Stay-At-Home Parents Top Five Million

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Stay-At-Home Parents Top Five Million

Press release

By: U. S. Census Bureau

Date: November 30, 2004

Source: U.S. Census Bureau News. "'Stay-At-Home' Parents Top 5 Million, Census Bureau Reports." 〈〉 (accessed March 6, 2006).

About the Author: The first official census in the United States took place in 1790. In 1902, Congress created the United States Census Bureau. The U.S. Census Bureau maintains and distributes statistics related to the demographics in the United States.


In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau collected data on "stay-at-home" parents for the first time in the bureau's history. A stay-at-home parent is defined as a parent who does not work for income, but provides child care to his or her own children. Historically, in the United States, biological mothers fill this role, although a stay-at-home mother is largely a middle or upper class phenomenon.

Until industrialization took hold in the United States in the 1840s, most families worked on farms together, with the ebb and flow of daily life incorporating the work of the father, mother, and children. With the advent of factory work and rural to urban migration, the family unit and family roles changed. For workers who could obtain skills that provided a high enough wage to support a family on one income, or for the managerial class, industrialization created a new model—the single income family, in which the father worked and the mother stayed at home, raising the children and managing the domestic sphere.

For lower-income and working-class families, however, the mother's factory wages—and often those of the children as well—were critical for family survival. The concept of a stay-at-home parent, therefore, relied on a single income large enough to support a family and was within the reach of only a small sector of society—largely white, middle and upper class, Protestant, non-immigrant families. Within this narrow demographic, the ideal of the mother at home was glorified; the "cult of domesticity" declared a woman's place to be at home, managing a haven for her world-weary husband and nurturing her children so that they would become moral, upstanding citizens.

During World War II, the United States federal government used propaganda campaigns to change the idea of women's proper roles. With hundreds of thousands of men off to war in the Pacific or Europe, the war industries needed workers. African Americans migrated north for the higher paying war industry jobs, but to meet wartime need for munitions and machinery, the U.S. government appealed to women of all classes to work in the factories as well. Three thousand federally funded childcare centers, complete with laundry services and take-home dinners, were created between 1943 and 1944 to help support working mothers. Food, gasoline, car, and tire rationing meant that, while more people had more money, they had few places to spend it. Americans saved, wives worked, and wartime prosperity set the foundation for a new wave of women's domesticity in the 1950s.

When WWII ended, the need for women to work in the factories evaporated, as did the childcare centers and the federal propaganda campaigns. With marriage rates soaring and birth rates climbing, the late 1940s and 1950s saw a return to the cult of domesticity, revised. The wartime savings allowed couples to buy homes, cars, and durable goods, spurring production and economic progress. This financial security allowed more women to fill the role of stay-at-home parent.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw divorce rates climb, mothers entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and a wave of feminism that redefined a woman's role. Feminism encouraged a woman to have a career, an income, and an identity outside the home. Feminists such as former 1950s housewife Betty Friedan (1921–2006) and single career woman Gloria Steinem (1934–) put a face on this emerging movement.

By the 1990s, with a majority of mothers of small children in the workforce, questions about the quality of daycare, child development, marital happiness, and women's fulfillment raised the specter of work vs. home once more. The 2003 Census signaled a change in the government's interest in tracking the trend of stay-at-home parents.


The United States had an estimated 5.5 million "stay-athome" parents last year—5.4 million moms and 98,000 dads, according to a report released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. It contains the Census Bureau's first-ever analysis of stay-at-home parents.

Among these stay-at-home parents, 42 percent of mothers and 29 percent of fathers had their own children under age 3 living with them. Thirty-nine percent of mothers and 30 percent of fathers were under age 35.

Other findings from the report, America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2003:

  • After declining sharply between 1970 and 1995, the proportion of family groups with children that were married-couple families has remained stable, at about 68 percent. Since the mid-1990's, the percentages of single mothers and single fathers have also been fairly level. (Family groups are family units living in households; more than one unit may be included. A family group may include the householder and relatives.)
  • The median ages at first marriage were 25.3 years for women and 27.1 years for men in 2003, up from 20.8 years and 23.2 years, respectively, in 1970. As a result, the proportion of young, never-married adults has risen dramatically. For women, ages 20 to 24, it more than doubled, from 36 percent to 75 percent; and for women, ages 30 to 34, it more than tripled, from 6 percent to 23 percent.
  • Between 1970 and 2003, the average size of the nation's households declined from 3.14 people to 2.57 people.
  • In 2003, 10 percent of the nation's households contained five or more people, down from 21 percent in 1970. Sixty percent of households had one or two people in 2003, up from 46 percent in 1970.
  • The proportion of households consisting of one person living alone increased from 17 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 2003.
  • There were 4.6 million opposite-sex, unmarried-partner households in 2003. These households accounted for 4.2 percent of all households, up from 2.9 percent in 1996.
  • In unmarried-partner households, 29 percent of women had higher levels of education than their partners, compared with 22 percent of wives in married-couple households.

The data are from the 2003 Current Population Survey's (CPS) Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC). The ASEC supplement to the CPS is conducted in February, March and April at about 100,000 addresses nationwide. For further information on the source of the data and accuracy of the estimates, including standard errors and confidence intervals, go to Appendix G of 〈〉.


By the late 1990s, the first generation of children raised by families affected by the demographic trends of the late 1960s and 1970s—including higher divorce rates, single parent households, mothers in the workforce, and daycare center care for small children—emerged as parents themselves. Two different ideals competed for attention in the media in the United States; the mother as career woman, managing children, marriage, and full-time professional work, vs. the stay-at-home mother, focused on the domestic sphere, raising children without child care.

The "Mommy Wars," a title given by the media to the alleged conflict between mothers who work outside the home and those who stay at home, painted each side as bitterly opposed to the other, alternately envious and dismissive of each other's choice. Critics charged mothers who worked with letting day care centers raise their children, while stay at home mothers—especially those with graduate or professional degrees—were allegedly shortchanging themselves and the feminists who worked hard for increased workplace rights and were harming their long-term financial prospects for retirement.

Stay-at-home fathers, representing a tiny portion of all stay-at-home parents, received spotty coverage from the media. The 1982 movie Mr. Mom, which depicted a stay-at-home father who came to the role via unemployment, created a comic stereotype for fathers who took on the traditional mother's role. According to the 2003 Census numbers, 98,000 fathers identify themselves as stay-at-home parents, though organizations, such as At Home Dad, state that between two and three million fathers spend more than thirty hours per week as their child's primary caregiver.

The inclusion of stay-at-home parents in the census relates to a political issue championed by activists in the United States—Social Security credits for stay-at-home parents. According to Mothers and More, an advocacy group, mothers spend an average of 11.5 years out of the workforce caring for children or other family members. This unpaid labor carries a collective economic impact of as much as forty-seven percent of GDP in Australia, forty-four percent of GDP in the United Kingdom, and nearly fifty percent of GDP in the United States.

Advocates for public policy recognition for stay-at-home parents and their contribution to the economy through unpaid labor argue that giving stay-at-home parents credits toward Social Security for their time spent at home would cut the "parent penalty" and give recognition to the economic role such parenting plays in society.



Crittendon, Anne. The Price of Motherhood. New York: Owl Books, 2002.


Wallis, Claudia. "The Case for Staying Home." Time 163 (May 22, 2004): 259-276.

Web sites

At Home Dad. 〈〉 (accessed March 6, 2006).

Mothers And More. 〈〉 (accessed March 6, 2006).