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Why more American dads are choosing to stay home

June 13, 2014 at 6:43 PM EDT
The number of American fathers staying home with their children reached 2.2 million in 2010 -- an all-time high. For a closer look at why more fathers are acting as primary caregivers, Hari Sreenivasan talks to Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center and Scott Coltrane of the University of Oregon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, it is Father’s Day weekend, a good time for a conversation about the changing roles of dads in this country and why there are a rising number of them who stay at home.

And for that, we go to Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Back in 1989, a little more than a million fathers stayed at home with their children for a variety of reasons. More than two decades later, that number has doubled. In a recent report, the Pew Research Center said it grew to its highest point, 2.2 million in the U.S. in 2010, just after the official end of the great recession.

The number has dipped since then, but there are still more dads at home than has traditionally been the case. In fact, fathers now account for 16 percent of all stay-at-home parents.

The reasons for this are a complex mix.

We explore that with two people, Kim Parker who is with the Pew Research Center, and Scott Coltrane, a provost at the University of Oregon who has long studied this very subject. He recently spoke at a recent White House summit on working dads.

So, Kim, let me start with you. What’s the reason behind this surge in the last 20 years?

KIM PARKER, Pew Research Center: Well, there’s a variety of reasons.

You alluded to the end of the recession and how we saw that number spike to 2.2 million in 2010, and clearly what was going on there in part was increases in unemployment, and men having difficulty, fathers having difficulty finding jobs.

But the biggest factor in the long-term growth in the number of stay-at-home dads is the growing share of dads who say that they’re at home primarily to care for their family and for their children. And so that’s what’s been driving this long-term trend from 1989 to the present.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Scott, have we — are we seeing a shift in perception of what it means to stay at home with your child from, let’s say, the ’40s and ’50s, when we had perhaps a particular stereotype of who should work and who should stay at home?

SCOTT COLTRANE, University of Oregon: Absolutely.

We used to assume that dads, to be good dads, would be breadwinners, and that moms would be the ones to stay home and care for kids. It’s now tag team parenting. And this shift has been going on for decades. But now we’re seeing the culture kind of catch up. Most young men want to be involved in the caretaking.

Most young women want to be involved as breadwinners, and I think the two together is what we’re seeing here, people trading off who stays home, who doesn’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kim Parker, how do we know that is not a cause of the recession, that unemployment is not the primary reason that these dads have chosen to stay at home?

KIM PARKER: Well, I think we do know that that’s a major factor, and we also know that a significant share of fathers who are at home are home because they’re ill or disabled.

But, again, the growth has come among the group that say that they’re home primarily to care for their children and their family. And in the studies that we have done at the Pew Research Center, we have found that men, just like women, are struggling with striking the right balance between family life and their work life, and about half of dads say that they find it difficult to strike the balance, and about half of dads also say that they would prefer to be home with their young children, but they need to work because they need the income.

So, a lot of focus of this debate is normally on mothers and mothers trying to balance these things. But our surveys really suggest that, especially with this generation of younger fathers, they’re facing the same types of challenges.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Scott, is there a gap between that preference that men say, I would prefer to stay home with my kids, but then, in reality, when they’re given the choice, that they make the choice to go to work more often than women?

SCOTT COLTRANE: Well, I think one of the things that constrains men is that they feel like they need to be breadwinners first.

So this story is really looking at men who aren’t in the labor market at all for a whole year. And there are still two million of them. But there are millions and millions of other dads that other Pew studies and other surveys show are really pitching in more.

So I think the combination of doing some work and doing some child care is really the norm for young families.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kim, is there a difference in how, say, the census measures someone who stays at home and who is the primary caregiver vs. your survey?

KIM PARKER: There is a difference.

And the census actually comes up with a much lower number of stay-at-home dads, around a little over 200,000, but they limit it to dads with children under the age of 15 and dads who specifically say that they’re home to care for family.

Now, we came up with a broader definition and we just wanted to cast the net a little bit wider. And we also feel like some of the dads that are home because they’re maybe looking for a job or maybe even disabled are probably also the primary caregivers in the home. So that’s why we looked at sort of this broader group.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Scott Coltrane, what about that kind of change in perception of who is the primary caregiver, and do we see that change in perception break across maybe different demographic lines, whether it’s ethnic groups or maybe different ages?


Well, there’s cross-cutting tendencies because a lot of this is practical solutions to everyday demands. And we find is people’s job schedules really dictate who can be home when and who can do what kinds of work. So flexible scheduling and leaves are important, transitioning in and out of the labor force.

We’re finding younger people are more willing to do that than older parents, but at the same time, it’s those younger parents who are really stressed to make more money just to make ends meet. So it’s a kind of practical solution to the everyday dilemma of how are you going to take care of the kids.

But we have a whole set of doubling and tripling in the last 30 years. This study shows it. Other studies show that the number of single dads tripled. The number of stay-at-home dads doubled. The amount that all men do in terms of housework and child care doubled and tripled over the last 30 years.

So I think we have a fundamental shift. It’s no longer stigmatized for men to do — be good caring daddies. You know, 95 percent of new dads bathe and diaper their kids. About two-thirds of most dads now do more of the cooking, certainly do more with their kids, do more homework, do more reading to their children, and it’s all good. The outcomes are really positive for the children.

They do better in school. They’re more socially well-adjusted. It’s a win-win situation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kim Parker, how does this break down across ethnic lines? You saw different numbers in communities of color.

KIM PARKER: Yes, it’s interesting.

The share of stay-at-home dads who are — there is a disproportionate share of stay-at-home dads who are African-Americans, and they also tend to be less well-educated and have lower incomes overall. And one of the really interesting findings was that half of the stay-at-home dads, as we defined them, are actually living in poverty.

And a higher share of stay-at-home dads are living in poverty than stay-at-home moms. And that’s because more often — it’s more often the case that stay-at-home dads have a spouse who is also not working. So, that’s sort of — it’s not necessarily the affluent opt-out dad with the wife who’s pursuing a lucrative career.

When you look at the actual data — it is, you know, the men who are at home vs. the men who are working are maybe still struggling a little more financially.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Scott, is there a different perception among communities of color? Go ahead.


I think one of the things that has been true for many decades is that the wage gap between men and women is much smaller. So if African-American families have shared parenting, provided that the couple lives together with their children, there’s always been more sharing. So that’s been adaptive. It’s been a response to practical realities.

And so we see this in Latino families, too, that I have also studied, more sharing, not necessarily gender blending in the kinds of things that men and women do. They might do different things, but certainly more ability to step in, more willingness to step in, a more whole family system, a lot of sharing going on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Scott Coltrane from the University of Oregon, Kim Parker from Pew Research Center, thanks so much.

KIM PARKER: Thank you.