What’s a Homemaker Really Worth?

Editor’s note:  This is a guest post by Chris Marlink, Social Media Director for the Family Research Council.  

Remember the media prattle about a conservative “war on women?” It would seem that meme has come to an abrupt end thanks largely to DNC strategist and frequent White House visitor, Hilary Rosen, and her less than charitable view of homemakers.

Rosen infamously opined that Ann Romney (a homemaker) “has never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of women in this country are facing.” While Rosen was undoubtedly making a dig at the Romney family’s relative wealth, she was also diminishing the real value that a homemaker brings to the family.

Political operatives on both sides of the aisle quickly distanced themselves from her remarks, and Rosen offered an apology to Romney and the many women (homemakers and not) she offended.  But as Cathy Ruse points out, “Wasn’t [Rosen] just being honest, saying what everyone around her really thinks?”

Not Esteemed

Rosen’s comments aren’t an aberration, and Cathy correctly lays much of the blame at the feet of the modern feminist movement. The narrative, as Cathy notes, has been “careers optimum, husbands optional, conception avoided and the unplanned products thereof aborted.”

The reality is that our culture has little esteem for homemakers. Consider for a moment the conspicuous lack of homemakers in our sitcoms and entertainment today. Our protagonists don’t do diapers. (With the exception, perhaps, of Will Arnett.

It’s not surprising then that our tax policy rewards families where both parents work outside the home by providing credits for childcare, while offering no similar benefit for families who choose to forgo one income by having a parent remain at home.  Our law reinforces the ideal of a two income home by facilitating childcare, and exposes our belief that homemaking has little value. I’ll return to tax policy a little later, but allow me to suggest two simple reasons why homemaking isn’t esteemed by our culture. First, there is a general ignorance of what homemaking entails. And second, more importantly, we don’t value children.

Homemaking is Work

According the New York Times, 70 percent of married women over the age of 25 with children work outside the home. If this wasn’t the model they received, it was certainly the model reinforced in school and pop-culture. With so few families choosing the homemaking route, it should come as no surprise that homemaking is so poorly understood. Only someone with no experience in homemaking would dare suggest that it isn’t work, or that home economics are disconnected from the broader economy.

In a recent study by Investopedia researchers tallied the market value of the various services that a homemaker provides for the family. The list in itself is informative for those unfamiliar with a day in the life of a homemaker: cooking, cleaning, childcare, driver, laundry, home maintenance, etc. The market value of these combined tasks totals over $96,000.

It’s an impressive amount, but looking at the list of services the firm included, I can think of a handful they missed: personal shopper, interior designer, event planner, family counselor, first responder, private tutor, and accountant. Trying to list the intangible benefits would undoubtedly turn this blog post into a novela. So let’s leave it there for now.*

When presented with the Investopedia numbers, Rosen would likely agree that these tasks represent real work, or more likely, drudgery. After all, who’d want to be cooped up at home playing nursemaid and laundress for children? The “uneducated.” That’s who.

In profiling the modern homemaker, the Times couldn’t resist quoting the CensusBureau’s 40-year review, “Those with the least education are now the most likely to stay out of the labor force as stay-at-home mothers.” While this may in fact be true, it obfuscates several important realities.

The absence of a college degree does not imply an inability to obtain one. For many women, and some men, homemaking is a vocational choice. They’re not stuck due to a lack of education; these homemakers are doing precisely what they want to do—what they believe they’re called to do. According tosociologist Bradford Wilcox, an astounding 74 percent of married mothers who work full time would prefer to work fewer hours or not at all. For these women and the families they represent, homemaking represents anaspirational choice. And why shouldn’t it?

Because we don’t value children. Or, as my friend Josh Bishop observed, we eschew the self-sacrifice and “drudgery” that children entail more than we value children. Which is, I believe, all of a piece.

It is quite true that Rosen and many others would argue that they provide all the services Investopedia has tallied and work outside the home. I tip my hat to them. This was the case in my family growing up. But talk to any homemaker and you’ll find they place an emphasis on the relationships being nurtured in the home, not on the responsibilities of maintaining a home.

Valuing Children

Any discussion about the value of children must begin by acknowledging that our law persists in denying the humanity of the unborn child until the moment of birth. And the law is a teacher. We have enshrined the belief that the wellbeing, nay, the existence, of children is less important than the happiness of adults.

