Charlie Spiering reports on a speech President Obama made in Rhode Island today. You know things are rough for President Obama this election season when he is relegated to a state so small CNN thinks it’s a city.
Anyway, he was painting a picture of how he’d like to expand the administrative state to include government pre-school. Because public schools are doing such a good job generally. Anyway, he then took an absolutely bizarre swipe against stay-at-home mothers:
“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,” he said. “That’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”
Here are three problems with his argument.
1) It Exists In A Fantasy Realm
Putting the absolute best construction on this statement, we might say President Obama misspoke. Perhaps he meant to say he doesn’t want mothers to have to choose between staying home and lower future wages. I mean, he didn’t say “I don’t want mothers forced to make this decision,” but we could imagine he might have wished he’d said it.
But perhaps it’s because this stay-at-home mother studied economics before she stayed home with her kids, in reality this is like saying “I want a world where unicorns are real and not just Taylor Swift Halloween costumes.” You can say you wish that taking time out of the workforce would have no effect on income, but that’s not how economics works. If every person got paid the same over the course of his or her lifetime — whether or not he or she took time away from the workforce to raise children — that would be an imaginary place, not a real place where scarce goods are allocated through market prices. I mean, you can believe in your heart of hearts that command economies can magically milk efficiencies out of something other than people acting in their self-interest, but you probably can’t do it with a grasp of reality. People should be free to make their own decisions regarding what they consume and what they produce, unless we want to be controlled by an all-powerful state. And what that means is that we have trade-offs.
When I had my first child, I traded the money of my newspaper job for the far-greater value (for me) of time spent with my totally awesome daughter. It would not make sense for me to be paid for newspaper work I didn’t produce. And had I wanted the income more than the time with my child, I could have made that decision as well. People are free, you see, to make the decision that works best.
2) Too Much Focus On Market-Based Metrics Of Success
At the same time, I’m struck by how shallow our discussion of parenting is. Of all the things to note about how parenting changes you, the craziest is the idea that the only thing that really matters is income. Yes, I traded income for more time with my children. And I still do.
And I’m the winner in this exchange, as are my children. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family with much happiness but not much in the banking account. I don’t know. But I learned from my parents that there are things far more valuable than cash money. Time with my children far exceeds any paycheck I’ve received (it may help that I’m a writer, admittedly). I treasure the moments I’ve had caring for them, watching them reach milestones, seeing them conquer obstacles, helping them learn musical instruments or how to read. I have never had a job — particularly some of the horrible office jobs I’ve had — that came close to the joy and fulfillment I’ve had with my daughters.
I don’t want to give the impression that staying home with children is always a bad economic decision. Studies show that intact families end up having what some call marriage premiums — resulting in more money brought home. What this basically means, among other things, is that men with children in their home make more money — whether this is because they’re working and striving harder, taking on more responsibilities, signaling stability, or some other combination — that offsets losses women face because of labor and workforce disruptions affiliated with having children.
3) Daycare Vs. Subsidized Daycare Vs. Time Spent With Parents
I’m not going to tell you that doing things the way my husband and I did is the right way. I can tell you it was the right way for us. I believe that parents have an obligation to provide for their children, but how they do it is up to them. Yes, they should make prudent decisions matched to their family’s needs, but that is going to be a different scenario for everyone. Studies show different results, sometimes seemingly contradictory, for how kids fare with time spent with parents and time spent with people to whom the parents have outsourced care of their children. And even as I stayed home with my children, my husband and I have used childcare for various reasons.
But I reject out of hand the idea that parents staying home with their children — a choice that by definition means a change in labor force participation — should be viewed as a negative choice.
My husband and I were blessed with children at a time when money was tight and living spaces were crammed. We still enjoy raising our own children and making the sacrifices required to spend as much time with them as we do.
I hate the suffix of -shaming, but if we’re going to use it for looking askance at a teen girl dressing like a Kardashian at school, we can certainly use it for the type of rhetoric that shakes heads at women trading income for care of children.
Every time you look at us with disappointment for our decision to stay at home with our children, that’s what you’re doing. People also do it with women who choose to provide for their children in other ways. Neither is a good look. But it’s particularly disappointing to see some of those bad traits in a speech from the President.