The Economy of Women’s Work

A left-wing political operative stepped in it last week when she accused the wife of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney of “never working a day in her life.”

In justice, I think political strategist Hilary Rosen was not aiming at Ann Romney’s status as an at-home mom. She intended only to suggest the Romneys were too rich to be in touch with the needs of middle America.

But talk about out of touch! Who doesn’t know that moms of all stripes are hair-trigger sensitive to perceived slights and at-home mothers perhaps most of all?

Predictably, the remark was taken as a dig at stay-at-home moms (SAHMs, in internet parlance), and while Ms. Rosen may have meant no such thing, several commentators who leapt to her defense certainly did. I overheard a radio discussion of the incident in which the host said President Obama may not get the SAHM vote, but he’ll get the votes of educated women.

Okay, then! (I’m thinking Ms. Rosen would prefer not to have such “help.”)

I have nothing to add to the political to and fro, but while everyone acknowledges that moms raising kids at home are not lazy, this seems like a good moment to remind ourselves that they are making genuine contributions to the economy, too.  It’s a topic I take up as part of a larger discussion on women and work in a chapter I contributed to Hallie Lord’s recently-released book, “Style, Sex & Substance: 10 Catholic Women Consider the Things That Really Matter.”

For starters, as I write in the book, people don’t exist to support the economy, the economy exists to support people:

There was a time when each household had to provide everything for itself. “Economy,” in fact, comes from the Greek word for household management and it refers to all the activity necessary for a household to have what it needs. Each family planted crops, hunted game, spun its own cloth and so forth in a division of labor that assured everyone in the household –typically including not only a nuclear family, but extended relatives and servants because it took a lot of people to perform all the necessary tasks—had what they needed to live well.

“Business” is a form of task specialization, by which the household outsources what it used to have to do itself to others. Increasing specialization of this kind has led to massive changes in social organization, but it hasn’t changed the essential nature of the activity, which is to provide households with what they need to live well. We don’t talk about economics in these terms because we have become philosophical materialists, interested only in what and how,  never concerning ourselves with the questions how does this arise and towards what is it ordered.

The economy exists to be sure each household has what it needs. What that requires may look different for each household (does it make more sense for us to outsource childcare or provide it ourselves?), but it’s the flourishing of the human person that is the point. Is someone sneering at you for not working outside the home? Smile. They work for you!

Even in strictly material terms, a mother (or a dad) raising kids at home is performing a great good for society. Here I learn from my friend John Mueller, in whose book, “Redeeming Economics,” he notes that there are two forms of capital. There is physical capital (machinery, computers and other things businesses invest in so they can operate). There is also human capital (the muscle power and creativity of people who work).

To shamelessly quote myself again:

Mueller performs a rough calculation and concludes that two-thirds of wealth creation is a product not of physical, but human, capital. At present we don’t incentivize investment in human capital (eg, providing the same tax breaks for educating a young person we do for buying a Mac). That means every adult a stay-at-home mom sends into the workforce is an enormous gift of wealth she’s given her country.

The human person is of course not reducible to a mere “worker.” Still, in strictly economic terms, people are our most valuable economic resource and the family is not a nostalgic religious notion, but also the most essential engine of the economy. Stay-at-home moms are not outside the economy, they’re at the heart of it.

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is a Catholic wife and mother. Follow her daily at www.faithandfamilylive.com.

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  • http://missionmotherhoodmeaning.blogspot.com/ Dawn

    I am – gasp – a SAHM.  About a year ago one of my sons was worrying out loud about me not being very bright.  When I asked him what on earth he meant… thinking of the years put into university…. he turned to me and said that he knew that I “couldn’t” get a job.  Ha!  It was a VERY long afternoon for him and his brothers that day.  

  • Elwinransom

    I’m wondering where all these critics of Mrs. Romney were when Teresa Heinz Kerry was in the spotlight a few years ago.

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