Oftentimes stay-at-home moms are depicted as modern-day June Cleavers, dressed in sleek Lululemon gear while shuttling their kids from school to T-ball practice to piano lessons and then home again for hand-made organic dinners. These women have supposedly chosen to take an extended leave from the workforce to raise their children.
Yet for an ever-growing number of mothers, remaining at home is not a choice. A significant number stay home because they can’t find work that pays for the high cost of child care. Others simply can’t find work at all.
Anne Weisberg, Vice President of the Families and Work Institute, has written extensively on this situation: “The economics of parenthood is a real problem in this country. Income has really been flat and expenses have been climbing — especially child care expenses. That’s the squeeze.”
In fact, many researchers argue that Americans have entered a new phase in the history of work-family life. With middle-class jobs disappearing, and low-wage work filling that gap, households where both parents work outside the home is simply becoming unaffordable.
Though most American mothers still have jobs outside the home, recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of stay-at-home moms is rising for the first time in decades. Today, there are 10.4 million stay-at-home moms in the U.S., — almost 30% of women with children under age 18. In 2000, that number was 8.4 million.
Most troubling, Pew research data show that many of these mothers are challenged to make ends meet: a whopping 34% of stay-at-home moms live in poverty, compared to 12% of working moms. One in five single stay-at-home mothers are on welfare, while only 4% of single working moms are.
The situation of Wendy Santiago, 31, is not uncommon. Currently she is caring for her 7-month-old and 11-year-old children at home in New York City while searching for employment. After her daughter was born, Santiago took time off from her job as an ambulance dispatcher; but once she was ready to return to work, the company told her that her position had been given away.
“There’s jobs that I know that I could probably get, but who is going to make it with two kids on 10 dollars an hour?” asked Santiago, who said she has had to pass on job interviews because she couldn’t find a sitter. Child care for infants and a school-aged children in New York City costs an average $15,210 and $10,920 a year, respectively. This makes it mathematically impossible to afford on a job that pays $10 an hour, which only brings in $20,000 a year if the employee works full time.
Of course many American women shill remain at home with their kids by choice, but the lethargic economic recovery following the recession has changed the economics of motherhood for many others. Low-wage jobs increased as middle-income jobs recovered much more slowly. Women have been disproportionately effected by this imbalance, taking the low-wage jobs at a higher rate than male counterparts, according to a March report from the National Women’s Law Center.
In 1970, more than 75% of single moms said they stayed at home to care for thier families. In 2012, only 41% of single stay-at-home moms said they’re staying at home to take care of their families. The same share reported that this was because they couldn’t find work, are ill or have a disability.
Chelsea Belander, represents another typical working-mom dilemma. Single and age 22, she lives rent-free with her own mother and her one-year-old son, Finn. Belander has no income except the child support payments she gets from Finn’s dad plus a little cash she earns from doing occasional small jobs like weeding and mowing lawns in the neighborhood. She estimates that the $8 to $10 an hour she’d make at the jobs available in her town of Brunswick, Maine, would barely cover the cost of child care, which runs $250 per week for a half day.
“That seems stupid to me,” Belander said of working just to pay for day care.
The financial challenge for parents is much bigger than it used to be, partly because child care costs have nearly doubled over the last 25 years, according to the Census Bureau.
On average, in an American family with one worker and one preschool-aged child the parent must earn $26 an hour, or about $55,000 a year, to achieve basic economic security — meaning the parent can afford necessities like child care and health care and still have enough to put some money away in savings — according to Working Opportunities for Women. For a family with 2 working parents and one preschool-aged kid, each parent would have to earn $15 an hour.
For women without a college degree, those salaries are increasingly hard to come by. The disparity between earnings for high school and college graduates hit a record high last year since finding a decent-paying job without a bachelor’s degree has grown increasingly difficult.
In fact, almost 50% of stay-at-home mothers had only a high school education or less in 2012, compared with 30% of working moms, according to the Pew study.