The Census Bureau just released America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2007, a report that describes the characteristics of American households and families. The report and extensive data tables that accompany it should interest early childhood policymakers, media, and educators because they tell us about the types of families American children are growing up in, as well as trends and changes in family composition over time.
This year’s report is especially interesting because it zeroes in on America’s parents, taking an extra close look at stay-at-home moms. About 5.6 million American women — about one out of every four mothers with children under age 15 — were stay-at-home moms in 2007. Not surprisingly, stay-at-home moms were more likely to have younger children—and to be younger themselves — than non-stay-at home moms. They are also disproportionately Hispanic, foreign-born, and have less education, compared to all mothers.
Some journalists have seized on this report as evidence that the so-called “opt-out revolution” — educated, affluent women who leave the workforce to care for children full-time — is an illusion, because such women comprise a larger share of working mothers than they do of the population of stay-at-home moms. That conclusion may be over-reaching a bit — the 5.6 million stay-at-home moms includes women from across the education and income spectrums, and 7.4 percent of stay-at-home moms have graduate degrees. But it is clear that extensive media coverage devoted to elite mothers who choose to stay home skews perceptions and ignores the many less educated and lower-income women who are full-time moms.
Mommy wars aside, these findings also have implications for early childhood policy, where debates tend to focus on improving access to quality child care and preschool programs for disadvantaged youngsters. This data tells us that stay-at-home mothers disproportionately include women who do not have the educational background or resources that allow better-off parents to provide more robust learning experiences for their children. If that's the case, then policymakers may need to supplement efforts to improve child care with strategies that help that subset of stay-at-home moms support their children’s early development.
At the same time, this information reaffirms the importance of expanding access to pre-k, separate from debates about child care. Some critics argue that universal pre-k is unfair or unnecessary to mothers who prefer to keep their children at home. But this data suggests that a significant percentage of children with stay at home moms are disadvantaged children who could benefit from pre-k even if their mothers don’t have jobs that require them to seek child care. Officials and organizations that operate pre-k programs should also keep this in mind, and ensure that pre-k enrollment efforts are reaching low-income stay-at-home mothers and their children.
Ultimately, the goal should be to ensure that all children get access to the support and learning opportunities they need to thrive, whether it’s in child care centers, family home care, or at home with mom or dad.