Mother, homemaker and author Rachel Jankovic captures this well:

The truth is that years ago, before this generation of mothers was even born, our society decided where children rank in the list of important things. When abortion was legalized, we wrote it into law.

Children rank way below college. Below world travel for sure. Below the ability to go out at night at your leisure. Below honing your body at the gym. Below any job you may have or hope to get. In fact, children rate below your desire to sit around and pick your toes, if that is what you want to do. Below everything. Children are the last thing you should ever spend your time doing.

Set aside the platitudes about children being our greatest resource. We don’t believe it. Author Anthony Esolen poignantly observes, “if we loved children, then we’d have a few.” But Americans aren’t having many children. In fact, if you were to take away population growth due to immigration, we’d be a shrinking nation. Our nation’s fertility rate is just hanging on around replacement level, considered to be 2.1 births per woman.

Undoubtedly, our policy of abortion on demand and the 50 million lives lost to abortion over the last four decades play a role in suppressing fertility and reshaping our view of children. But consider again how even our tax code plays its dubious part.

During a lecture at FRC, Ramesh Ponnurupointed out that the child tax credit, (whichFRC crafted a decade ago) would need to be increased to about $4,000 per child just to make our tax code “child neutral.” Ponnuru noted that those raising children are not only paying into safety net programs to fund current beneficiaries, they are also investing in the next generation of those who will pay into the system. It’s a form of “double taxation” that their childless peers do not face. So while Roe undercuts the humanity of our children, the tax code places a disproportionately heavy burden on families with children.

A Christian Response

So how ought Christians to respond to a culture which has little esteem for homemaking and places so little value on children? It seems to me that opportunities to live a curious, countercultural lifestyle abound.  But before we get there, I’d rather hear from you:

How have you seen the Church influence culture either through valuing children or validating homemaking? How do you see the Church being influenced by our culture in these areas?

Does the idea of promoting contraception to sexually active Christian singles, debated vigorously here at Mere-O, signal agreement with culture about the value of children?

* In full disclosure, my own wife is a homemaker and when I spell her for a day or two at home, I’m reminded all over again how much energy goes into the formation of  little people and into maintaining the forward momentum of our family. Needless to say, I’m somewhat relieved when she’s home and I can return to… ahem, “work.”

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  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I think a Christian response first is to deal with the intended and best argument and not the worst case senario of the argument.

    Best case senario of Rosen’s argument is she thought Ann Romney was not an appropriate person to give advice on the economic concerns of women because she has not worked outside the home as most women do and because she is economically better off than all but a small percentage of women.

    It is unlikely that she really was intentionally de-valuing stay at home moms.

    That being said, culturally many do de-value stay at home moms. And culturally, I think your point is probably true that many working mothers or women without children, have few friends that are stay at home moms (And the same is true vice versa.)

    I do not think that women (and men) that work outside the home devalue children. Some just are not temperamentally suited to being a stay at home parent. And some cannot afford to stay at home.

    I agree that we value children differently (we no longer value them for their work value in the home.)

    • http://frcblog.com Chris Marlink

      Thank for your thoughts, Adam. I appreciate that you raise the question of whether choosing homemaking or work outside the home is necessarily a matter of valuing children. I hope to address that in a follow-up post. (To tip my hand, I recognize there are many factors that go into that choice, not the least of which is what a family values.) But would you agree that our laws are teachers as to what we value as a society? And if so, what conclusions would you draw from the policies I’ve noted above?

      Cheers,
      Chris

      • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

        People don’t have children for tax reasons. Or if they do, we shouldn’t encourage it.

        Also there tax deductions for just having children. For most middle class families, you need to have two of the three major deduction areas before you claim more than the standardized deduction. The three major areas are paying interest on a home, having children and donating to charities. If you don’t do at least two of the three, it is hard to claim a deduction.

        Another counter claim is the value of children for tax supported insurance. Most states now provide insurance for families up to 150% or more of poverty line and in some states 20-30% of all children receive their insurance from these means. Also public education is a significant public investment in children. In fact about 1 in 3 dollars of your property tax or state income tax goes toward public education whether you have children or not.

        My point is that we value children differently now than we have in the past. In the past children were expected to be an economic contribution toward the family. Yes people loved their children, but the reason they have many of them was high rates of child mortality and the need for labor and the need for the children to care for them in their old age.

        Children today are exclusively an economic drain. So in many ways, the children that are born now are born because they are desired for the sake of having children more than any time in history. The biological clock does not tick because people desire not to have children.

