By Valerie Young
Every mother saves her family thousands of dollars by performing services in unpaid domestic labor for free.
At first glance, family life in our private homes seems far removed from economic news in the business section of our newspapers and media outlets. Markets, profits, and the workforce belong in one world. Family dinners, carpools, and laundry belong in another. Transactions involving money are endlessly measured, analyzed, reported, recorded and publicly discussed. But making a place for people to live and grow, and creating the care required for them to thrive, does not. There is a rich irony here, as the original meaning of the word “economics” is household management. Strange, then, that we draw such a line between the consumption and production that takes place within our families, and what happens on the other side of the front door. What could we learn if we used business measures to determine the monetary value of a mother?
Our homes are all about the allocation of limited resources to satisfy multiple and sometimes competing demands. The management of a home, the provision of family care, involves consumption of goods and the production of services. When we look at motherhood through an economic lens, we learn valuable information about the costs and returns of investments we make. These investments involve money, certainly, but they also involve time and energy and effort. Raising children is one such investment. Its return is the fully functional, educated and tax-paying citizen, the productive member of society, which results.
From time to time articles appear estimating the value of the services a mother provides. Most such estimates are based on buying these services on the open market. This replacement cost approach tallies up the expense of paying somebody else to provide the transportation, cooking, cleaning, laundry, health care, child care, home maintenance and household financial services a mother performs for free. The total varies, of course, as the cost of living does from state to state, or urban versus rural areas. In recent years, the grand total has been placed at $113,586 by Business Insider, to $150,000 by The Independent. Salary.com says $118,905. So, every mother saves her family thousands of dollars by performing services in unpaid domestic labor for free.
Of course, it’s not free to the woman who’s doing the work. If she cuts back on her employed hours, or steps out of the paid labor force entirely, the value of the wages, benefits, and future social security payments she is surrendering, she is in fact paying an opportunity cost. This is another way to calculate the value of a mother, and the numbers this calculation generates are much higher than replacement cost. (Remember, domestic labor when done by another is poorly paid. Child care providers and direct care workers, the compensated form of domestic labor, are low income workers, and usually have no paid leave or paid sick day benefits at all to take care of themselves.)
Opportunity cost goes up and down depending on the education of the woman and the field in which she would otherwise be employed. Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood, estimated that a college educated woman gave up about $1 million in wages, benefits and retirement income if she had a child. Forbes worked out the opportunity cost for an elementary school teacher who stops working when she gives birth and came up with $700,000. In more general terms, it’s reasonable to go with an opportunity cost of at least several hundred thousand dollars all the way up to $1 million, as suggested by the experts at Babycenter.com. Clearly, if opportunity cost is the measure, a mother’s worth can skyrocket.
So, why do women make the choice to get out or cut back on paid work to raise their children? It can be the most costly decision a woman ever makes, and will affect her economic security for the rest of her life. There’s more than one reason, of course. I suspect many mothers just want to. So much of a child’s development, up to 90% of neurological growth, occurs in the very first years. The huge cost of child care may equal or exceed a mother’s income. We still labor under the cultural myth that the best caregiver for a baby is its mother, and it’s more socially acceptable for a mother to be the primary caregiver than the father. In 60% of two earner homes, the mother earns less than the father. If someone must assume the primary caregiver role, drafting the lower earner makes economic sense. US workplaces are notoriously inflexible. Lacking a middle way where caregiving and wage earning can be successfully combined, many women are backed into a corner and face an intolerable choice: either work for a living OR raise your children, but never both. Many women forge ahead with their careers, only to find that a country without paid leave, paid sick days, and discrimination against both pregnant women and mothers running rampant makes no allowance for their family obligations. They may then “opt out” of the work force, but in reality there is much less choice than the “opt out” label suggests.
What needs to change here is the attitude that running households and raising children is unskilled, unproductive work. Mothers make people, and people are the most basic economic element. Babies are consummate consumers. They grow to be producers – of everything! Without children, there is no economy, and no future. We know that the value of family care to elders saves public spending and, if compensated, would be worth around $450 billion a year. The US economy’s GDP for 2014 is estimated at upwards of $17 trillion. If mothers’ uncompensated labor – in birthing, nursing, and raising children, and the myriad activities that involves – were tallied up, estimates place its value at between 21% and 50% of GDP. Nancy Folbre, a Professor of Economics at UMass Dartmouth and frequent past contributor to the New York Times Economix blog, places a conservative estimate at 25% of GDP. So that means that mothers’ unpaid domestic labor actually adds between $4 trillion and $8.5 trillion to the economy. Every. Year.
Not only that – in tax dollars alone, the future taxpayers these women raise will contribute their taxes to our public coffers. Each mother, in addition to her own unpaid labor and the profits it brings to the economy, is responsible for another $200,000 going into the US Treasury in taxes collected from her child.
So, please, let’s not say we are “just” stay at home moms. Don’t think that our only contribution to society is our compensated work. We don’t deserve less, do less, or are worth less because we are mothers. In fact, we are the greatest producers in the entire economy. We must know our worth, and cherish our value in its totality. We must insist that ALL we do, both the compensated and uncompensated labor, be respected, accounted for, and valued in all our private and public interactions and institutions.
Valerie Young is a public policy analyst for Mom-mentum, a non-profit organization providing leadership, education, and advocacy to support mothers in meeting today’s personal and professional challenges. Formerly an attorney, Valerie now blogs about the effect of family carework on a woman’s economic security and advocates women’s empowerment at Your (Wo)Man in Washington, and covers policy news for Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.