Moms are leaving the workforce and staying home with their kids. So announced a recent and much-discussed Pew Research Center study. It observed the continuation of a trend that began in 1999. Today, 29 percent of women with children elect to stay at home, up from 23 percent in 1999.
As you might expect, there was much hand-wringing about this trend away from the workplace. Some suggested that a slack job market was the cause. Others said that it might be due to the high cost of day care — in an economy of lower-paying jobs, being a working mom doesn’t pencil out.
I’d like to suggest another idea: Even if some of the reasons for having more stay-at-home moms are negative, the broad results are likely to be positive. Unfortunately, the positives will receive little or no attention.
I am not writing this in praise of moms and apple pie. Nor do I wish that every woman would stay at home with a broom of her own. The real issue here is that virtually all of our economic observations exist solely to measure the production and distribution of market transactions, things that involve the passage of dollars from one party to another.
We count the size of the labor force because it measures the potential number of wage earners in the economy. We measure the percentage that participates to see if the labor market is drawing new entrants from that big pool of labor. And we measure the rate of unemployment because it can tell us how much slack there is in our economy.
All of those measures are useful. But they tell us only about the size and apparent health of the market economy. Life is about more than that. Market measures shouldn’t be taken as a proxy for the health, goodness and satisfaction to be found in our society.
In fact, whether our economy is going boom or bust, the reality is that our country now rates rather low on a multitude of broad social measures. The United States now ranks 35th in life expectancy at birth. That’s well behind Slovenia, South Korea, Greece and Ireland, and not far ahead of Chile, Cuba and Barbados. It doesn’t help that our country ranks behind 68 other countries for infants who die the day they are born. That’s pretty Third World, as well as appalling.
Our systematic failure to give any credit for activities that don’t involve the passage of money has bothered me for a long time. Indeed, my second book, Home, Inc.: The Hidden Wealth and Power of the American Household (1975) was devoted to exploring the invisible economic size of households.
The raw reality is that families — solid or wounded, single or married, dysfunctional or not — are what keeps this country going. Not government. Not corporate America. And, yes, not even Facebook. Without families, we could not get through the day, let alone get to the next generation. And families tend to function better when there are two parents and when one of them, whether mother or father, has the liberty to stay home and nurture.
This is not a matter of mawkish sentiment, something to be trotted out with a Hallmark card on Mother’s Day. It’s fundamental biology. If we don’t nurture our children, bad things happen. It’s way deeper than GDP.
You can get some idea of the raw value of a family by asking a simple question. When a family totally falls apart, how much does its institutional replacement cost? According to A Family for Every Child, an Oregon-based organization that promotes adoption of foster children, the national average cost of a child in foster care is about $26,000 a year. The median net compensation of an American worker, according to the Social Security Administration, is about $27,000 a year.
So think about that for a minute. When a young mom decides to stay at home rather than work, what’s your guess about the quality of her parenting compared to the average foster care arrangement?
The invisible reality is that a stay-at-home parent is one of the best economic deals going. The sad thing is that it won't ever be celebrated in a single government statistic.
SCOTT BURNS is a principal of the Plano-based investment firm AssetBuilder Inc., a registered investment adviser. His email address is email@example.com.
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