The share of mothers who stay at home and don’t have a paid job has increased in recent years, reaching 29 percent in 2012 compared to the low point of 23 percent in 1999, according to a new analysis from Pew Research.
But the traditional image of affluent women choosing to stay home and care for children doesn’t fit with the growing numbers of stay-at-home mothers. The largest share are those who are married to a husband who works, making up about two-thirds of the group. But just 5 percent, or 370,000 of them, have at least a master’s degree and family income of more than $75,000. And while this more traditional group may be the biggest, their share has fallen to 68 percent in 2012 from 85 percent in 1970. Stay-at-home mothers who are single, cohabiting, or married to a husband who doesn’t work have been on the rise. Twenty percent are single, compared to just 8 percent in 1970.
Overall, a third of stay-at-home mothers of all types live in poverty, while just 12 percent of working mothers are in the same situation. They are less educated — about half have just a high school diploma or less, compared to 30 percent of working moms — and are less likely to be white (about 50 percent are white versus 60 percent of mothers who work) and more likely to be immigrants (33 percent versus 20 percent). These financial hardships and barriers are likely part of why a growing share of stay-at-home mothers are out of the workforce because they can’t find a job — 6 percent in 2012, up from 1 percent in 2000. While the vast majority who have a working husband stay out to care for their homes and families — 85 percent in 2012 — that share has fallen from 96 percent in 1970.
The growing numbers of single stay-at-home mothers struggle even more. More than 70 percent live below the poverty level, or less than $20,000 for a family of three, compared to just a quarter of single working mothers. One in five receives welfare, compared to 4 percent of single working mothers. And less than half of these mothers say that they are home to take care of their families, while 14 percent can’t find work, more than a quarter are disabled, and 13 percent are in school. This represents a significant change from 1970, when more than three-quarters said they were at home to care for their families.
Meanwhile, the new face of stay-at-home moms is not a happy one. A recent Gallup survey found that they are more likely to experience depression, sadness, and anger than those who work for pay outside of the home. This impacts the low-income mothers most of all, as they are more likely to experience stress and worry and less likely to report experiencing happiness or enjoyment. These feelings are more evidence that women are staying home because of difficult circumstances, not positive life choices.
One factor that Pew points to as a source of the increasing number of stay-at-home mothers in recent years is the high costs of child care. The price tag of weekly care for families with working moms has been steadily on the rise, jumping more than 70 percent between 1985 and 2011, adjusted for inflation. It now costs more than what most families spend on rent or food and sometimes more than a public college education. For single parents, the average cost of center-based care for an infant is more than a quarter of median income in every state. Pew points to a 2010 Census paper that noted that for mothers of young children, “the cost of day care might be higher than she could support unless she has fairly high earnings.” For the growing share of stay-at-home mothers who are less educated and immigrants, finding those jobs may be incredibly difficult.
As childcare costs have risen, the country is also doing less to help families defray them. Spending on childcare assistance fell to the lowest level since 2002 last year and it’s reaching fewer children. That lower spending is a significant factor in the fact that American women’s labor force participation has fallen far behind that of our developed peers. It seems many of those women who aren’t working are today’s stay-at-home mothers.