Politics & Policy

More Moms Stay Home With Their Children

A Pew study claims a decades-long trend has reversed.

A decades-long trend that saw an increasing percentage of mothers working may have reversed itself. More moms are staying home full-time, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers,” a new study by D’Vera Cohn, Gretchen Livingston, and Wendy Wang, reports that the proportion of women staying home full-time rose 6 percentage points, from a historic low of 23 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2012.

Are more women getting what they want?  Perhaps.

Over the last generation, there has been surprising stability in women’s gendered preferences for motherhood over work: The proportion of mothers who say full-time work is their ideal in 2012 was 32 percent, just a nudge up from the 30 percent who said so in 1997, according to an earlier study by Wang, a research associate at the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. (In 2007, at the start of the recession, just 20 percent of mothers described working full time as “ideal.”)

In 2012, 67 percent of mothers said they would prefer to work part of the time or not at all, compared with 70 percent in 1997. The majority of working moms would prefer to work less. Fewer than half (46 percent) of full-time-working mothers consider their current situation ideal. Most prefer part-time work, as do a sizable chunk of mothers at home.

“Married mothers who are able to cut back at work to accommodate their family’s needs tend to be happier,” Professor Brad Wilcox said in an analysis of an earlier Pew report “The news cycle is stuck in a lean-in loop but new data shows mothers report more happiness when they can lean homeward.”

Americans in general agree: Some 47 percent say working part time is ideal for women with young children, and 33 percent say staying at home full-time is ideal. Just 12 percent say full-time work is ideal for a mother.  (By contrast, 70 percent of Americans believe fathers should work full-time, and just 4 percent call the stay-at-home dad “ideal.”)

The increasing share of births to family-centric Hispanics in this country is probably one reason for a renewed interest in family life. Seventy-three percent of Hispanics (compared with 57 percent of whites or blacks) say children are better off when one parent stays home to focus on the family. Forty-four percent of married moms who stay home with kids are not white (including Hispanics), Pew reports.

But the Pew report bucks conventional use of the term “stay-at home mom” by including single and cohabiting mothers in its definition. Part of the good news is not so good:  The proportion of children born out of wedlock leaped from 33.2 percent in 2000 to 40.6 percent in 2008.  Many of these stay-at-home moms are on welfare, in other words, and their children, through no fault of their own, are statistically more likely to face the kinds of risks associated with children raised outside of intact marriage: more poverty, substance abuse, crime (as both victims and perpetrators), physical illness, and education setbacks.

Still, after decades of decline, the increase in stay-at home mothers signals once again a big gap between the aspirations of women and the plans laid out for us by the gender theorists in Washington.

When the White House recovers from trying to explain why its in-house pay gap for women is not evidence of gender discrimination, perhaps President Obama will take a look at the most serious problem preventing more women from achieving our family dreams: declining male wages.

According to MIT economics professor Michael Greenstone and his Brookings Institution colleague Adam Looney, the wages of prime-working-age men (ages 25 to 64) who are employed have declined 4 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 1970.  Factoring into the median income the astonishing increase in the number of working-age men who do not work at all (today about one in five), median male wages have declined almost 20 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. The inflation-adjusted median income for a man with only a high school diploma has plunged 41 percent since 1970.

The problem Americans workers face, both male and female, is not primarily a discrimination-driven gender gap but a poor economy with widespread wage stagnation. Combine that with “moderate” inflation (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Calculator, the dollar has lost 16 cents of value just since 2006) and you’ve got a steadily shrinking family paycheck.

Making more women’s dreams come true requires reversing the decline in men’s real wages. Who will put this bread and butter issue on the agenda?

— Maggie Gallagher is a fellow at the American Principles Project. Her work can be read at MaggieGallagher.com.


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