Do only rich families have at-home parents?

RebelDad asked today if anyone could find the Census data that journalists are using to say that there were 147,000 SAHDs in 2004, up from 98,000 in 2003.  Of course, I took that as a challenge, and dug it up.    It’s this table, cell I7.

However, the part of this table that caught my attention was rows 27-38, which have income data for different types of married couple families with children under 15.  This is the first hard data I’ve seen on the subject.  I have seen lots of conjectures, including Stephanie Coontz’s statement (in Marriage) that the only two segments of the population in which male breadwinner families predominate are the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution and the top 5 percent, and Nathan Newman’s provocative suggestion that SAHMs are "luxury goods."

So what do the data say? First, that married two-parent families are overall fairly well off — over 40% have incomes over $75,000 a year, and only 7.3% are poor.  Second, at the level of detail the Census provides, such families with SAHMs are generally worse off have lower cash incomes than average — only about 31% have incomes over $75,000, and 12.2% are poor.

The income categories most likely to have a SAHM are those with annual family incomes between $10,000 and $25,000.  The women in these households are likely to have low potential earnings, and between child care costs and the phaseout of some tax breaks, it probably doesn’t pay very much for them to work.  I would also guess that many of them are from cultures that highly value at-home mothering.  At the other end of the spectrum, married couple families with incomes over $100,000 are slightly more likely than those with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000 to have a SAHM.

Turning to the families with SAHDs, I was surprised to see that they were generally worse off had lower cash incomes than families with SAHMs.  Less than 22% have family incomes above $75,000, and 15.6% were poor.  This presumably reflects the overall lower earnings of women compared to men. But I would have guessed that the influence of selection would have pushed the average family incomes up.

Revised 10-20-2005 to reflect Parke’s suggestion.

15 Responses to “Do only rich families have at-home parents?”

  1. Sandy Kristin Piderit Says:

    Many of the families with SAHDs are families supporting women in graduate school. In terms of immediate income, they may not be well off, but in terms of long-run earning potential, they are probably better off than the low-income SAHMs who are single moms and value being home with young children more than conforming to US expectations about getting off welfare immediately regardless of the family impacts.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    Thanks for the link. I’ve enjoyed playing around with the stats. One thing I noticed is that even though there are fewer >$100,000 income families with SAHDs, there does seem to be a real bulge at that end, even more than there is for the >$100,000 income families with SAHMs. But there is also a huge bulge at the other end – income <$10,000. Although the numbers are so small, I’m not sure whether you can draw realistic conclusions for income splits for the SAHDs. This isn’t census data, is it?

  3. chip Says:

    hmm, that’s interesting, I know it’s statistical but it contrasts in some ways to our experience and what we see. When I was a SAHD (for two years) my wife was making $50-75K (in major metro area). When my wife was SAHM (for 10 years), I was making $25-40K (in smaller city with much lower housing costs, so in many ways we were better off with half the income). Now we both work (mom went back full time when our youngest was in 3rd grade, after some re-schooling) and fall in range a bit above 75.
    I think Miriam Peskowitz’s observations are pertinent, that parents go through phases with their kids’ ages, working part time, not working, working full time. I’d love to see latitudinal studies following parents as their kids go from birth to high school (not that I’m expecting the census bureau to actually do that, but we can always wish, right??)
    When I think about the SAHD’s I know here (still in the small city), none of their wives is making anywhere near $75, I’d guess income in range of $30-50. When I think of SAHMs I know there are two groups; one group does have income above $75K, the other is in about the same range as the families of SAHDs, and it’s very much class-based — that is, upper middle class vs. middle class. When I think about working class or lower-middle class, I don’t know any couple with a full-time stay at home parent.
    Anyway, thanks for digging around enough to find this info, it’s fascinating stuff.

