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Should Stay-at-Home Parents Get Wages for Housework?

04/06/2015 02:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Many of you readers probably recall the incident last October when Obama managed to (again) enrage the country's many adherents to Traditional Family Values by saying in a speech that staying home with children was "not a choice we want Americans to make." With those eight little words, the conservative blogosphere was instantly prompted to -- if you'll pardon the turn of phrase -- lose its shit. Google that snippet and you'll find 309 million results, overwhelmingly composed of right-wing websites shrieking in disgust at the President for "judging" women who choose to stay home with their children over a career.

Except, you know, that that's not really what happened. The context in which Obama's beleaguered speechwriter inserted this unfortunate phrase involved parents who have to choose between accessible, quality daycare and participating in the labor force, and then are left with lower lifetime earning potential as a result. A reasonable dilemma for a progressive government to wish to resolve, it would seem.

But this certainly isn't the only case where the very suggestion that conditions should be improved for women who wish to combine a career with parenthood has provoked the ire of stay-at-home mothers. The Guardian ran a piece last month on how the skyrocketing cost of childcare in the UK is driving mothers out of the workforce. The article prompted a barrage of stay-at-home mothers to reply with complaints of "a far worse problem [where] women who stay at home with their children are looked down on by so many people."

For many stay-at-home moms, just pointing out that some women want both a child and a career prompts a defensive backlash against changing norms where men and women are increasingly expected to be financially independent -- and thus active in the work force.

These changing expectations for parental and economic roles have tarnished many women's view of feminism. Janet Bloomfield, for instance, the recently self-doxxed founder of the #WomenAgainstFeminism hashtag, outlines in a blog post how her dissatisfying experience in labor markets and decision to become a stay-at-home mother eventually led her to become involved in the Men's Rights Movement.

To an extent, these critics have a point: The women's movement has historically been fueled by hostility to institutions that confine women to the home -- regardless of whether that confinement is voluntary. Victorian feminists railed against the "cult of domesticity", and Betty Freidan's Feminine Mystique laid bare the personal costs to women of a gendered division of labor, where housewives assume responsibility for housework and childcare in exchange for access to the money their husbands earn through paid labor.

Second-wave feminists diverged on how solve this problem of women's relationship to money being mediated through their men. Some Marxist feminists in Europe like activists Silvia Federici and Selma James demanded Wages For Housework. In the U.S., on the other hand, the discourse was dominated by liberal feminists who aimed to clear the obstacles to women's participation in the paid labor force. The goal in both cases was the same -- to remove men as the intermediaries to women's financial independence. But in the U.S. this occurred partially at the expense of women's attachment to the domestic realm, not always to the thrill of all mothers.

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Fast-forward to our 21st-century economy, where both women and men of the middle-class are working ever-longer hours at mostly stagnant wages and women continue to shoulder the bulk of housework and childcare in addition to their paid jobs. Second Wave feminists' enthusiasm for paid labor markets has now started to look rather less rosy. It's more understandable than ever why frazzled mothers might long for the days of Traditional Family Values, when women could enjoy the magic of their children's upbringing while being able to depend on a stable source of financial support.

Anyone committed to equal rights and self-determination must concede that it's no crime for some mothers or fathers to prefer to spend their time at home with their children. Besides the decreased financial stress (for some workers), both fathers and mothers who voluntarily stay at home (or who simply reduce their working hours) score higher on certain indicators of wellbeing. Modern liberal feminism clearly needs to refocus on what parents say they want and need.

Nevertheless, the key problem that Second Wave feminism had with stay-at-home parenting remains: Who pays you to do it? For most families, whatever a parent's preferences, whatever the benefits, staying at home is only an option where there are (at least) two partners and one can support the other -- or effectively pay their partner a wage for their domestic work. This dynamic is overwhelmingly gendered in practice thanks to the motherhood penalty that hits women's earning power after childbirth, which usually makes it a better financial bet for the father to be the parent who returns to work. And, it also creates a nearly impossible situation for single or poor SAHMs and SAHDs.

In other words, parents' freedom to choose to stay at home is presumed to be inviolate only for those who are already financially free to make that choice. Yet again, at the bottom of what appears on the surface to be a straightforward issue about gender roles, we find embedded beliefs about class and which people deserve to be able to make the childcare choices they deem best for their families.

But is there any other way?

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There remain lots of voices on the radical left (Wages for Housework founder Selma James still among them) arguing that SAHMs should receive wages for their domestic labor. (Note that Salary.com rather coyly pegs the market value of a stay-at-home at over $115,000 -- the same as a registered pharmacist or the mayor of a small California city, as pointed out by Salon.) Venezuela, for instance, has enshrined stay-at-home motherhood as an occupation in its constitution, which entitles housewives to wages and social security.

But in a country like the United States that takes its libertarianism to near-neurotic levels, Wages for Housework is a very hard sell. Nevertheless, a similar policy alternative, the unconditional basic income (UBI), is currently gaining traction across the political spectrum in the U.S. and Europe and could help offer financial independence to stay-at-home parents of any gender and any socioeconomic group.

The program is being pioneered by another country famous for its uncompromising libertarianism (and capitalism): Switzerland. In 2016 the Swiss should vote in a public referendum on whether to guarantee all citizens, regardless of age or employment status, an allowance meant to largely replace the state's other welfare programs.

Political scientist Almaz Zelleke describes a UBI as "a floor of income upon which people can build other sources of revenue." The idea has been the subject of serious economic analysis in one variant or another as far back as Milton Friedman in the 70s and has recently brought together voices from both left and right in the U.S. and Europe.

For any parent who wishes to stay at home or simply reduce their working hours to spend more time with their children -- whether male or female, and irrespective of socioeconomic status -- a UBI could offer the financial independence that liberal feminism has been seeking for decades, with only limited success. And unlike Wages for Housework, it is equally fair to men and women who opt not to have children.

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The fundamental contention of intersectional feminism is that gender inequality is intimately connected with other social oppressions, and on few other issues are those intersections between gender and class so clear-cut as for the issue of stay-at-home parenting.

But there is hope. An intersectional problem requires an intersectional solution -- and a Basic Income could provide just that.

A version of this article appeared on March 3, 2015 at the digital magazine Role/Reboot with the title "Can Stay-at-Home Parenting Ever Be Truly Egalitarian?"