In the debate over government family policy, many public officials seem to assume that most mothers with young children want a job outside the home. Just last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell suggested that many American mothers choose not to work because of inadequate childcare options.
“Many other countries—our peers, our competitors, advanced economy democracies—have a more built-up function for childcare, and they wind up having substantially higher labor-force participation among women,” Powell told the House Financial Services Committee last week. “We used to lead the world in female labor-force participation, a quarter-century ago, and we no longer do. And it may just be that those policies have put us behind.”
I have no doubt that childcare policies explain some portion of the female-participation gap between the U.S. and, say, Scandinavia. At the same time, Chairman Powell and others almost certainly underestimate the share of American mothers who really do want to stay home with their kids.
For example, Gallup survey data from 2014–15 showed that 54 percent of working mothers with children under the age of 18 would prefer to stay at home, as would 57 percent of non-working mothers with children under 18.
More recently, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of all mothers with children under 18 would prefer to be a homemaker rather than have an outside job.
Last month, the American Compass organization released its 2021 Home Building Survey, which examined the state of the American family and how government policy can strengthen it. The survey asked women and men to choose their ideal family arrangement for raising and supporting children under the age of five. The choices ranged from both parents working full time and using full-time paid childcare, to one parent working full time and the other staying home, with several options in between.
As the survey notes: “One arrangement stands out for households raising young children: one full-time worker and one stay-at-home parent. This is the most popular choice among both single adults and parents and especially among married mothers, who choose it by an absolute majority” (emphasis added).
Indeed, American Compass found that 53 percent of married mothers prefer that arrangement—one full-time worker and one stay-at-home parent—for raising children under five.
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced mothers everywhere to confront new challenges surrounding jobs, childcare, education, and work-life balance. Many women who want a full-time job have been forced to work part time, or not at all, because of lockdowns and school closures. Between September 2019 and September 2020, the share of U.S. mothers with children under 18 at home who were both employed and at work dropped from 69 percent to 63.4 percent, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
Someday, the lockdowns and school closures will end. Even when life returns to normal—or semi-normal—lawmakers should remember that every mother has different needs and different preferences. Each one must balance competing obligations, and each one must decide what is best for her family.
Public officials should not assume that all mothers want to be homemakers, but neither should they assume that all mothers want an outside job. Government family policies—tax credits, subsidies, and other programs—should account for the full spectrum of family-work arrangements. A one-size-fits-all approach is bound to disappoint.