for home. The current trend finds mothers home by default, and not by choice.
The (likely temporary) rise in stay at home moms should be viewed with alarm and underline the importance of policy changes which connect women to the labor force while honoring their commitment to their children and other dependent family members. Even though women have more educational attainment than men, they have yet to achieve equal pay.
“In spite of these educational gains, the share of stay-at-home mothers living in poverty has more than doubled since 1970.” Separation from paid work makes women poorer, and degrades the circumstances in which their children grow up.
It may be that women’s employment, under our prevailing conditions, has reached a plateau. The economy would get a jolt if women were paid on a par with men, and if more women had access to quality, affordable child care so that they could work.
We also must implement paid leave policies for the millions of workers (both men and women) who need to care for dependent family members while sustaining their work force attachment. These changes would help mothers of all income and education levels leverage their earning power.
This would not only benefit their individual families, but the economy as well.
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