Rick Williamson/AP/File
Tricia Williamson (l.) quit her job at a TV station to care for her husband Mike Williamson and their one-year-old son Adam, seen here at their home in Liberty, N.C., in a Dec. 13, 2013 photo released by the family. But the 'opt-out' stay-at-home mom accounts for only about 5 percent of mothers at home, according to a new Pew survey.

Stay-at-home moms: a rising trend, fueled by immigration and weak economy

The percentage of moms who are staying home with their children, in decline for decades, has rebounded almost continuously since 2000. One reason is how tough it is to find a job.

The percentage of moms who are staying home with their children has increased since the millennium, a trend that likely is driven by both an influx of immigrant mothers and the pressures of a still hard-up economy in which many women cannot get jobs, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

The share of moms who do not work outside their homes reached 29 percent in 2012, up from a historic low of 23 percent in 1999, according to a Pew analysis of US government survey data.

The rise in the percentage of mothers who are at home full-time reverses a decades long decline in the share of stay-at-home moms. In 1967, about 49 percent of mothers stayed at home, and that percentage continued to trim over the next 30 years. Only in 2000 did the share of mothers staying home begin to go up, and it has done so almost continuously since then.

What's behind the trend is still up for debate, but chief among the possible reasons are the country's ongoing economic woes, making staying home less a conscious choice for some women than a response to a tight job market, the report found.

Six percent of stay-at-home moms, or about 634,000 people, reported that they were at home in 2012 because they were unable to find a job. That’s an increase from 2000, when just 1 percent of stay-at-home moms said that unemployment was their main reason for staying home, according to Pew.

The rise in the share of stay-at-home moms also parallels a more than decade-long decline in women’s participation in the workforce, the report noted.

In 1999, 60 percent of women had jobs – a historic high – but that share fell to about 58 percent in 2012, according to Labor Bureau statistics. 

The report also suggested that shifting demographics might account for a greater percentage of mothers staying home. About a third of stay-at-home mothers were born outside the US, Pew found. That large share is despite the fact that immigrants account for just 13 percent of Americans, according to the 2010 US census.

About 40 percent of foreign-born mothers are stay-at-home moms, versus just a quarter of mothers who were born in the US, the report found.

The report also highlighted a number of demographic changes among mothers who do not work outside the home, including a rise in the share of stay-at-home moms who are single.

About 20 percent of stay-at-home moms were single in 2012, versus 8 percent in 1970, the report found. While a majority, or about 68 percent, of stay-at-home mothers are still women who are married to employed partners, that’s a decline from 1970, when about 85 percent of stay-at-home moms were married to partners with jobs, Pew reported.

Stay-at-home moms are also more educated as a group than in years past. About a quarter of the nation's 10.4 million stay-at-home mothers had college degrees in 2012, compared with just 7 percent of them in 1970. Plus, just 19 percent of those mothers had less than a high school diploma in 2012, versus about 35 percent in 1970.

Still, the poll also found that stay-at-home moms are often poor, with one-third of stay-at-home mothers living under the poverty line in 2012. By contrast, about 12 percent of working mothers were impoverished in 2012, according to Pew.

Stay-at-home mothers married to partners with jobs were also much more likely than single or cohabiting stay-at-home moms to say their primary reason for staying at home is to raise their families. (Eighty-five percent of married stay-at-home moms said so.) Just 41 percent of single stay-at-home mothers said that caring for their children was their main motivation to stay home, citing other reasons that included unemployment, attending school, and illness.

The poll also found that highly educated, married women are just a rounding-error-sized fraction of the total number of stay-at-home moms, despite significant media attention to those “opt-out” women. About 370,000 stay-at-home mothers married to working partners had at least a master’s degree and family income upwards of $75,000, the poll found.

Meanwhile, a separate Pew survey found that Americans still have mixed feelings about working mothers: About 60 percent of respondents said that children are better off when a parent stays at home. About 35 percent said that a child’s well-being is unaffected if both parents have jobs. 

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