President Obama’s State of the Union address was predictable for a President nearing the end of his second term. It was filled with lots of partisan legislative ideas that will never see fruition in a Republican Congress. It hearkened back to his original campaign ideas of bringing Washington together, which comes off as amusing when you consider that his greatest triumphs have come when he bulldozed over nearly all Republicans to push through his agenda. One of the only things of note (other than his amusing “I won both of them” line) was his proposal that we help poor and middle-income families fund childcare when both parents work.
At first blush this sounds nice. The lower and middle classes often struggle, so of course it sounds wonderful to help them provide for their children. Even if you don’t believe in most forms of welfare, it’s hard to argue against helping people afford good childcare when both parents must work. But it is important to consider the economic unintended (or intended?) consequences of the President’s proposal: It incentivizes both parents to join the workforce.
One of the greater cost savings of one parent staying at home is not having to supply child care during working hours. By alleviating this cost, the President removes one of the few financial benefits of having a parent at home, and we are left to ask ourselves, do we want dual-income households to be our dominant cultural standard?
Statistically speaking, kids seem to do relatively alright in either case, at least when it comes to academic success. There are not clear statistical indicators that stay-at-home parenting has a large impact on future academic success. In fact, if the family is poor, there appears to be a slight statistical benefit to having both parents work.
Of course, if the stay-at-home parent educates their child at home there is a large statistical academic upside, but since homeschooling parents are a small minority, this option is probably best left out of the broader conversation at this time (appealing though homeschooling should be for many parents).
Academic outcomes are not the only indicator of a healthy household. One of the primary reasons that children in two-income households turn out fine appears to be that the parents (especially Moms) still find ways to spend a large amount of quality time with their children. While stay-at-home moms spend more time with their kids, working mothers sacrifice leisure time and sleep in order to spend significant quality time.
That leaves us with a more fundamental question: What do we want our homes to be like? Is it good for our parenting years to be consumed with work and kids to the exclusion of much of our leisure and to the detriment of our recommended sleep? Are we writing off the effect of having a parent “always around” when our children are growing up (especially in their earliest years)? And what does outsourcing our parenting for 6-10 hours per day do to our ability to raise them as we see fit from a religious and cultural perspective?
Many parents find great meaning and fulfillment in their professions, but many also feel compelled to “get a job” by a culture that has glorified a successful career and financial self-sufficiency as the most important individual goal. Not only has this pressure had a constraining effect on the would-be stay at home parent, it has also led us to equate career with calling and worked to flatten culture into three major spheres of authority: family, work, and government. Without free time or non-work sources of meaning, we have no room left for a complex culture of a variety of associations.
This compression of culture is further encouraged by a simple market tendency: Once most households are supported by two incomes, there is no reason for businesses to pay a single employee enough to support a household. At one time, a single parent was expected to be able to provide for their household from their wages, but as more and more people assume that it takes two incomes, both employees and employers will adjust their expectations. In the long term, there is no significant financial benefit to the home to standardizing the dual-income household.
Thankfully, there is some hope in the increasing flexibility of our modern working arrangements. More and more people are working as independent contractors, working for themselves, or juggling multiple, flexible part-time jobs. Many people can work from home at least part-time, and our modern employment expectations are more schedule-flexible than anything we’ve seen in decades. These trends cannot help but benefit children.
Plus recent statistics show a move towards parents staying at home. Twenty-nine percent of moms did not have a job outside the home in 2012, up from 23 percent in 1999. Anecdotally, there also seems to be a rising culture of freedom for women to do what they want with their own lives, which ought to empower those who do want to stay home with their children to feel more free to do so without cultural disdain. And a majority of Americans still think having a parent at home is ideal for their children.
Perhaps most comforting (and least surprising) of all is the finding that a strong family seems to trump all. Regardless of income or day care situation, having a strong family unit with loving parents is the strongest indicator for a child’s future.
The ultimate question is how we want our lives to be lived? Are we interested in legislation that will actively support and incentivize two-income households? Do we want our homes to be launching pads in the morning and beds at night or a round-the-clock place of family and fellowship? What percentage of each day do we want our children spending with their parents? These are the kinds of weighty questions to which our President’s nice-sounding recommendation demands a careful answer. It is vital that we consider the consequences of all policy prescriptions, especially those that impact things as fundamental as the home and family.