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.


Jeff Pollet said...

Jeremy, would you mind citing where you got these numbers from:
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 are supported by one breadwinner.

I'm more than willing to say that your numbers might be correct (which is why I'm asking for a citation), but a cursory look at the DoL page seems to indicate that your figures are misleading--or perhaps the 'under six' part of what you're saying is really, really important? Because otherwise it looks like your 39% figure is more around 19% in 2004:

Not only has the proportion of families maintained by men or women grown
dramatically over time, but there also have been remarkable changes in the work
patterns among married-couple families. The share of married-couple families in
which both the husband and wife had earnings increased from 46 percent in 1970 to
57 percent in 2004, while the proportion comprised of families with just the
husband as an earner fell from 33 percent to 19 percent. The proportion of marriedcouple
families with no earners was 14 percent in 2004.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I've always been flabbergasted by the argument that it's the affluent families that choose to have a stay-at-home parent. Although I'm very happy with my decision to be a SAHD, I can't say that it was exactly optional. As a teacher, I would have just barely made enough to cover the cost of daycare (maybe), and not nearly enough to pay for things like nannies and other accouterments of affluence.

In what market would the same not be true? If anything, having one parent stay at home seems to occur in the two-parent lower and middle classes; for the upper-middle it's perhaps difficult (?), and the upper-upper of course get to choose anything they want. Single-parent families in our society are thereby left to fend for themselves with the rickety help of the social services and, it can be hoped, their families.

There's a big difference between a stay-at-home-parent family and a family where, for example, one parent doesn't need to work and also can hire a nanny three days a week. I'm not certain why we always get lumped together.


Unknown said...

I think an interesting angle here that I haven't seen explored is voluntary stay-at-home parenting vs involuntary stay-at-home parenting. I mean, when childless people don't have a job, they're "unemployed." When parents don't have a job, they turn into "stay at home parents." Has anyone looked at that angle?

Anonymous said...

After our son was born, my wife and I returned to the Midwest from California partly so we could afford one of us to stay home.

It's about priorities, not class.

Jeff Pollet said...

Um, you're presenting things as if there is one set of options for everybody:
1. One parent stays at home.
2. Two parents work, and get daycare.

This just isn't the choice that a lot of people get--leaving aside the fact that lots of people get cheap-but-substandard daycare. For lots of people, they can neither afford for one parent to stay at home or afford daycare, and this is where extended families (formal or otherwise) come in. Grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles are often the daycare providers for people who aren't middle- or upper-class. I think that leaving out these situations shows exactly the sort of blind spot that class privilege tends to create, and which we must guard against.

Jeff Pollet said...

Your family had enough money and other forms of support to move across the country? Congratulations.

Priorities and class are inextricably intertwined, as far as I can tell. You were making the decision between California and the midwest--believe it or not, some people in the midwest can't afford either to stay at home or to get daycare. Would you say to them that their priorities are out of whack?

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

This is a rich set of responses.

Jeff: The "under six" part is, in fact, really, really important. Those are the years when parents stay home, if they stay at home at all; it's the developmentally crucial period when children are most vulnerable and dependent on their parents. At five they go to school and most parents these days go back to work.

My sources: the 39 percent figure comes from the Bureau of Labor Stats; the 7 percent figure comes from a study by Kathleen Gerson and Jerry A. Jacobs, published in "The Time Divide." I haven't checked what their source is, but it is almost certainly the BLS. This is a problem with my figures: since they're from two different sources, they might not match up. Another problem that I didn't mention: just because a family has one breadwinner doesn't mean there is a stay-at-home parent: they could be divorced or widowed. In fact, I'm sure that many are. And I think Justin raises a crucial point about employment and self-definition--in fact, the number of caregiving dads jumped during the recession that happened during the first half of the 90s, then fell again after the economy pepped up. There's a lot of little figures like this, which indicate that more parents stay home with kids when the economy sags.

But I don't think any of those caveats change my basic point, which is that families with a stay at home parent are not a marginal group.