        It is too much of a dichotomy. But there are two different views of the value of children in society. In general, Republican value support of families to care for their children better through tax deductions and more accountable schools. In general, Democrats value children through government institutions in order to protect those that have the least (insurance, support for low income schools, child protection agencies, etc.)

        Both sides tend to discount the need to support both and both tend to focus more on ideology than pragmatism and what actually seems to work.

        Attributing the value of children by ranking government support of children seems to be approaching the question from the wrong angle.

        • http://frcblog.com Chris Marlink

          “My point is that we value children differently now than we have in the past. In the past children were expected to be an economic contribution toward the family. Yes people loved their children, but the reason they have many of them was high rates of child mortality and the need for labor and the need for the children to care for them in their old age.”

          This is an important point, Adam. Undoubtedly, moving away from an agrarian society means less “need” for the labor of children. However, look again at our social saftey-net programs for older Americans. Perhaps we’ve just reshuffled the deck? Social security now operates on a 3 workers to 1 retiree ratio–not exactly sustainable considering fertility rates and the retirement of the boomers.

          • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

            The unsustainability of our retirement programs have nothing to do with the way we value our children. You are looking at correlation and not causation.

            Around the world, as people increase in wealth, become more urban and increase in education, fertility rates go down. There is nothing unusual about that.

            If your point about valuing children in the tax policy were true, then Europe should have a ton of children because of they provide a lot of incentives in the tax policy and safetynet to promote more children. Instead their birth rates continue to drop.

            I think you are just entirely off the mark. The value of children has nothing to do with tax policy. Children are valued for non-economic reasons, encouraging policies that give economic value to children will do little to increase the birth rate or the way that children are valued.

            I think that it is important to think about way to be counter cultural in the way we value children. But encouraging stay at home moms, tax breaks or credits or many other things like that is not counter cultural.

            Counter cultural would be to intentionally value other people’s children. Moving to low income neighorbhoods and volunteering in schools. Stop sending your kids to private schools and take the money you spent and serve other people.

            The key to being counter cultural in this world is to focus on the other. Focusing on your own children just isn’t counter cultural.

      • Eric E

        I have to agree with Adam that Rosen wasn’t disparaging homemakers, she was taking Mitt Romney to task for how he was using his wife on the campaign trail.

        Laws can give us indications as to what our values are but not always. In this case, I think the laws you cite teach us that our culture equates value with economic value and is obsessed with putting numbers on everything. Tax credits for daycare indicates to me that our culture values people who earn money, for example. Homemakers and children contribute nothing of economic value to this country (i.e., they don’t earn a paycheck) and this is the phenomenon I believe you are seeing.

        Your entire post isn’t counter-cultural at all with this regard since it buys into that discussion by placing monetary value on the “services” that homemakers perform. And it talks about children being a “resource.” And it’s concerned with the amount of children families have as if that was an indication of how much we value them (as if a family with 4 children values children more than a family with 2).

        To be truly counter-cultural, we would have a much more holistic view of “value” that didn’t try to convince the culture that something is valuable because we can put a price tag on it.

        • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

          A good book on how economics has changed how we perceive value over time is Economics of Good and Evil by Tomas Sedlacek. I am going to go ahead and be tacky and link to my review of it. But it really is very good. It is written as a secular book, but includes looking at economics through historical documents (including the Old and New Testaments). http://bookwi.se/economics-good-evil-sedlacek/

        • http://frcblog.com Chris Marlink

          “To be truly counter-cultural, we would have a much more holistic view of “value” that didn’t try to convince the culture that something is valuable because we can put a price tag on it.”

          This is exactly right, Eric. Here’s a-pro family take on the good life, created as a counter-narrative to the mono-chromatic Julia: http://ow.ly/aV2Gu. I hope to offer some additional thoughts soon. Thanks for your feedback.

          Best,
          Chris

          • Eric E

            Well, I’m glad you agree with me but I still think your post here plays right into that narrative.

