Magazine | March 11, 2019, Issue

Leaning Out

(MHJ/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images)
Public policy should support mothers who choose to stay at home

Let’s start behind a veil of ignorance, knowing nothing about the resources, abilities, or social position of your children. You must pick, based on nothing but your knowledge of a country’s economic and political system, one of the world’s 196 nations in which to bring up a family. Is the United States the country where you would choose to be a parent?

Through much of the 20th century, I suspect, the answer would have been a quick yes. But the threads of our economic system, based on an outmoded male-breadwinner model, are becoming worn. We see the strain everywhere, from the dual earners in the exurbs trying to keep up with the Joneses to the worker who could never dream of supporting a family on his stagnant paycheck.

America, as we frequently hear bemoaned, is the only OECD country without a federal paid-leave program. The average cost of child care here now exceeds that of in-state college tuition in many states. Universal pre-K has been rolled out from New York City to Washington, D.C., with more cities and states interested in following suit. These ideas, and others like them, often focus on the needs of working parents who are trying to balance the competing demands of workplace and children. As a result, our discussions often seem unsatisfyingly one-size-fits-all.

People who set the agendas at think tanks or cable networks tend to be the kind of hard-charging types who did well in school and then found a career they derive meaning from; they try their best to advance professionally while being there for children on the home front. But for most American parents — those who have a job, not a career, those who scrape to make ends meet but wish they didn’t have to — paid leave and child-care subsidies are answers to questions they’re not asking.

Our political class studiously contemplates how to help women “have it all.” What if we made it easier for moms to lean out?

As more women entered the labor force over the latter half of the 20th century, the percentage of stay-at-home moms concurrently dropped before leveling off in the early 1990s. Since then, Census Bureau statistics show that the fraction of households with a mom at home has stayed fairly steady, perhaps even increasing over the past decade.

Today, 5 million moms (just under a quarter of married mothers in America, and about 11 percent of all mothers) meet the traditional definition of a stay-at-home mom — out of the work force while their spouse works as the breadwinner. (There are also 209,000 stay-at-home dads. In the interest of full disclosure: I was one myself for a year. But such fathers are, in effect, a rounding error, so throughout this piece I’ll refer to stay-at-home moms.)

These mothers tend to be white, with a high-school diploma or less, but they’re not homogeneous; Hispanic moms are more likely be at home, and roughly a quarter of stay-at-home moms in 2012 were college graduates. They tend to be younger — 42 percent are younger than 35. And they have younger kids — 60 percent of married mothers with children under three are in the labor force, compared with 76 percent of those with children ages six to 17. In 2014, Pew found that fully one-third of stay-at-home moms live in poverty, though as National Review’s Robert VerBruggen and Wendy Wang have pointed out for the Institute for Family Studies, that is partially a consequence of having only one income to support the family. VerBruggen and Wang find a “U-shaped curve between a mother’s chances of being out of the labor force and her husband’s earned income,” so families with male earnings that are both higher and lower than the median have higher rates of moms staying at home.  

Some of this is probably due to what sociologists call “assortative mating,” with individuals marrying partners who have similar potential earnings in the labor market. Women married to high earners might stay at home at higher rates because additional income is not vital for the household to make ends meet, just as moms weighing a low-wage job might decide the work’s not worth it when they calculate the crippling cost of child care. But the high fraction of moms in the work force at the middle of the income distribution could be a result of our economic system’s forcing parents into what some have called a “two-income trap,” in which both must work if they are to maintain their desired standard of living.

Beltway and Wall Street types seem to believe that it’s best for a family to have two working parents. Surveys of the general population tell a much different story.

In a 2015 Gallup poll, 56 percent of women with a child younger than 18 said they would ideally like to stay home and care for their house and family. Even among mothers who were currently working full- or part-time, 54 percent wished they could stay home, but couldn’t. In a 2013 Pew poll, only 7 percent of mothers of young kids said they believed that the “ideal situation” was for mothers in their position to work full-time, and nearly half of working moms (47 percent) said their “ideal” would be to work part-time. Most Americans agree that kids would do best with a parent at home. Clearly, there are many moms whose vision of “having it all” does not include a full-time job, although they are forced into the work force through economic necessity.

