Monday, March 26, 2007
Stay-at-home parenthood: a privileged debate?
I hear it a lot: the debate over stay-at-home dads (and moms) is a privileged one, since, some say, most couples must work two jobs just to stay afloat. "The whole idea of there being just one person who earns the money is so foreign to most families now," writes Jeff at Feminist Allies, in response to my March 2 post on breadwinning moms. "Perhaps there are some class issues around couples who are having the sorts of problems that Jeremy is talking about?"
I used to think so--and I said as much in my very first post to Daddy Dialectic: "Dads-at-home will be a tiny minority for as long as parents have to scramble to keep their heads above water, trying to make enough money to survive and give their kids the best life possible, under the circumstances."
At the time I wrote that, I had thought about the issue for all of two seconds: like Jeff and many other people who should know better, I just reflexively assumed that stay-at-home parenthood is a luxury of the affluent. Since then, I've interviewed dozens of families with a stay-at-home parent, read scores of empirical studies and books, and spoken with leading family researchers.
As a result, I discovered that the reality is complex--as it almost always is, when closely examined. Let's start with the numbers. Men are sole breadwinners in 39 percent of families with children under the age of six. Meanwhile, seven percent of families are supported primarily by women. That means at least 46 percent of families with young children are supported by one breadwinner.
Even if this was a relatively privileged group, it is certainly not, as Jeff implies, a marginal group. That number represents millions of people, almost half of all families, and they are facing real and difficult trade-offs when it comes to balancing home with work. Mostly, of course, it's moms who stay home, and in recent years, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more moms are quitting their jobs to take care of kids. "The biggest percentage-point declines in work-force participation," reports the Wall Street Journal, "did come among mothers with a bachelor's degree or more, followed by women with husbands in the top 20% of earners." This confirms the impression that families with a stay-at-home parent are relatively privileged--that is to say, educated and affluent.
However, the same Bureau of Labor Statistics study cited by the Journal reveals that once the decision is made for one parent to stay home with the children, those same affluent families take a very serious financial hit. They lose the ability to save, invest, buy homes, or make discretionary purchases--in short, they are no longer affluent. They are simply getting by.
That by itself is important. But focusing on families who sacrifice affluence so that one parent can stay home obscures the experience of a huge number of families that are poor and working class to begin with. Almost a quarter of minimum wage workers are the sole breadwinners for their families. Many low-wage and even many middle-income workers find that childcare is too expensive; they crunch the numbers and discover that it's cheaper, or nearly, for one parent to stay home.
Others simply make life choices that put family and children first, based on a combination of (sometimes sexist) ideology and values: these are often immigrants or people of color. Recently I interviewed sociologists Ross Parke and Scott Coltrane, both at UC Riverside, about their five-year longititudinal study of how Latino and Anglo families in Riverside cope with economic stress. They are finding that Latino families are often willing to accept much higher levels of economic stress in exchange for time with children. "The middle-class profile of the Latino families would make them poverty level among the Anglo families," Coltrane told me. "A lot of the mothers are not employed. In one sample, only a third of the mothers, in another, only 40% of the mothers, are employed, and that’s very different from the Anglo families where 80% of the women are employed." Though we might arrogantly (and perhaps also rightly) see this as a sign of how much more patriarchal Latino communities are, I think the simple truth is that working-class Latino parents and educated Anglo parents want the same thing, to be the ones to take care of their own children.
Here's where issues of inequality arise: when more women than men opt to stay home, women as a group lose economic power and independence. Which is why the debate over stay-at-home dads matters: it is not a privileged, marginal debate, but one central to the real lives of millions of people, and key to building a more equitable society. "Will women ever achieve real equality with men?" asks Rhona Mahony in her classic 1995 book Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power. "I propose that the answer to that question is another question: Can a father raise babies and can a woman let him do it? This is a key question, because in order for women to achieve economic equality with men, men will have to do half the work of raising children."
Update: A bunch of people just emailed me to say that I was personally attacked yesterday by Linda Hirshman. Go check it out; I'll respond sometime in the next couple of days, when I have more time.