Friday, May 24, 2002
By Heide Seward, Research Fellow
New, detailed Census 2000 data indicate that a majority of American children still have both parents in the workforce (that is, either employed or seeking employment). The data also indicate that mothers of infants are, increasingly, either staying home with their infants or choosing family care over institutional care.
The new information, gleaned from the 2000 Census “long form” now brings to 22 the total of states for which these data are available. Data from 11 additional states is scheduled for release by the end of this week. The new data confirm a trend, indicated in interim Census reports, of a steady increase in the overall percentage of mothers in the workforce since 1990. A detailed report by the U.S. Census Bureau, Fertility of American Women: June 2000, released in October of 2001, indicated that, among mothers of older children-those who had not had a child between June 1999 and June 2000-73.5% were in the workforce. This is up very slightly from the overall percentage of working mothers as of June 1998 (72.8%), as indicated in the previous version of this report.
Interestingly, among mothers of infants –those who had a child in the past year –this trend has gone in the opposite direction. Only 55% of women who had a child between June 1999 and June 2000 were in the workforce, down from 59% who had a child between June 1997 and June 1998. This trend appears to be consistent with figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicating that labor force participation rates for married and never-married mothers with children under age 3 declined from 1998 to 1999 (BLI noted the beginning of this trend in the Jan./Feb. 2001 Data Digest, “Mothers At Work: Brave New World or Necessary Evil?“).
It appears that mothers of infants are either waiting longer to return to the workforce after their children are born or are working only part time when they do return. Between June ’97/’98 and June ’99/’00 the percentage of married and separated, divorced or widowed mothers of infants working full time decreased. Only among never-married mothers did these numbers rise, driven largely by welfare reform policies requiring single mothers to work (See Mar. 7, 2002 Dot.Commentary, “Marriage, not Work Only, Fuels Real Welfare Reform”).
One very significant question that Census data cannot answer is whether these mothers are in the workforce out of choice or necessity. That fewer mothers of infants are working full time may be symptomatic of a slowing economy, but it may also reflect mothers’ preference for more flexible work arrangements that allow them to spend more time at home with their children. Numerous surveys reflect parents’ concern with the so-called “time bind” that often forces them to make difficult choices between work and children. As we reported in the Jan./Feb. 2001 Data Digest (cited above), a major survey conducted in 2000 by the public policy research organization, Public Agenda, found that a majority of American parents surveyed said that having a parent stay at home with young children is the best possible arrangement for their child’s care and development. Although they acknowledged the necessity of childcare for many families, it was not their first choice for their children. Where this is not possible, a majority of parents said that care by a close relative is the next best solution.
An Associated Press story on the newly released Census data noted that such events are bound to renew the debate about the role of the government in childcare. The AP story quoted a researcher with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who indicated that the issue hinges primarily on the quality of childcare. Yet, the largest, most comprehensive and most authoritative study of childcare and development conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, reported last year that too much day care can turn children to bullies. Further, the quality of childcare did not appear to improve the outcomes and the results held true whether the children were rich or poor, male or female and whether they were in institutionalized day care or were looked after by a relative or a nanny. Saying that the issue depends upon the quality of the day care is a familiar argument, but advocates of government-sponsored childcare tend to place their faith in institutionalized childcare –“early-learning centers” and the like. Surveys like the one conducted by Public Agenda indicate that parents believe the issue hinges more on the degree of commitment to the child. In that case, parents are far and away the best quality childcare providers. The latest Census Data indicates that more and more parents are acting on that belief-to the benefit of their children.