I wrote this post some weeks ago. It's delayed, because I contacted the Pew researchers for further information. I never got it, so here is the post, just in time for the US Mothers' Day.
The recent Pew survey on the percentage of mothers (with children under eighteen) who are now stay-at-home mothers begins:
After Decades of Decline, a Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers
The rest of the long report is mostly about the details behind that sentence. Except, my friends, the details turn out fuzzy for some very boring reasons. Here's the first boring reason:
What that beginning really should have said is this:
After Decades of Decline, a Rise in Women Not Having Paid Work Who Also Have Children Under Eighteen.
That looks like I replaced a clear sentence with researchy gobbledegook, though that's not so. To see why, note that the mothers in this survey can be single mothers, the mothers in this study can be married to a partner who also has no paid work (which could make that partner into yet another stay-at-home-parent), and the mothers in this survey can have all sorts of reasons for why they don't have a job in the labor market. Some of those reasons are that they can be enrolled in school, too sick to work or unable to find paid employment.
They can also state that they are at home because they are taking care of their minor children, and the majority of the mothers without paid employment surveyed by Pew do give that answer. But all those other answers could have been given by women (or men) who don't have children under eighteen at home, too. Thus, it's the presence of children at home that is being used to distinguish between different groups of adults here.
For many valid purposes this doesn't matter. But it matters greatly if we are going to analyze these findings against the background of the cultural debates about proper gender roles and about the question whether mothers of young children should stay at home or not.
For the latter purpose the correct definition of a stay-at-home-mother (SAHM) is a woman with young children who stays at home to care for them AND whose husband/male partner goes out to work and covers the financial needs of the whole family. If she is at home because she cannot find paid employment or because she is at school or in college or because she is too ill to work she shouldn't count for that particular conversation. If she is a single-parent who is at home she shouldn't count for that conversation, either, and I'm not quite sure how to treat the gender role question when we have both a SAHM and a SAHF (stay-at-home-father) and nobody is employed for money.
As I mentioned above, the widest definition is not without benefit, but it's not the proper definition for the gender role discussion. The Pew report does acknowledge all this, to be fair, and gives us numbers on those women who fall within the old cultural definition of a SAHM.
Sadly, this doesn't solve the problem we have if we wish to use the Pew survey data for talking about gender roles and the "ambivalence" Americans feel about working mothers (to use Pew's own term). This is because the whole report is about change over time, but I was unable to find anything but the widest of those definitions in the 2000 data the report mostly uses when it compares the 2012 numbers to the past.
Now, I may just not have looked in the right places. So I e-mailed the Pew researchers but received no answer to my questions. This means that I don't know what percentage of the SAHMs in 2000 stated that they were at home to care for their children, what percentage stated that they were enrolled in education, what percentage told that they were too ill to work and what percentage said that they couldn't find work in the labor market.
That's the snag. That the overall number of SAHMs has grown, as a percentage of all women with children under eighteen, doesn't tell us whether this is because more mothers are staying at home to care for their children or because the labor markets have gotten worse since 2000 (which could also mean that more mothers have decided to go back to school, as an alternative to trying to find a job) or because of some combination of all these factors.
In short, what the Pew survey compares between 2000 and 2012 is the percentage of women who have children under eighteen and no paid employment, not the percentage of women in 2000 and 2012 who would satisfy the most traditional definition of a SAHM: A woman with children and a partner who stays at home and does all the home chores while the partner makes all the money.
The shortest possible summary of the Pew survey findings, from the report, is this:
The recent turnaround appears to be driven by a mix of demographic, economic and societal factors, including rising immigration as well as a downturn in women’s labor force participation ...
The largest impact appears to be from immigration. The percentage of foreign-born mothers in the target group of this study (all mothers within the age limits) in 2000 was 18%, and in the same year the percentage of foreign-born women in the target group who were not in the labor force was 28%. These figures for 2012 were, respectively, 23.6% and 40.4%.
In short, foreign born mothers are much more likely to be stay-at-home-mothers (in the sense of not being in the labor force) than native-born mothers. This is also true within the narrower definition of SAHMs with employed husbands. Foreign-born mothers were 38% of all "traditional" SAHMs in 2012.
But there's also a change in the native-born mothers category: In 2000, 20.8% of native-born mothers in the target group were not in the labor force, whereas in 2012 this percentage was 25.7%. Given the lack of 2000 data on the percentage of women who then would have qualified for the traditional definition of a SAHM it's difficult to determine whether the reasons for that change are mostly economic or cultural.
The findings also note that the mothers not in the labor force are younger, less educated and more likely to be Asian or Latinas. Thirty-seven percent of Asian-American mothers and 36% of Hispanic mothers were not in the labor force. The corresponding numbers for white and black mothers were 26% and 27%, respectively.
In 2012, 20% of the mothers not in the labor force were single parents. This should be compared with the 2000 figure of 8%.
Mothers not in the labor force are more likely to be poor (34%) than the mothers who are in paid employment (12%). Fifteen percent of SAHMs which satisfy the traditional definition live in poverty.
On the other hand, the percentage of affluent mothers not in the labor force has not increased in the statistical sense since 2000. This might surprise you, given all those opt-out discussions we have had over the years.
This was boring. My apologies for it. But the point of all the boredom is that the data doesn't allow us to discuss gender roles, even though the Pew study itself went there. Not without the needed data from the 2000 on the percentages of mothers who were then out of the labor force because they were caring for their children, rather than because they were at school, ill or unable to find a job. It is the change over time in the number of "traditional" SAHMs, those who are at home explicitly because of caring for children and who have a partner in the labor force that would be needed for the "roles" discussion.
The large effect of immigration muddies the waters even more, because people born outside the United States may have different cultural ideas about the proper role of mothers and paid work than people who were brought up here.
That, and the economic differences between the employed and not-employed mothers in the study (lower education levels, lower age and greater likelihood of poverty) also open up a somewhat different interpretation of why some mothers, at least, are SAHMs when the majority of mothers are not.
Finally, the economic effects of the most recent recession may have had a role to play in these figures, too. I'm not convinced that all the effects have played out when it comes to women and work. The jobs lost in that recession might have been better jobs than the new jobs since created, and this matters when it comes to calculating the net take-home pay after childcare costs. Studying what happened to stay-at-home-fathers during the same time period, in the sense of fathers not in the labor force, might have offered some information on this question.