  4. Parke Says:

    Great sleuthing. Good post. But I feel sure that, as a working parent with a stay at home spouse, did you mean to say “have lower cash income than average” in place of “are generally worse of than average”? Parke

  5. Michelle Says:

    Thanks for hunting down this data.
    Just a minor quibble about your statement:
    “The income categories most likely to have a SAHM are those with annual family incomes between $10,000 and $25,000.”
    Actually, the data show a slightly different picture:
    The largest segment of the population with a SAHM is in the $50K-75K family income category at 20.81%, while the $10K-$25K category represents only 17.13% of the SAHM population.
    Family Income SAHM Population Percentage
    Under $10,000 2.32%
    $10,000 to $24,999 3.30%
    $15,000 to $19,999 6.34%
    $20,000 to $24,999 7.49%
    $25,000 to $29,999 6.70%
    $30,000 to $39,999 12.66%
    $40,000 to $49,999 10.14%
    $50,000 to $74,999 20.81%
    $75,000 to $99,999 10.81%
    $100,000 and over 19.44%

  6. landismom Says:

    That’s pretty interesting. I wish there was a way that you could see through Census data more info on couples with non-traditional work arrangements–like the male RN who works nights so he can be home with his kids during the day while his wife is at work as a teacher, etc. I only personally know one SAHD, and he is on some kind of disability, so I can’t imagine that they are in the over $75K category.

  7. Jody Says:

    Anecdotally, one reason why lower-income families may have a SAHD would be the nature of male versus female labor at the lower end. Grossly overgeneralizing now, for men in construction, trucking, and farming, the jobs provide insecure income streams and neglible benefits. The women, meanwhile, might have gotten teachers’ and nursing licenses: those jobs have less seasonal income streams, are sometimes unionized, and almost always come with health insurance. MANY of the women I know in the lower income brackets work because they can get jobs with health insurance, but their husbands cannot do the same.
    From purely anecdotal information, it seems as if most farm-family wives now work for the local or regional government in some capacity, precisely because those jobs have benefits. With only one exception, all the farm wives I know have gone back to school to get teacher’s licenses as soon as their kids reached school age.
    That doesn’t necessarily explain the SAHD phenomenon, although I wonder: are farmers considered SAHD’s if their wives work and they are “at home”? I don’t know how the census categorizes all this stuff. I thought I read once that they do a particularly poor job capturing the couples who work separate shifts to avoid childcare costs.
    The Dilleys, who had sextuplets in Indiana in the mid-1990s, chose for the wife to return to work because her nursing job had better health insurance (and I am pretty sure that the husband’s airline-related job was very insecure). From what I’ve seen on the Triplet Connection, lower-income couples will either work shift work or struggle with the question of health insurance. Almost every woman who reports “having” to return to work cites health insurance benefits rather than net income. (And then gets slammed by unhelpful “here’s how we cut corners” BS for her pains.)

  8. jen Says:

    How does this spread compare overall with women’s incomes? My sense is that there aren’t a huge number of women making more than $100,000.
    As an aside, my Mormon in-laws in Utah complain bitterly about Utah’s high bankruptcy rates, and point back to how hard people in Utah try to keep moms at home. In those cases the family is keeping the mom at home even though they know they can’t afford it. (I know several families where the mom has stayed home and they’ve lived off credit cards for the first year of baby’s life.) It’s a big priority for them and they’re willing to take the risk.

  9. Elena Says:

    Actually, the point about sahm’s being a status item was first made by Michael Lewis earlier this yr in the LA Times. It caused such an uproar on the west coast that I don’t believe he ever wrote for them again.
    It’s always made sense to me that the highest rates of working moms are found at the top of the income spectrum. The cost of quality childcare ensures it. I live in NYC, and many people I know are paying more than $15 an hour for help. And they aren’t hiring young women like the writers of The Nanny Diaries — those girls are getting much more if they can committ to full-time positions.

