The Stay-At-Home Mom Wars and the Altar of GDP

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Editorial, Washington Examiner, May 12, 2019

If you ask some commentators and economists this Mother’s Day, they’ll tell you one problem in America is that too many moms are working as full-time homemakers and caregivers to their own children — and that public policy ought to nudge these stay-at-home moms back into the workforce.

“[W]e are clearly leaving GDP points on the table,” warned one economics writer at Slate, because too many women are opting out of the labor force. “We’re limiting the size of our labor force. We’re straitjacketing the economy.”

This is a common argument among economists — not enough women working, too many women home with their children. These economists’ beef is with American women, who on average want to have more children than they have and want to spend more time with their children than they do.

When asked how many children they’d like to have, American women’s answer averages out to between 2.5 and 3. But American women on average have less than 2.

Only one third of all U.S. mothers say they prefer to work full time. Nearly half say they want to work part time, and 20% say they would prefer to be full-time stay-at-home mothers. It’s even starker for parents of young kids. One survey of mothers with children under age 3 found only 17% preferred to work full time.

On the whole, American moms want to stay home more with more kids.

So, it’s very unfortunate that commentators, politicians, and economists are looking for ways to get women out of the home more, away from their kids more, and into paid labor more. These experts are elevating GDP over family and their own morality over women’s preferences.

A budding policy debate these days is over federal subsidies or mandates for paid leave for parents. Some have argued it would be far better to subsidize daycare, so as to push women back in to the labor force.

Some current policy is already biased toward two-income families. Individual Retirement Accounts are a little-noticed example. A single-income married couple is able to contribute only $6,000 annually to a tax-preferred IRA, while a dual-income couple can put in $12,000 a year.

Some states have a special second-earner deduction from state income taxes.

Federal and state governments provide billions of dollars a year to subsidize daycare or early childhood education. This is, on one level, a transfer from single-income families with a stay-at-home parent to dual-income families.

Despite all these policies that punish stay-at-home parents and push moms to work, there’s a decent argument for policies that reward stay-at-home moms. Children benefit from more time with parents. Stay-at-home parents are the most prolific volunteers in a community, and they keep an eye out on neighborhood children.

It’s time our policymakers and commentators see stay-at-home moms as the assets they are, rather than as lost GDP.