The Real Reason American Moms Are Staying Home

Moms want work, but they're faced with a crap economy.

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According to a new Pew study, more American moms are staying at home with the kids — but not out of choice. These moms aren't avoiding the workplace because they are wealthy and can afford to do so, but because they can't find a job in an economy which is no longer working for most of us.

For decades, fewer American moms stayed at home. The number reached its lowest point in 1999, when about 23 percent of moms did not have paying jobs. But since then, the number has been rising. Remember the recession of 2000? That killed a lot of work opportunities for moms, as did the economic catastrophe of 2007-'08. The number of moms staying at home is now up to 29 percent.

D'Vera Cohn of the Pew Research Center found that moms were responding to the economy, not some desire to return to the 1950s: "There's a big link between what the economy is doing and women's decisions about working or not."

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The media has made much ado about so-called "opt-out" mothers — educated women of means who do not have to work out of economic necessity. But that group is fairly small. More likely, the mom staying at home is poor. Pew found that over a third of moms staying at home are living below the poverty line, and almost half have a high school level education or less. Nearly half are minorities.

Even when they can find a job, many women can't afford to take it because of the exhorbitant cost of childcare in America, which currently averages around $12,000 per year according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. The Pew study shows that the soaring cost of paying for someone to mind the kids is also a major reason for women deciding to stay at home. Other factors include increasing numbers of immigrant mothers, who are more likely to stay at home, and conflicted feelings about the effects of working on children.

Social Security is tied directly to the number of years in the labor force, so many of these women are going to take a big hit in their golden years, unless they happen to have a surviving husband who has worked steadily. Widows can't be remarried in order to be eligible to receive their deceased husband's benefits, and there are stringent restrictions on what divorced women can receive. For poor single mothers who spent many years out of the labor force, the picture is grim.

It doesn't have to be this way. In other modern societies, policies are designed to help women work while raising children. Scandinavians, for example, have decided that investment in families through policies like affordable and universal high-quality childcare, flexible parental leave plans, and a robust social safety net are not only good for society, but good for the economy, too.

For all the talk among conservatives about family values, the policies that have prevailed in the U.S. place a tremendous burden on families, particularly mothers.

Lynn Parramore is an author and cultural theorist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.