The Census Perpetuates “Leave It to Beaver” Gender Roles

Anyone who knows me will be shocked to hear that I may agree with Rick Santorum on something. But while he was in the midst of ranting against radical feminists back in 2005, Santorum said this: “We need to value mothers and fathers spending time with their children much more than we do in America.” He even makes a point of saying this “goes for men and women.” In my twisted reading of what he was actually trying to say, Santorum may be more progressive on this point than our own government. Because when it comes to the Census Bureau’s data collection efforts on child care, its definitions are based on long-held, yet unhelpful, ideas of who does the care work at home. (Hint: it doesn’t go for men and women.)

The Census regularly reports who cares for children when parents work in its report “Who’s Minding the Kids?” A trove of data on child care arrangements in the U.S., given the lack of support for families with working parents and the dearth of affordable options, is exciting. But it goes about classifying things all wrong. On page one of the most recent report, it lays out some basic terms. And, I quote, “In households where both parents are present, the mother is the designated parent.” What is couched in the dressing of scientific term is really a judgment: that women are the default caretakers. Minding Johnny and Susie is only dad’s concern if mom’s not around. Otherwise it’s something that she just does. But then it does away with even this term to say, “In this report, unless otherwise noted, the term parent is used to refer to the designated parent.” Dad gets booted from even counting as a parent, not just the designated one. So what is dad then? Just some guy who lives in the same house who sometimes stands in as a child care arrangement.

But it gets worse. If mom’s not around to talk to the Census, dad isn’t even empowered to know anything about how his kids are cared for. “If the mother is not available for an interview, the father of the child can give proxy responses for her.” But he will never be a real source of information on child care duties. Because he’s rarely ever going to be doing it: “The survey only asked about child care provided by the father for the time the designated parent was working.” What dad would deign to care for his kids if mom’s around to do it for him?

The Census claims it is simply trying to collect data based on “gender norms,” as Lynda Laughlin of the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch told the New York Times KJ Dell’Antonia. “Regardless of how much families have changed over the last 50 years women are still primarily responsible for work in the home,” she points out. A mother is “not only caring for the child only while Dad works. She’s probably caring for the child 24 hours and so Dad is able to go to work regardless.”

Laughlin is probably correct in her estimation of the gender norms women face. But why replicate these pernicious ideas? This misconception that women are default caretakers reverberates throughout the entire workforce.

In a controversial article riffing off the “opt-out revolution” trend of a few years ago, Linda Hirshman talks about the fact that many college-educated women who hold jobs choose to stay home — sometimes even before kids arrive on the scene. Whether you may quibble with her data-mining methods, she makes a vital point as to why this might happen: women are still responsible for child care and homemaking, a fact that hasn’t really changed even as women have flooded the workforce. The fact that women are thought of as default caretakers — by their husbands, their workplaces, their society, and even themselves — plays out in very specific ways. Hirshman writes:

The economic temptation is to assign the cost of child care to the woman’s income. If a woman making $50,000 per year whose husband makes $100,000 decides to have a baby, and the cost of a full-time nanny is $30,000, the couple reason that, after paying 40 percent in taxes, she makes $30,000, just enough to pay the nanny. So she might as well stay home. This totally ignores that both adults are in the enterprise together and the demonstrable future loss of income, power, and security for the woman who quits.

Hirsman postulates that this is due to a lack of transformation in the home. But it’s also a lack of transformation at work. If by and large women are still being paid less than men for the same work, then it will be easier to think of her lower salary as the most expendable. And her family wouldn’t be faced with such stark economic choices if we supported parents who work. There’s no such thing as guaranteed maternal leave — the Census itself recently found that half of mothers don’t get any leave at all. We have some family leave policies in place but many workers fall through the cracks. And not to mention that there are few quality, affordable, and accessible child care options for parents who don’t rely on family members. We’re still making it difficult to be a working parent, let alone a working mother.

The fallout from assuming that one gender just naturally “does” care work goes beyond the family. It devalues care work itself. This is a large part of why domestic workers are still fighting to be protected by national labor laws after having been excluded on the grounds that what they do is “babysitting” or offering “companionship.” Because of these exclusions, our 1.7 million home care workers have been excluded from minimum wage and overtime protections. That means employers aren’t required to pay them for all of their work hours, reimburse them for costs incurred as part of work, or pay them time-and-a-half for working over 40 hours a week. All of this adds up to pathetic pay: in 2009 the median wage of $9.34 an hour added up to just $20,283 a year. President Obama just nixed this exclusion for home health aides, but child care workers are still working outside labor laws.

It also impacts working women by assuming that they will interrupt or leave their careers to care for children without asking whether men should share that burden. A UC Berkeley study on California’s child care system puts it this way: “Workers’ careers are disrupted because of child care failure — care that is unreliable, unaffordable, or just unavailable — and these workers are usually women.” This leads to lower pay and benefits, getting us back into the Catch-22 of the gender wage gap.

The opt-out trend wouldn’t be that bad, however, if it weren’t weighted to one gender. If a parent wants to stay home with the children, fine by me. But it shouldn’t be assumed that women will be the ones to do it. We should see just as many stay-at-home dads as moms. The stereotypes that the Census relied on, however, simply add weight to the pressure on women to be the ones to leave their careers. And this obviously harms fathers as well. Why disqualify the care work they do while mom is at home? Why can’t we assume that they would want to stay home?

Parroting outdated notions of the workforce, women’s roles, and care work makes these problems worse. All it would take is to change a few words and ask slightly different questions for the Census to stop being part of the problem. Shouldn’t be so much to ask given what’s at stake.