In our economic system, continuous employment is expected, full-time work is prioritized, and benefits are tied to unbroken longevity. That arrangement is uniquely unsuited to the desire of women — and some men — who want to balance the demands of early parenthood with career advancement or with just putting bread on the table. Many women are pursuing both a high-power career and a meaningful family life, and they deserve more support from industry and society. Even more women, however, wish they could afford to take time off to raise children but can’t for fear of incurring financial risk or sabotaging their future job prospects.

What does public policy offer them? The aggressively centrist paid-leave plan proposed by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution suggested “improv[ing] women’s attachment to the labor force and their ability to continue pursuing their professional desires.” The D.C. think-tankers mean well, but for many — maybe most — American women (and many men), “professional desires” don’t necessarily include a corner office, a ride up the corporate ladder, or journal citations.

“Leaning in” to the pursuit of ever-higher professional advancement remains a relatively rare option, largely limited to those already in higher income brackets. “Among working parents with annual household incomes of less than $50,000, fully 63 percent say they would prefer to be home with their children but need to work because they need the income,” Pew found in 2013. Even among the broader population, much higher percentages of moms (52 percent) and dads (48 percent) said they would prefer to be home with their children if they didn’t need the paycheck.

Let me stress, for the record, that the recitation of these statistics is descriptive, not normative. The year I spent at home with a newborn and a two-year-old was far more draining than any job or school assignment I’ve had, and I’m not making a judgment about whether family is better or more worthwhile than career.

We seem to have reached a cautious truce in the cultural “mommy wars” that used to provide fodder for endless magazine covers. In the papers that fuel policy circles, however, high levels of homemaking are considered a stubborn problem. A 2014 PBS article — “When It’s Cheaper for Parents to Stay at Home Than Pay for Child Care” — typified the conventional wisdom, which looks askance at the stay-at-home option. The Brookings Institution reported that the stalling rate of women’s labor-force participation is a threat to “economic progress.” In a report on Australia’s labor market, OECD economists cited the country’s high proportion of stay-at-home moms as the “greatest untapped potential” for the country’s work force, saying that “there are potentially large losses to the economy when women stay at home.” The Economist deplored the “waste” of Germany’s relatively high rate of stay-at-home moms, scolding that the country “scandalously underuses” women’s potential productivity. In summarizing a poll of U.S. women who stay home, Gallup called kids “a company’s greatest competition.”

Left unexamined is the premise that the pursuit of economic growth is a greater social good than supporting moms who want to stay home with their children, especially in the early years of life. Many child-care-policy discussions ignore the underlying unfairness of handing out expanded benefits for working parents but implicit penalties for those who stay home.

Not everyone agrees with this framework, but it’s conceptually simple: If the government provides a tax benefit for people who buy red cars, it’s relatively disadvantaging those who buy blue. Choosing to expand tax privileges only for parents who work outside the home is a political statement that says we prioritize their work over that of parents who stay home. How we set the status quo is a choice.

Pro-family changes to the tax code often receive criticism for aggravating a purported bias toward stay-at-home parents. “Why should my taxes pay for other people’s children?” goes a familiar refrain on the Internet, ignoring the intergenerational nature of safety-net programs that tax other people’s children (when they are adults) to pay for the commenter’s current and future benefits. A more sophisticated critique relies on a Homo economicus view of the home front that holds, as New York magazine’s Josh Barro wrote in 2015, that “productive activities within the home are not especially different from the taxable work we do outside the home.” Families are getting away with non-taxed labor, we hear, while parents who buy the same services from a nanny, a maid, or a day-care provider have to pay taxes.

In fact, why stop there? Insure.com, a life-insurance clearinghouse, used Bureau of Labor Statistics data to come up with a market value for all the services stay-at-home parents are asked to perform. Their answer: $68,875. Think of the forgone value of those dinners made, those clothes washed, those rides across town — why, not paying taxes on that amount is tantamount to tax fraud!

