Nearly three in 10 American mothers are now stay-at-home moms who don't hold a job outside the home, reversing a long-term decline that hit its low point in 1999, a new survey finds.
The findings released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center show that the percentage of mothers of children under 18 who don't work outside the home has risen over the past decade to 29% in 2012, up from 23% in 1999. Two-thirds of them are "traditional" married stay-at-home mothers with working husbands, according to the survey, but a growing number are unmarried.
Since the 1970s, the percentage of children raised by a stay-at-home mother who has a working husband has fallen by half, from 41% in 1970 to 20% in 2012, according to Census Bureau data. Kids raised in such arrangements are increasingly rare, especially among white and African-American families. The percentage of stay-at-home moms in Asian and Hispanic families, by contrast, is higher — about 10 percentage points or more, on average.
Among the findings:
• From 2010 to 2012, the share of stay-at-home mothers was 29%, three percentage points higher than in 2008, at the height of the recession;
• Only 5% of married stay-at-home mothers with working husbands had at least a master's degree and family income higher than $75,000;
• 6% of moms now say they're not working because they can't find a job, up from 1% in 2000.
The findings suggest that some mothers, particularly those who don't have a college degree, also may be weighing the costs of child care against their own stagnating wages and deciding "it makes more economic sense to stay home," the survey's authors say.
The broad category of "stay-at-home" also includes mothers who are disabled or are enrolled in school.
"I think it's something to celebrate," says Cathy Cleaver Ruse, an attorney and senior fellow at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. "And I say 'Bravo' to those women who have the courage to buck the 20th-century feminist script that women can only find fulfillment in the workplace."
Cleaver Ruse, a mother of two who has long worked part-time from her home in Herndon, Va., says that for years she has been informally querying mothers who work full-time in the legal profession, asking if they're happy. "I don't know a single one in 25 years," she says.
Of the new findings, she says, "I think it's great that so many women have the freedom to choose this lifestyle. These women think it's best not only for them, but for their children." Adding that staying at home with kids often lacks the intellectual stimulation of the workplace, she adds, "The fact that these women are sacrificing for their kids, I think, is beautiful."
But Sarah Jane Glynn of the liberal Center for American Progress says women aren't always freely making the choice to stay home. She notes that Pew's "opt-out" figures of women with partners who can support an entire household are relatively small and says many women who decide to stay home either can't find jobs or can't afford to leave their kids to work at low-wage jobs. "Women are doing these cost-benefit analyses when they're deciding to take a job or not," she says. "If your transportation and childcare costs are more than your take-home pay would be, it doesn't make sense to hold a job."
Another recent Pew survey found that Americans are solidly on the side of stay-at-home moms: 60% say children are better off "when a parent stays home to focus on the family." Just 35% say children are just as well off with both parents working.
Public opinion over the past few decades also has grown more supportive of working mothers. In 1977, only about half of Americans believed a working mother could establish "just as warm and secure a relationship with her children" as a stay-at-home mom could. By 1994, the figure rose to 70%. While it dropped a few percentage points by the late 1990s, the figure since 2008 has again hovered around 70%.