Eco“mom”ics

By Jon Carvalho

With all the problems currently raging across the globe – from a North Korean missile launch to the trial of a mass killer in Norway – here in the States the media is of course focused attention on the most important news item of the day: whether or not Ann Romney’s status as a stay-at-home mother qualifies as work experience.

The back-and-forth between a Democratic pundit and the spouse of the presumptive Republican nominee began after strategist Hilary Rosen said that Mitt Romney’s wife had “never worked a day in her life.” And who said American political commentary was shallow?

The facts come first. Rosen tried to clarify her comments, because she didn’t mean Romney has literally never labored for even one day of the 63 years she’s been on this earth; she meant that Romney has not been employed in the conventional sense. But is that such a bad thing?

Women in the workforce are an enormous contribution to society in general, and few would argue with that. But mothers also acknowledge that no matter what their ultimate decision, staying home to raise their kids or working full-time, they are making a sacrifice. If Mom chooses (or must) go back to a full-time career, she is losing an immeasurably precious asset: her time with her children. And if Mom decides to stay home to be a full-time mother, she’s giving up her professional life and a way to appreciate her value in an entirely different way.

Neither way of life is the more moral decision, because both represent something noble and both signify a challenge – and the choice shouldn’t be debated as crudely as it has been this week, by either side. The debate this week wasn’t very sophisticated, but far beneath the surface that was hardly scratched lie a couple of important notes on the American family.

There is some resentment towards stay-at-home moms by those who feel that these women are more able, or privileged enough, to have the option of staying home. While this is not necessarily true – some families may be giving up real economic advancement and comfort in order for Mom to stay home with the kids – it is certainly true for Ann Romney and a number of Americans of upper-middle-income circumstances and above. But at the heart of that lies a fundamental question: should women of means even work if they’d rather stay home with their families?

Mitt Romney’s been criticized quite a bit for being rich and out of touch; if his wife worked, his family’s household income would have been even greater. And Ann Romney, whose husband is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, would have had a job while a woman of more modest circumstances may not have.

It’s a bit better that she was at home instead; someone else had a job because Romney would rather have been home with her sons. That’s something to admire, not criticize. If every woman whose husband was making a healthy six-figure salary quit her job, unemployment in this country would probably be significantly lower; so think about that next time you think less of a wealthier woman who’s staying at home instead of taking a job from those who might need one a bit more.

And there’s the next problem: the staggering changes in the economic roles of the family. Over the past 50 years, American families have increasingly depended upon two incomes instead of the traditional “breadwinning husband” one income, and to no great benefit. As the cost of living skyrockets high above any advancement in pay, Americans with two incomes are living as comfortably as they were, if not worse, than with one income a generation ago.

According to “The Two-Income Trap” by Amelia Tyagi and current U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, when women first went to work, they were simply adding money to their household income and a kind of insurance policy in case their husband lost his job. But as more and more women went to work, the budget adjusted to the two-income system and it began costing more to insure and provide for the family, housing prices increased with more women at work and the consumer price index has shot upward exponentially – thus making the family far more at-risk if one parent lost a job.

So as usual, it isn’t as simple as it looks on the surface. When Mom stays home to tend to her kids, maybe instead of being an out-of-touch woman who doesn’t live in the real world, she’s doing someone else a favor by staying out of the job market because she can; or maybe she’s making a massive sacrifice to raise her kids, forgoing some of life’s luxuries.

And if Mom’s at work, instead of being a radical feminist or a somehow less-caring mother, she’s actually doing her best to provide for her family as best she can, whether she’s struggling to make ends meet or maximizing her family’s household income. Either way, Mom deserves respect instead of vitriolic dialogue in the national media – whatever her choice.

Thanks, Mom.

Jon Carvalho is a Collegian columnist, He can be reached at [email protected]