We rightfully disapprove of the attempt to calculate, much less tax, the wage of a stay-at-home mom because we know that the family is not a market institution and that the hustle and bustle of economic life is meant to support the home. Some people find tremendous value and meaning in their career, while many others punch the clock, mentally counting down the minutes until they can get home to their rug rats. If kids are indeed a company’s “greatest competition,” then the case that the government should sweeten the pot on the side of industry rests on the hollow, materialist idea that monetizable production is the only thing policymakers should concern themselves with.

If the goal of a child-care policy is to increase women’s labor-force participation, then federal guarantees could be one way to go. These would include measures such as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s new proposal to pay for universal child care via a wealth tax, or the 2017 bill introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.) that would have made child care a federal entitlement. If, however, the goal of a federal child-care policy is instead to enable parents to better support their families in whatever way they see fit, then we can do so indirectly, by subsidizing child care to enable employment. We could also do so directly, by subsidizing parents’ ability to support their families. Or we could do both.

“Both” was the route Germany took in 2013, when Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party instituted a legal right to free child care, accompanied by a Betreuungsgeld (literally “care benefit”) of around $200 per month to stay-at-home parents who opted out of the child-care system. Despite criticism from those who feared sapping economic vitality (or financially backing the patriarchy), the chancellor defended the program as “an essential part of our policy of freedom of choice.” (A German court declared the federal payments unconstitutional two years later, but three states within Germany continue paying them at the state level.)

A similar grand bargain — expanded child-care subsidies, with payments equivalent to the value of those subsidies to parents who choose not to pay for care — should be pursued in the United States. A payment to stay-at-home parents, equivalent to support for working parents through the tax code, wouldn’t be monetary remuneration for the work they do but recognition of the importance of family life. It would endorse the idea that their choice has equal value to that of mothers who enter or return to the workplace after the birth of a child.

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: 16.4 million families in the U.S. currently have at least one child under the age of six living at home. Eighty-four percent of those families, or 13.7 million, have annual incomes below $150,000. A flat child-care subsidy of $250 per month to those families, or a direct payment equivalent to that amount, would therefore cost about $41 billion annually.

Right now in the U.S., the federal government subsidizes child care to the tune of $26 billion annually. That total includes direct spending through the Head Start program, the Child Care Development Block Grant, and the Child Care Development Fund as well as the tax-code provisions that advantage child-care expenses (or employer provision of child care). If we care about deficit neutrality, the other $15 billion could be made up for by tweaking the tax code’s Qualified Business Income provision, to name one option.

Head Start, with its 1 million enrollees, would be politically difficult to convert to a direct subsidy, but the evidence that it fails at its stated mission of boosting education among low-income children is strong. The other provisions — the Child and De­pen­dent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC), excluding employer-provided care, and the rest — are an inefficient and inequitable way of supporting child-care access. Of the CDCTC’s total benefit, for example, 68.4 percent goes to families in the upper two income quintiles. About $250 a month, or $3,000 a year, would cover more than half of the annual price of child care in the least expensive states. (It would also help to pair this new subsidy with a loosening of licensing restrictions for child-care workers, so that supply in tight child-care markets could catch up to demand.)

A direct subsidy could easily be accomplished by an early-childhood boost to the Child Tax Credit, though a monthly check or voucher might be better than an annual deposit. Russ Whitehurst, formerly of the Brookings Institution, has proposed a universal child-care allowance via the creation of individual savings accounts. That kind of account could work, if it was neutral between a family’s choice to spend it on child care or on a sufficiently broad list of approved expenditures encompassing daily essentials such as books, clothes, or routine expenses. Another option could be taken from the 2008 “reform conservative” manifesto Grand New Party, in which Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam suggested tuition or pension credits for parents who provide care in the home, modeled on veterans’ benefits.

