The Productivity Of Not Having A Job

Charles Murray celebrates the contributions of stay-at-home wives:

[M]any of the important forms of social capital take more time than a person holding a full-time job can afford. Who has been the primary engine for creating America’s social capital throughout its history, making our civil society one of the sociological wonders of the world? People without full-time jobs. The overwhelming majority of those people have been wives.

Every aspect of family and community life gets an infusion of vitality and depth from wives who are not working full time. If you live in a place that you cherish because “it’s a great community,” think of the things you have in mind that make it a great community (scenery and restaurants don’t count), and then think about who bears the brunt of the load in making those things happen. If you live in a place that is not a community—it’s just a collection of unrelated people, living anonymously, without social capital—think of the reasons why it is not a community. One of the answers will be that no one has spare time for that kind of thing.

I’m not knocking the importance of stay-at-home moms for raising children. I just want us to realize that stay-at-home wives are one of the resources that have made America America. It is entirely understandable that some wives work full time, either for the fulfillment of a vocation or to make money–the same reasons men work full time. But when either partner in a marriage—and it will usually be the wife—chooses to devote full time to being a parent and neighbor instead, that choice should not just be accepted, but celebrated.

And stay-at-home husbands as well. The division of labor within marriage is important, but it doesn’t have to follow traditional gender lines. Catherine Rampell responds to Murray:

Among fathers, 16 percent say they’d ideally stay at home, if money were no object. Just 7 percent of them are actually abstaining from the labor force. Now look at mothers: 22 percent say they would ideally like to stay at home and not work, while 30 percent actually do so. …

[W]hat accounts for the divergence between stated work preferences and actual work arrangements? Let’s start with the barriers to taking part-time work: Some jobs are just not easy to divvy into part-time hours, either because of the nature of the work or the costs to the employer associated with hiring and managing more staff. Part-time jobs also tend to pay less on an hourly basis than their full-time equivalents and may not be remunerative enough to justify paying for child care. So, many parents who would ideally like to work part time instead choose full-time jobs that pay a little better. Or — more often for mothers than for fathers — they stay out of the workforce altogether, which means they can provide child care themselves.

Fathers may feel relatively reluctant to drop out of the labor force — even when that is their preference, or when they prefer a part-time job but can’t find one – for two main reasons: A) They are still more likely to be in higher-paying careers than their children’s mothers are (a trend that may change as women obtain more education, as Tankersley suggested); and B) compared with women, men may feel greater social pressure to be breadwinners rather than homemakers, part of the so-called “masculine mystique.”

Update from a reader:

Rampell’s response to Murray’s piece only gets at part of the problem with his celebration of wives. Yes, the gendering of those who chose to stay-at-home is near-sighted and problematic. But Mr. Murray is not talking about “wives” here; he’s talking about the noblesse oblige of women of a certain class who are freed from domestic labor and then in turn pursue civic pursuits. While Mrs. Murray’s social commitments are commendable (she’s no Real Housewife of Chevy Chase), where does she get the time to take on “half a dozen civic obligations” if she isn’t relying on the (most likely) underpaid work of domestic laborers who keep up her house? Not that I would want her or anyone chained to what was once called drudge work, but her free time seems to be displaced onto the back of someone that Mr. Murray is not mentioning.  That someone cleans the Murray household (presumably a woman, since that is who typically performs paid domestic labor) is clearly not able to stay home and be a wife according to Mr. Murray’s definition.


I am not crazy about the “stay at home wife” terminology. It does ignore fathers who would like to stay home but do not, as well as the parents who need to work for financial reasons. However, as a “stay at home wife”, I disagree with the reader who said the civic participation occurs on the backs of hired help. Yes, that happens in some cases, but even the most cash-strapped “stay at home wives” volunteer their time in ways that benefit their community. I usually have 3-5 volunteer pursuits going at a time and I have no hired help to manage my home. We are wealthy enough to hire help but not wealthy enough for it not to be a trade off. Also, a number of women do not return to work when their kids go to college; they have a lot of time for civic pursuits.

In my experience, my volunteer civic pursuits are often treated as “cute” by men and women with careers, even if they require the same management skills as my former career did. Maybe what we need is less about celebrating “stay at homes wives” and more about respecting and valuing the contributions people make even when a paycheck is not involved.