  10. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks for the comments. A few responses:
    I agree that the statistics aren’t consistent with my subjective impressions — but I know that I live in a very high cost of living area, and know relatively few working-class families. And the women on my MAWDAH list are a selective sample of people who are highly computer-oriented and mostly have jobs where they can check their personal email from work without getting into trouble.
    The data are from the Bureau of the Census, but from the Current Population Survey rather than the decennial census. So yes, there are sample size issues when you get into the SAHD population. Census does conduct a longitudinal survey, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, but the sample size is even smaller.
    The Census definition of a SAHP requires that the person be out of the workforce for a full year, that the spouse be in the labor force for the full year, AND that the reason given for being out of the labor force is caring for family. So people who say that they weren’t working due to disability or schooling are excluded, as are people with even very part-time jobs.
    Michelle, my question wasn’t the income category with the most SAHMs — since the categories provided in this chart are of different sizes, I didn’t think that would be terribly interesting. What I calculated was the share of families with SAHMs as a share of all married two-parent families in each income category. Families with SAHMs are over 45% of the married families with incomes between $15,000 and $20,000, but only 15.6% of the families with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000.
    I agree that there are lots of working-class moms who are working mostly for insurance benefits, but my guess is most of their husbands are also working, rather than SAHDs.

  11. AB Says:

    You know, one other interesting wrinkle with regard to SAHDs: do we sometimes miss important trends because we’re trying to apply the model of what primary caregiving has traditionally looked like to men, and not recognizing the ways it may be tweaked? When I think of many of the men I know of who are what I would immediately think of as SAHDs (that is, they are home all day, and take on the responsibilities of being the primary caregiver), none of them would show up as SAHDs in the Census data. All of them are self-employed, either doing a bit of freelance work or having moved into a profession that allows them to be their own boss.
    I’m just throwing this out there. It’s too bad that the “mommy wars” so often get stuck in these rigid positions–either staying at home all the time and not working at all, or working in a corporate office 40-50 hours a week and getting good daycare. There do seem to be at least some men who have side-stepped that, and I think that model is something a lot of women could learn from.

  12. Laura Says:

    Wow. good stuff. Thanks for doing this, Elizabeth.

  13. We Interrupt This Broadcast Says:

    Stay-At-Home Parents and Economic Class – The Envelope Please

    Halfchangedworld has done some research, prodded by another blogger, and found the numbers used by the US Census bureau to tout a significant increase in …

  14. Dan Boles Says:

    This is great stuff, good fodder for discussion. But I have to admit my disdain for Cencus bureau information. It’s crap. And it’s often inaccurate. That aside, it’s still a far cry for us to try and use the (very) vague information therein about SAHMs/SAHDs to make any conclusions. If we really want to draw any concrete conclusions, we would really need to hire a reputable research firm. They could help us create “buckets” for classification purposes and really analyze the data. Make no mistake – I’m not criticizing the analysis that has already been done by Brian (RebelDad), Elizabeth or Michelle – because you guys are awesome for being able to sift through that data. I just dont have much faith in the Cencus data itself. Anybody know of a Research firm that would take this on pro-bono? It would be great exposure for them. Now that I think about it… I’m going to contact a couple of my old Research profs and see if their classes would take on the project under their guidance. We’ll see…
    Anyway, I suspect we would find that there are many different scenarios, but probably about 5-6 common themes throughout those many scenarios. I know in our family for instance I’m a full-time SAHD, but I also work part-time. My income is insignificant, the job is just something I really enjoy and it gives me a break from the duldrums and stresses of being a full-time parent; it allows me to talk to adults. My wife is a Pharmacist with a rotating schedule so she gets to be home some – but she’s by far the breadwinner, and the career focused person in our home. I am the primary caregiver. The days she’s home are bonus family time, or a chance for me to get out of the house.
    One other thing to consider is the extremity between different parts of the U.S. in both income and cost-of-living. A job that pays $100,000 in Atlanta GA pays about $300,000+ in some parts of California, and maybe only about 65,000 in the midwest. A $250,000-350,000 house in the Atlanta suburbs would cost $2M+ in most parts of California, and around $100-150k in the midwest. Just something to remember…

  15. Stay-At-Home Parents and Economic Class – The Envelope Please « ISTP Dad Says:

    […] Halfchangedworld has done some research, prodded by another blogger, and found the numbers used by the US Census bureau to tout a significant increase in the number of at-home parents. […]

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