After decades of a decline, the share of stay-at-home mothers is on the rise, and while new data shows that an overwhelming 60% of Americans think children fare better with a parent at home, this boost back doesn’t necessarily point to positive signs for the economy.
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“Overall, the public opinion in the U.S. is that children do better when the mother is at home,” explains D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at Pew Research Center and co-author of the recent study. “But the question is are more women choosing to stay home, or are they unable to find a job or afford to pay for childcare?”
The largest share, approximately two thirds of the U.S.’s 10.4 million stay-at-home mothers, are married women with working husbands. According to Cohn, about 49% percent of these mothers have a high school diploma or less and the other 51% have some college education or more.
This increase has been inching up in fits and starts for the last decade.
“Overall, the public opinion in the U.S. is that children do better when the mother is at home. But the question is: are more women choosing to stay home, or are they unable to find a job or afford to pay for childcare?”
“The share of mothers staying home with their children rose from 2000 to 2004, but the rise stopped in 2005, amid economic uncertainty that foreshadowed the official start of the Great Recession in 2007,” the report says. “The increase in both number and share eventually resumed: From 2010 to 2012, the share of stay at home mothers (29%) were three percentage points higher than in 2008 (26%), at the height of the recession.”
But a growing share of these stay-at-home mothers, about 6% in 2012 compared to 1% in 2001, say that they are home with their children because they cannot find a job.
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“We looked at income and only about 5% of married women who stay home have an income of $75,000 or more,” says Cohn. “So if you weigh in the cost of childcare, women may just be staying home because it makes more economic sense.”
Pew reports that the small percentage of the more affluent stay-at-home mothers, who have a median income of an estimated $132,000, are somewhat older than married stay-at-home mothers: half are ages 35-44, while only 19% younger than 35.
More likely, the research says, is that mothers at home are younger and less educated than their working counterparts, with an estimated 42% of all stay-at-home mothers under the age of 35.
Another striking demographic is that 34% of mothers who stay at home are living in poverty, compared with only 12% of working mothers. Pew find that those with working husbands are generally better off, which is about 68% of the total group. (An estimated 74% of married mothers with non-working husbands are in poverty; 71% of single stay-at-home mothers are in poverty; and a staggering 88% of cohabitating stay-at-home mothers are in poverty.)
“Overall, it’s hard to see whether this rise [in staying home with kids] is by choice. There are certainly economic and demographic elements at play,” says Cohn. “It’s just hard to say definitively…. We did do a survey though that asked those who had taken time off from work to take care of a family member if they regretted the decision, “ says Cohn. “Overwhelmingly, the response was there was no regret.”