American family life has undergone a revolution in the last half century. In 1971, 41 percent of children were raised with a married stay-at-home mother who had a working husband. That’s now down to 20 percent. Our economic and cultural scripts haven’t caught up.

Part of this reality might be explained by the United States’ work-centric culture. The convenient if reductive barometer of material success cues us to value domestic production less than work in the labor force, prompting most women to say they feel at least some social pressure to work. But the flood of “having it all” think pieces, and the mixture of resonance, pride, and guilt many parents feel while reading them, should tell us that the high-flying juggling act isn’t right for everyone.

Additionally, even in the egalitarian utopia of Denmark, women see their earnings fall by 30 percent after the birth of a child, and the gap never goes away. Other countries, such as Germany, the U.K., and the U.S., exhibit a similar pattern, to varying degrees, with a child-related income penalty that never closes, driven not by explicit discrimination but by the fact that many women come back into the labor force working fewer hours — and some never return at all. This is a result of what economists call “gendered preferences” — women are more likely than men to want to stay home (and those preferences are shaped by parents’ and grandparents’ past experiences with home–career tradeoffs).

Corporations could help here. When they’re hiring, they could specifically recruit women reentering the work force, or at least not penalize them. They could also be more generous in adjusting responsibilities and remuneration to account for factors such as morning sickness or the unpredictable hours and sick days associated with having a young child — granting flexible working hours when appropriate and rewarding performance rather than persistence.   

A more positive attitude toward taking a few years off for child-rearing is also necessary. “I see the value people assign to me as a reporter vs. a full-time mommy,” wrote NBC News’s Brandy Zadrozny in 2016. “It doesn’t even come close.” Anyone who’s been asked “So, what do you do?” knows how poorly the answer “I’m at home with our kids” can fit into the social scripts of the career-minded class. (For those who haven’t had the privilege: equal parts confusion and anthropological fascination, with a twist of strange respect, and often garnished with a hint of “oh, I could never do that” condescension.)

Providing a subsidy to parents who stay home wouldn’t change those cultural prejudices overnight. But it would be an affirmation that all of the relevant choices — to work full-time, part-time, or entirely in the home — deserve the same amount of support from the state and the broader society as well.

Additionally, it’s fair to ask whether encouraging child care through federal spending is the best decision for the children themselves. (We can do this without criticizing the decisions of parents who place their children in day care.)

MIT’s Jonathan Gruber, the architect of the Affordable Care Act, and two other economists have been studying the expansion of universal child care in Quebec. They and other researchers have found that Quebec’s program ended up having no discernible impact on children’s cognitive skills and test scores; but it did have a negative (and apparently lingering) impact on noncognitive skills such as emotional intelligence, and it is associated with lower levels of health and life satisfaction, and with higher levels of anxiety, hyperactivity, aggression, and, eventually, crime. Mothers’ health, also, appears to show some negative side effects, though that could also be owing to the increased working hours that child care makes possible. Children in Norway, where there are good administrative data, seem to have better long-run educational outcomes with a stay-at-home mother.

There is no silver bullet when it comes to balancing work–life decisions. The benefits of formal care are higher for children who come from low-income homes and lower for children who come from high-income homes. The government could try to engineer a system that encouraged the attendance of children most likely to benefit, but it would be fairer and simpler to create more options for parents who are deciding between work and home and to support them regardless of their decision.

“If, historically, two-parent families could support themselves with only one parent working outside the home, then something is wrong with ‘growth’ that imposes a de facto need for two incomes,” Oren Cass, the domestic-policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, has written. A decision to support stay-at-home parents is a way to acknowledge the reality that healthy and stable families, not GDP growth alone, are the ultimate measure of the health of our society.  

The rise in female labor participation over the last half century has unquestionably made life better for many moms and increased the economic prospects of millions of American families. But mistakes creep in when we take for granted that our public-policy goal should be to boost those numbers even higher. Leave aside the social engineering and the nanny-state entitlements — addressing the needs of American families should push us to support a diversity of family styles and vocations.

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Patrick T. Brown — Mr. Brown is a graduate student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  

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