In what was probably the most inspiring moment of the otherwise bland and ineffectual 2012 Romney presidential campaign, Americans were treated to a blunt discussion of the work mothers do in the home. It's an easy topic to feel nostalgic and sentimental about — who doesn't like to fantasize about mom neatly placing an apple pie on the kitchen windowsill to cool? — but rarely one that is treated with the seriousness of other conversations about labor. Responding to a remark made by Democratic analyst Hilary Rosen that she had "never worked a day in her life," Romney's wife Ann took to Twitter to defend herself:
I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.
— Ann Romney (@AnnDRomney) April 12, 2012
The off-the-cuff comment spawned what seemed to be a thousand think-pieces, with even former First Lady Barbara Bush eventually weighing in. Rosen apologized a day later, but the labor committed to family life by stay-at-home moms remains a fond feel-good conservative talking point.
Recently the debate was rekindled by a comment made by President Obama, in which he said choosing between wages or childcare wasn't a "choice we want Americans to have to make." In a fainting fervor reminiscent of the Romney affair, conservatives instantaneously misconstrued and decried Obama's comments, claiming he had slammed stay-at-home mothers, and devalued the work that they do. The misrepresentation was so sudden and obvious that the event earned its own Snopes page, which will likely not dissuade anyone who is committed to believing that liberals hate stay-at-home moms, while conservatives recognize and celebrate their hard work.
Stay-at-home mothers do work, and yes, the work they do is as serious and necessary as any other, and in many cases more so. More to the point, if mothers opt out of in-home labor, someone has to do it: and when cleaners, cooks, and childcare workers take over that labor, they're certainly paid. So we know without a doubt that the work mothers do in the home is labor, and that it counts. The only myth still swirling around the work of stay-at-home moms is that it's conservatives who genuinely want to recognize and support in-home labor.
In the November issue of National Affairs, Lawrence Mead's "Overselling the Earned Income Tax Credit" appears to propose a fresh new conservative goal: reforming the EITC to force more labor out of recipients. Anyone wondering what, exactly, Republicans are likely to do with newfound dominance in the government should likely look no further than Mead's logic and proposed reforms. Mead argues that the EITC — a means-tested benefit mainly targeted at poor families that increases with the number of children a family has — should be outfitted with more stringent work requirements: "These include mandating participation in work programs and setting some threshold of working hours that claimants have to achieve to get benefits." Mead argues that the EITC in its present form has not encouraged work as much as it should, and that these reforms would require poor people to work more hours more consistently to qualify for assistance, thereby squeezing more labor out of them.
Much of Mead's essay is concerned with the failures of what he calls "welfare mothers," namely that they just don't do enough work. But the very notion that mothers who are working and caring for children aren't "working" is ludicrous; as discussed above, moms who come home from jobs to care for children do just as much work or more than those who care full-time for children. Some of the work is in-home and some is labor market work, but all of it is work. There's very little room for sloth or idleness when keeping a child fed, healthy, clean, and safe.
But Mead's take on "welfare mothers" dismisses the reality of mothers' in-home work, or at least suggests it isn't as relevant as their labor market work. This is, of course, despite all the good the EITC has done for mothers and children — last year, child poverty would have been 26 percent higher without it. By attaching an hours-worked threshold before mothers can qualify to receive the EITC, we would in effect be forcing mothers to trade one kind of work for another. That is, they would have to do less work at home in order to do more work out of it. But this means someone would have to replace the in-home labor, and the poorest mothers would be paying for childcare and other services out of pocket while trying to achieve the work hours to qualify for the EITC. It would, in other words, make the poorest poorer, and sharply target mothers and children.
But this is only the case if you believe that what wealthy mothers do at home is work, while what poor mothers do at home somehow doesn't qualify. If the EITC allows poor mothers to put in fewer hours behind the counter at Walmart, it's something we should all celebrate.