The Common Good
March 2006

Economics and 'Free' Time

by Robert H. Baker | March 2006

“Taking Back our Kids,” by Danny and Polly Duncan Collum (January 2006), has many important things to say about raising children in today’s American culture, but I take issue with one assertion: that it has been the “choice” of women to enter the workforce in the 1970s and beyond that is at least one cause of the degradation of the lives of children when compared to the 1950s.

Post-World War II America was a unique period in our history—indeed, in the history of any nation. Prior to this period, the lack of labor-saving devices in the home meant that the duties of a “homemaker”—food acquisition and preparation, house cleaning, etc.—required a full day of real “work” in addition to childcare activities. Except for the wealthy, who could afford household help, these duties fell to the homemaker/mother (and the percentage of the “wealthy” in any given population is always small).

The post-war era was a period of such strong economic expansion and technological growth in the United States that the time and effort required to keep a home declined to such a level that the “average” homemaker/mother began to have the “free” time previously available only to the wealthy. For several decades, the dominance of the American economy in the world allowed this privileged condition to become the accepted norm.

Alas, this happy time was not to last. The now-recovered European and Japanese economies caught up with and, in some cases, surpassed American technology, productivity, and economic growth rates. Later, rapidly expanding “second” world economies, primarily in Asia, have added to the economic pressure on American workers. One wage-earner’s income could no longer sustain the same standard of living that it did in post-war America.

Today, the fact that two incomes are required to maintain the comparative lifestyle of our parents in the 1950s to 1970s is due more to our position in a global economy than to personal choices made by women of child-bearing age. The choice of young women to work outside the home, or not, is today available, in reality, only to wives of high-income earners, not to the vast majority of women. The idyllic post-World War II golden age is over, and the lives of most Americans have reverted back to the norm, wherein both parents have to work full time.

To be sure, parents can, and should, seek to limit the demands of a consumer-crazed culture. I would also agree that the social-policy choices made in Europe and elsewhere are often far more child-friendly and life-affirming than those we have made in this country. But I beg to differ with the argument that a return to the 1950s era of the stay-at-home mom is realistic for any but the wealthiest American families. Such an argument casts working mothers—the majority of American mothers—in an unfair light. It also distracts us from developing social policies that will enable American families to create the child-friendly society for which we pray.

Robert H. Baker
Houston, Texas

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