One more thing to Jeff: I think you're missing Jared's main point. He's not saying that the priorities of any one group of parents are out of whack. He's saying that these decisions are not purely financial. When making decisions, parents look at all the circumstances of their lives, including their personal strengths and weaknesses and what they want out of life, and they set priorities based on what they can and can't do, emotionally, financially, and so on. Money might be the biggest factor, but as Coltrane and Parke's research indicates, it's just one among many. No one knows better than a parent that we don't always get what we want.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Whoops--I was wrong about something. The 39 percent figure (the actual number is 38.7) is specifically for families with working fathers and stay-at-home mothers. So actually, the caveat I made in my comment, above, is not a caveat and does not apply.

Jeff Pollet said...

He's not saying that the priorities of any one group of parents are out of whack. He's saying that these decisions are not purely financial.
Class isn't 'purely financial' either--it includes access to resources, for instance, that may be ultimately financial but not on the face of it financial.

But in any case, how is a move to the midwest, because it's cheaper not a financial decision?

Jeff Pollet said...


Would you mind providing the link the do DoL document which provides the 38.7% figure? I can't find it, and as you probably know, the DoL site is a bit daunting in the number of pages there. Thanks!

What do you think about the 19% figure of two-parent families with only the father working, when kids are 18 or younger, though? Would you say that people who are able to choose this format until their kids are semi-adults are an elite group? If so, maybe that's where some of the confusion may lay--those of us who think of that group as a small group aren't taking into account the numbers of people who choose this format only for the first six years of their kids' lives is greater (according to your numbers) than I would have thought, for example.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Yeah, I think you're right that parents who stay home straight through high school graduation are an elite group -- but, like you, I'm just speculating.

I don't have a URL on hand you can link to on the BLS site--I have a Wall Street Journal report by Sue Shellenbarger ("Sole Breadwinners Face Special Work-Life Angst") that cites that number and I have a printout of the page, but it was a PDF.

itchycoo parka said...

i'm glad you're dealing with this conversation. i can't. it's too personal. i do know that i read all kinds of arguments back and forth, and a lot of generalizations and judgements and blame and whatnot, and nowhere in all of it do i see a narrative that sounds/looks like my family. there's a whole lot of pontification that goes on, though, and you have a champion's patience dealing with it all, for which i am grateful. i'm looking forward to your response to that article.

Jeff Pollet said...

Just checking--my last comment seems to have not made it through moderation, though a comment made after mine has. Any reason or just an oversight...?

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Try again, Jeff. I didn't get any other comments.

A note on that: I hate moderating comments, but recently some blog spam snuck into comments; I'll moderate for a little while until they go away.

For Dad: Hirshman's attack just seems gratuitous...she personally left a comment over at Rebeldad, and here's how I responded there:

Hi Linda. This is Jeremy. You got parts of my bio wrong, too, but I don't really care about that.

I actually agree with much of what you write. We disagree on a few points.

I don't, for example, agree that caregiving is unworthy of smart, talented people. I don't agree that work should shape our lives; a good life contains much more than just work. This applies to both men and women.

I also don't agree with your cynical view of men. The empirical evidence shows that men have changed dramatically over the past fifty years. They do more housework and more childcare than they have done in the past.

You imply that Rebeldad and I should remain silent about our experiences with caregiving. This is misguided. Men need positive role models. They need to hear other men say, "Dude, you need to do more housework. You need to watch the kids. You have to put your family first." Women's choices and demands are critical, but to reach a tipping point, men are the ones who must redefine male behavior.

When I first started as my son's primary caregiver, it was very hard. You might mock me for saying that, but it's true. Reading blogs like Rebeldad helped me to see myself in a new light; it made me realize that I was not alone in my experience. If I can do the same through my blog and articles and help change the self-images and behavior of other men, then I think I will have helped, in some small way, to make the world a better place. The alternative--to remain silent, to give in to cynicism--is not acceptable.

Anonymous said...

This post has been included at the Carnival of Housewives inaugural edition. Thanks for submitting it.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!