            As far as the slide show goes, I think it could have been done better. To begin with, the first slide mentions Maggie’s choices but then the slides go on to mention all kinds of things that weren’t her choice at all. You don’t get to choose to be born into a good family. You don’t choose to be taught responsibility at home. You don’t choose to be classically educated. Most people can’t pay cash for college (unless your parents are wealthy and are willing to pay college for you (which, again, isn’t your choice)). You can’t choose to meet the person you are going to marry early in life or choose whether that person’s waited to have sex before he/she met you. You can’t choose to have an employer who offers an HSA. And so on. The “good life” – the “better way” – appears to be a privileged, upper-middle class life, according to that slide show. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the slide show is family oriented and shows involvement with various institutions besides government. But is a Christian version of the good life really about whether married or divorced people “have more assets” by the time they are 65 or who can retire earlier? To me it seems like more of a vision of the “American Dream” than anything that is specifically Christian.

  • http://thequestionoferos.wordpress.com Andrew Turner

    Not an American and don’t understand American tax policy.

    However, some thoughts on children:

    — I would suggest that this is likely a WASP phenomenon, or near-WASP phenomenon, which would implicate the players; Mormonism is culturally indistinguishable from N. American evangelicalism with the exception of polygamy.

    — I would suggest most current thought towards children, whether secular or Christian, largely revolves around the mass consumerism that marks the western/white world. Ie they’re not people, they’re possessions, to be aborted or born according to the same drives as adopting puppies. I would suggest that Christians are actually just as guilty on the opposite end of the spectrum, not by actively killing them via abortion but by objectifying and enshrining childhood and parenthood (mother-daughter cruises anybody?).

    — I would suggest that modern Christianity has dropped the ball in providing a cogent, easily taught meme concerning why, precisely, human life is valuable. Precisely, not generically.

    — I would suggest that a career culture is a sucker’s bid, and that that career culture trumping motherhood should come as no surprise, considering you cannot serve both God and money. It’s a logical extension of masculine materialism.

    — To refer to the above, I would suggest it’s a symptom among many of a deeply flawed, quasi-evangelical-mormon footed white culture that treats all of life as a race for money and possessions.

  • http://notesfromasmallplace.wordpress.com Jake Meador

    A fine post, but I do think it illustrates one of the main problems conservatives have had in approaching these issues: Culture precedes politics. We can change all the tax codes we like and pass more Amendment 1s, but if that’s all we do, then we lose. Look at what’s come from Prop 8 in California.

    The bigger issue here is that conservatives have done a very poor job of sketching out the larger case for social conservatism. We make instrumental arguments for it, but we don’t do a good job of arguing for it as the good life or of showing that goodness to our neighbors.

    I’m not opposed to the sorts of legal actions described above, but I’d much prefer the approach I see Dreher talking about at TAC. Politics shape plausibility structures, to be sure, but I think culture shapes the plausibility structures for politics. What we need to be doing is talking about ways of modeling the goodness and beauty of traditional social norms; not simply trying to go against all the cultural momentum by pounding out some midnight legislation before we lose the culture completely.

    You get to this larger idea in your final paragraph, but you don’t really flesh it out at all. All your exposition is about tax codes and legal questions. But what about these larger questions? If we don’t deal with those, then the tax codes and Prop 8s of the world will all by Pyrrhic victories.

    • http://frcblog.com Chris Marlink

      Thanks for weighing in, Jake. I do hope to explore this a bit more and offer a few thoughts on how Christians can orient their lives in a way that is faithful to the Gospel–and thus truly counter-cultural in a follow up post. It starts, I believe, with valuing what God values.

      Cheers,
      Chris

  • linds

    I think there’s also an argument to be made that it’s not an attack from “the culture” against homemakers, but rather the devaluing of homemakers within the subculture that most vocally supports them that makes the endeavor unattractive.

    Before we turn to the evil liberal media for brainwashing us against homemaking, we need to take a long, hard look at how the Church teaches family dynamics. We’ve bought the lie of the cult of domesticity. It is not enough to say “stay home and have babies because it’s fulfilling – don’t be selfish and go have a career” when the enough married men are functionally deadbeat dads and husbands that you can’t throw a rock without hitting a sitcom that riffs on it.

    I can’t tell you how many friends I have who did the good Christian girl thing, got married, started having babies, and then found that their husband had warped, selfish views of his part in raising the kids, views that are supported from the pulpit and in the culture wars.

    That’s not valuing homemaking, either. I know this is radical, but we might need to let go of complementarianism entirely to truly value stay-at-home moms and foster true partnerships among parents.

    But that would be conceding ground against big bad evil feminism in the culture war, so I don’t see that happening anytime soon. We are a bit too obsessed with winning to be reasonable, I fear.

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