Elizabeth S. Bernstein lives in Bisbee, Ariz. She can be reached at email@example.com.
In a speech in Rhode Island in October, President Obama offered his views about child care in a society where many parents have to make difficult choices: “Sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”
I guess I made a choice we don’t want Americans to make.
Thirty years ago, when my first child was born, I left my job as a lawyer. I stayed home with my daughter, and then my son, until they were in middle school. Then I started a second career, one in which I would no longer earn as much as my husband. That, I know, made me a contributor to the wage gap. But I have no regrets. My full-time stint at home, engaging my children and watching them thrive, was the most challenging and rewarding period of my life.
Parents take a financial hit whether they pay for child care or leave the workforce to raise their kids. But in his State of the Union address in January, the president proposed expanding the tax credit (to $3,000 per child from a current maximum of $1,050) for families who pay for child care while doing nothing to help stay-at-home parents. Why shouldn’t there be an equivalent tax credit for couples who are struggling financially because one of them is raising their children full time?
It may be that society, with its focus on personal advancement and “making and spending,” doesn’t respect parents who choose not to earn money. That’s certainly the experience of many stay-at-home mothers, who — more than working mothers — say they feel frowned upon by society, according to a 2011 report by the Working Mother Research Institute.
But it’s one thing for society to treat stay-at-home moms with a certain disdain; it’s another for the president to get the government to discourage the choice to stay at home by subsidizing the alternative. Note that Obama’s proposed tax credit, which could be used only by families who owe thousands of dollars in federal income tax, is targeted not at the poor or jobless but at middle-class families.
The president may be acting honorably, believing that the most important thing to women is to close the wage gap — which means doing everything he can to keep women, even women with young children, working. But most American women know there is more to life than earning as much as men.
Indeed, the share of stay-at-home mothers in the country has risen, from 23 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2012. That’s for all mothers with minor children at home; for those with children younger than 6, 36 percent were out of the labor force in 2013. Are they all clamoring for a chance to go to work? The Working Mother Research Institute report showed that mothers gave the highest “desirability” ratings to the option of “being a stay-at-home mother before children were school-aged.” That option was likewise desirable for more than half of employed mothers.
But to stay at home with their kids, some mothers may need a little help from the government. We’re not talking welfare — the tax credit I suggest would help only families where one parent stays at home while the other is working.
Some people oppose tax credits entirely, which I can understand. But if we’re going to have tax credits, they should be distributed equitably. Many of those European countries that are often touted for providing subsidized child care also pay allowances to at-home parents.
The president isn’t just adjusting tax policy; he’s sending a message about which approach to child care deserves respect and support. I don’t like the message, and surely millions of mothers (and fathers) agree with me.
Leaving the workforce to care for children is a choice Americans should be able (and encouraged) to make, just as a Harvard Law School graduate should be able to make the choice to become a community organizer rather than take a high-paying Wall Street job.
Some families are stretching to cover the cost of child care, while others are stretching to make it possible for a parent to stay home. If either deserves the government’s help, then both do.