More Mothers Are Staying Home, But Don't Picture June Cleaver


According to the latest numbers, an increased number of mothers are staying home with their children. But don’t trot out your favorite MOMMY WARS cliches just yet. Turns out the high-powered opt-out types are vanishingly rare, and a fair bit of the increase is likely attributable to both demographics and factors like the nauseating cost of childcare and wages that are stagnant as a cesspool.

The numbers come from the Pew Research Center, which crunched government data and found that the percentage of women who don’t work outside the home climbed from 23 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2012, around 10.4 million women. That uptick comes after a three-decade decline.

But Pew is careful to note that we’re not just talking about women who chose to stay at home because their spouse is making bank. The term “stay at home” includes those “who are at home because they are unable to find work, are disabled or are enrolled in school.” And in fact, just two-thirds of stay-at-homers had working husbands. Some of the remainder were cohabitating, but others were single or had unemployed husbands. Single moms weren’t necessarily home just to care for the kids:

Married stay-at-home mothers are more likely than single or cohabiting stay-at-home mothers to say they are not employed because they are caring for their families (85% said this in 2012). By comparison, only 41% of single stay-at-home mothers and 64% of cohabiting mothers give family care as their primary reason for being home, according to census data.

Meanwhile, the slice of women who said they were staying home because they just flat could not find a job grew from 1 percent in 2000 to 6 percent in 2012. Pew also admits the possibility that, “With incomes stagnant in recent years for all but the college-educated, less educated workers in particular may weigh the cost of child care against wages and decide it makes more economic sense to stay home.” (Of course, many low-income women don’t even have that much wiggle room.)

Perhaps the most jarring stat: 34 percent of stay-at-home mothers live in poverty. (Though those who were married with working husbands were far more likely to be better off.) That’s the case for just 12 percent of working mothers. But the demographics were also interesting:

Stay-at-home mothers are less likely than working mothers to be white (51% are white, compared with 60% of working mothers) and more likely to be immigrants (33% vs. 20%). The overall rise in the share of U.S. mothers who are foreign born, and rapid growth of the nation’s Asian and Latino populations, may account for some of the recent increase in the share of stay-at-home mothers.

As for that stereotype of the high-powered career woman turned wealthy surburban helicopter parent? Well, despite all that hand-wringing about opting out, she’s pretty rare. Of SAMs with working husbands, a mere 5 percent had at least a masters and more than $75,000 in annual family income. (Not that it always works out so well for the traditional opt-out types, either.)

Anyway, remember these numbers the next time you see some ludicrous pre-trend piece about feminist housewives or whatever.

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