The number of stay-at-home moms in the U.S. has grown to 29 percent of all mothers with children under 18, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s up from a modern low of 23 percent in 1999.
This might seem surprising — aren’t more women working these days? — but that’s simply because we’ve been trained to think of stay-at-home moms as rich suburban types. The Pew report corrects this image: SAHMs are younger, less white, more likely to be foreign born, less likely to be college educated and more likely to live in poverty than working moms. Twenty percent of SAHMs are single, which is slightly more than in 1999, but still a lot less than in 1993, when 29 percent of SAHMs were unmarried.
Only 20 percent of all moms fit the old-fashioned June Cleaver image: staying at home and married with a working husband. That’s down from 40 percent in 1970.
And even fewer SAHMs are the photogenic, highly educated “opt out” or “feminist housewife” moms who tend to dominate media stories about mothers who don’t work outside the home. Only 370,000 married SAHMs have a graduate degree and a household income of more than $75,000 — that’s out of a total U.S. population of more than 316 million and counting.
The increase in stay-at-home-moms isn’t fueled by more women wanting to stay at home: As Pew notes, the majority of moms want to work, and the percent of moms who say they ideally do not want to work has dropped over the past decade. It’s not rich women “opting out” or a desire to return to traditional gender roles that’s causing the increase in SAHMs, it’s the lack of jobs and options.
There’s also the cost of child care. As Pew notes, “less educated workers in particular may weigh the cost of child care against wages and decide it makes more economic sense to stay home.” Indeed, according to the U.S. Census, between 1985 and 2011, the cost of a week of child care for a family with an employed mother and children under 15 went from $84 to $143 a week, while wages remained stagnant, or plummeted, depending on education level. Particularly if you’re a low-wage worker with little hope of a promotion, there’s no reason to stay in the workforce if child care is going to be more expensive than your salary.
Overall, that’s bad for women: In addition to simply not being able to earn a living or to have the option to do so, when you’re out of the workforce for a long time, especially if you’re single, you lose out on Social Security credits. The most glaring finding of this report is that 34 percent of stay-at-home mothers are living in poverty, while only 12 percent of working moms are. That’s the story that should grace the cover of a major magazine sometime, instead of yet another trumped-up tale of hyper-educated moms dropping out of the workforce.
Jessica Grose is a frequent contributor to Slate, where this first appeared, and the author of the novel “Sad Desk Salad.”