Supporting American Homemakers
Margaret Thatcher once said, “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.” She was right. American policymakers, however, who “run the country,” seem largely ignorant of the many problems of running a home—or the importance of supporting those who do so. For many years, conservative policymakers have paid lip service to families with a homemaker without doing much to support them. But few issues are as important to parents with young children, and addressing their concerns should be a top priority.
During the 1960s and 1970s, when American women left the home in large numbers to pursue paid work and greater educational opportunities, politicians rightly applauded the tearing down of legal and cultural barriers that had kept women on an unequal footing with men. But at the time, and ever since, few policymakers appreciated the key role played by homemakers in America’s social, economic, and political fabric. Homemakers raise children, care for the sick and elderly, and steward family economic and physical health. They also knit neighborhoods and communities together through volunteering, social events, and religious activities.
Today, even though many American families want to have a homemaker, they struggle to do so. Polling by American Compass shows that for parenting-age Americans, the preference when raising young children is to have one parent working and the other taking care of the kids. This preference is particularly strong among working- and middle-class Americans, and among married mothers. Only the highest-income, highest-educated households prefer to have two full-time working parents, with their children in full-time paid childcare. Yet, conservative policymakers have given little attention to this desire, more often prioritizing the culturally dominant preferences of the wealthy elite to put their children in paid childcare during family policy discussions.
Conservative policymakers should rethink their approach. This reconsideration should begin with an understanding of how homemakers are still needed in the 21st century. During the 1970s, liberal feminists such as Betty Friedan made the case that technology and economic advances rendered homemakers unnecessary. Friedan and her supporters believed modern food manufacturing, nursing homes, and the public school system would replace homemakers, leaving women free to join the paid workforce without consequences for children, the elderly, and families. This was profoundly incorrect, as evidenced by modern crises from the skyrocketing obesity and collapsing mental health of American children to the unavailability and unaffordability of high-quality eldercare.
American loneliness has also reached epidemic levels since homemakers left for paid work. In prior generations, homemakers were often responsible for organizing the community barbecues, coffee hours, raffles, church activities, and other social events that knit people together. The loss of these community ties is socially burdensome, resulting in mental health issues and “deaths of despair,” particularly for men. Indeed, the dual-income family model leaves little time for anything outside of work and immediate family care. As the Brookings Institution recently found, “The average middle-class married couple with children now works a combined 3,446 hours annually, an increase of more than 600 hours—or 2.5 additional months—since 1975. This average combines dual- and single-earner couples, but the trend is mostly driven by increases in the employment of, and hours worked by, women in dual-earner couples.”
Finally, American homemakers are responsible for raising a significant percentage of the nation’s children—a national treasure of which we increasingly have too few. Since 2008, America’s fertility has been dropping, sowing the seeds of a future demographic crisis. As Pew reported in December 2022, this will have a significant impact on state budgets: “The future course of fertility represents a key source of fiscal uncertainty for states as smaller working-age populations may eventually threaten tax bases.” Similarly, the federal Medicare and Social Security trust funds depend on a base of younger workers paying into the system. Already on the verge of collapse, this problem will continue to escalate as America’s fertility continues to decline. In the 1970s, when the cultural winds started to blow in favor of both parents working full time outside the home, public intellectuals worried about population growth and too many babies. Now, in the 21st century, we should worry about too few children to support America’s graying population—and consider whether making it easier for mom or dad to stay home while the other parent works would make it easier for American families to have the children they desire, but feel they cannot practically have.
Supporting homemakers is not only vital to the nation’s future, but also a conservative priority with broad political support. American Compass recently found that 62% of Republicans said it was a “big problem” that families face economic pressure to have two working parents; 60% of Democrats agreed.
Conservative policymakers should prioritize supporting the women and men who devote themselves to the work of the home. And stop calling them “stay-at-home parents”: they are not being left out or left behind. There’s a saying: “As goes the family, so goes the nation.” America’s homemakers shape their homes, and thus shape the country’s future. They deserve robust support.