June Cleaver was ahead of her time.
A major survey finds that a rising number of American women are now stay-at-home moms, although not always by choice.
The Pew Research Center report, released Tuesday, found that the share of stay-at-home mothers as a percentage of U.S. women with children younger than 18 had risen from a low of 23 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2012, reversing a trend that spanned the first half-century after World War II. The survey cited a variety of cultural, ethnic and social factors for the demographic shift, but the big one, analysts said, was money.
"Families make decisions based on their budget, and they do what they have to do," said Margot Dorfman, chief executive officer of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce.
Ms. Dorfman said there simply haven't been as many jobs outside the home for working mothers as there were just a few years ago. The report found that unemployment as a reason for mothers to stay at home was up to 6 percent in 2012 from 1 percent in 2000.
"With incomes stagnant in recent years for all but the college-educated, less educated workers in particular may weigh the cost of child care against wages and decide it makes more economic sense to stay home," according to the Pew report authors.
Still, the dramatic increase marks a turnaround from decades when at-home moms like the "Leave It to Beaver" character were seen as increasingly anachronistic.
The report said one factor since the turn of the century has been a steady "public ambivalence" about working mothers.
Economic reasons can be found in the Great Recession. The share of mothers remaining in the home grew from 2000 to 2004 but stopped in 2005 as the economy picked up speed. But the increase resumed after 2008, when stay-at-home mothers represented 26 percent of all women with children.
Whether the trend is welcome or not is a matter of debate. A Pew survey last year found that most mothers, given a choice, would prefer to work either full or part time.
"We want an economy where men or women who want to work can work, but it's a mistake to think everyone wants to work full time," said Christina Hoff Sommers, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar and author of "Who Stole Feminism?"
The report found that the "most striking demographic difference" between stay-at-home mothers and mothers who work was the level of "economic well-being." Poverty is a reality for nearly a third of stay-at-home mothers but affects only 12 percent of working mothers.
"It's very hard for a woman with children to make it on her own. You can do it, but it's a terrible struggle," Ms. Sommers said.
With marriage rates declining, the social template of the working husband and a doting wife with children at home has decreased.
Among all mothers, those who stayed at home and had a working husband fell from 40 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 2012. Stay-at-home mothers with working husbands make up the largest share of stay-at-home mothers overall at 68 percent, but that is down from 85 percent in 1970.
Single vs. married
Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said one factor in the shifting numbers was the rise of single mothers.
"It's not that people aren't having relationships but marriage isn't happening," she said.
On the whole, whether the stay-at-home mother is married, single or cohabiting, she is often younger and less-educated than women in the labor force, the report found.
Some 42 percent of all stay-at-home mothers were younger than 35, while 35 percent of working mothers were in that age group. Almost half of stay-at-home mothers have high school diplomas, GEDs or less, while 30 percent of working mothers have that level of education.
The "traditional" mother who takes care of the family makes up two-thirds of the 10.4 million stay-at-home mothers.
Ms. Sommers said many women want to stay home with their children, other women want to work and some choose to balance the two.
"There's more than one way to have a happy family," she said. Being a stay-at-home mom "is a good life."
Most Americans tend to agree. According to the report, 60 percent suggest children are better off with a parent at home, but support for working mothers who parent their children reaches at least 70 percent.
The findings, the Pew report noted, also have an impact on how children are raised. The latest data find that just one in five U.S. children live in a home with a working father and a mother who stays at home, down from 41 percent of American children in that kind of household in the early 1970s. In 2012, about 6 percent of U.S. children were living in a home with a single stay-at-home mother or with a cohabiting stay-at-home mother.
Asian and Hispanic children were more likely to be raised by stay-at-home mothers. Some 37 percent of Asian-American children and 36 percent of Hispanic children were being raised by stay-at-home moms, compared with 26 percent of white children and 23 percent of black children.
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