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March 21, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’ve often reported on data on stay-at-home fathers vs. stay-at-home mothers. When I’ve done so, I’ve referred to numbers out of the U.S. Census Bureau that are subject to the definitions of SAHM and SAHF the Bureau uses. Those definitions are quite restrictive, and therefore undercount both sets of parents.

In order to qualify as a stay-at-home parent according to the Census Bureau, a person has to have lived at home for a year, done no paid work of any kind and had caring for children his/her major task. So if a parent spent a single day working for pay in the previous year, he/she wouldn’t qualify. Needless to say, that narrows the field considerably. Those figures showed about 200,000 SAHFs and almost 6 million SAHMs.

But now we have more accurate data from the Pew Research Center that analyzes different Census Bureau figures. The takeaway is a mixed bag. Fathers are staying home to care for their kids in far greater numbers than before, but, as with so much information on sex roles, they still lag far behind mothers in that regard and public opinion is solidly traditional about men’s and women’s family activities.

The data analyzed by Pew is about fathers aged 18 – 68 years, so a lot of the men are fathers, but their children are long-since grown. And it’s important to remember that these aren’t all single fathers; most have a partner.

With all that in mind, there were about 2 million stay-at-home dads in the United States as of 2012, the latest year for which Pew analyzed data. That was down from about 2.2 million in 2010. Why the decline? It was almost all due to coming out of the Great Recession that began in 2008 and sent millions of men off the job. Understandably, without a job, they went home, so the fathers among them appeared in the Census data as SAHFs.

The definition of a SAHF here is any man with children at home who doesn’t work outside the home. Obviously, that’s a much broader definition than used be the Census Bureau in statistics I’ve cited before. This time, if a father has been off work for a week or even a day, he qualifies.

Still, those 2 million dads are almost double the number in 1989 when 1.1 million fathers were SAHFs. More importantly,

The number of fathers who do not work outside the home has risen markedly in recent years, up to 2 million in 2012.1 High unemployment rates around the time of the Great Recession contributed to the recent increases, but the biggest contributor to long-term growth in these “stay-at-home fathers” is the rising number of fathers who are at home primarily to care for their family.

Back in 1989, that number was just 5%; in 2012, it had risen to 21% of SAHFs who remain at home primarily or solely to care for their children. Obviously, that’s a huge increase and a dramatic change in how fathers are motivated. The desire to care for their kids is winning out over the desire to be the family breadwinner in an increasing number of households.

Other reasons for staying home include unemployment (23%), ill or disabled (35%) and retired/in school/ other (22%).

Not only is the number of fathers staying home to care for children increasing, their percentage of the total stay-at-home parents is too. Fathers now make up 16% of SAHPs.

So on one hand, times are changing. Fathers staying home to care for children are increasingly common, but still a comparative rarity.

But traditions ingrained by thousands of years of human behavior don’t die easily, and sex roles are no exception. So yes, 16% of SAHPs are dads, but that means that 84% are moms. And while 21% of those fathers are at home to care for kids, 73% of SAHMs are.

And those 21% of fathers amount to about 420,000 individuals, the percentage of mothers is 73% of a far, far higher pool of SAHMs than the 2 million SAHFs. Even using the restrictive Census Bureau definition I referred to earlier, there are some 6 million SAHMs. The Pew article doesn’t say how many SAHMs qualify under its looser definition, but suffice it to say there are vastly more mothers staying home to care for kids than there are fathers.

The tenacity of sex roles is further highlighted by the poverty figures for SAHFs and SAHMs.

As is the case among mothers, stay-at-home fathers are less well-off financially and have lower educational attainment than their working counterparts. At-home fathers are twice as likely to lack a high school diploma as working fathers (22% vs. 10%). And almost half (47%) of stay-at-home fathers are living in poverty, compared with 8% of working fathers. This poverty figure is even higher than among stay-at-home mothers (34% of whom are in poverty), and may be due, in part, to the fact that stay-at-home fathers are far less likely to have a working spouse than stay-at-home mothers (50% vs. 68%) and are more likely to be ill or disabled than stay-at-home mothers (35% vs. 11%).

The higher poverty rate for SAHFs is due in large part to the fact that their partners are less likely to be employed than are the partners of SAHMs. That’s a reflection of men being more likely – and women less likely – to play the role of provider to the family. Again, people’s opting for traditional sex roles explains a lot of the data.

That’s only underscored by the Pew data on public opinions about who should and who shouldn’t stay home with the kids.

The public is largely supportive of the idea of mothers staying at home with their children, but they place less value on having a stay-at-home father. In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, fully 51% of respondents said children are better off if their mother is home and doesn’t hold a job. By comparison, only 8% said children are better off if their father is home and doesn’t work. On the other hand, 34% of adults said children are just as well off if their mother works, while 76% said the same about children with working fathers.

As I said, it’s a mixed bag. More fathers are taking up the care of children, but in fact only about 420,000 of them stay home for that purpose. And We the People still prefer mothers in that role and fathers bringing home the bacon.

To read and listen to the mainstream media and pop culture is to believe that we live in a brave new world that’s setting aside traditional gender roles. Women, we’re told, are embracing traditionally male activities and, to a lesser degree, men are dropping their roles.

But time and again, the narrative is shown to be at odds with the facts. We’re told that 40% of households now have a woman as chief earner. But we’re not told that the reason two-thirds of those women find themselves in that role is that there’s no man at home. They’re the main earner because they’re the only one. Their only competition is their kids.

And we’re told that more and more men are staying home with the kids. That’s true, but the larger truth is that 79% of those SAHFs do so for reasons other than caring for the children. And those who do number only 420,000 nationwide, at best 1/14th the number of SAHMs who do. And that’s if there are “only” 6 million SAHMs that the most restrictive Census data show. In fact the ratio of SAHFs to SAHMs is much lower even than that.

And surveys of attitudes about work show huge majorities of women preferring not to work at all if they could, while men tend to want to work more than they do. Not long ago, Forbes reported on a survey showing a whopping 84% of women saying opting out of work to care for kids was a goal to be sought.

Yes, times have changed, but far less than we’re led to believe and not because people want to drop those traditional roles, but because, for one reason or another, they have to.

Thanks to Don for the heads-up.

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