McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

Features

June 4, 2013

Are households better off with one parent at home?

CHICAGO — When I was in elementary school, Mikey's mom made the most amazing cupcakes for class parties. The key is that she cut out a hole in the top, filled them with whipped cream, and then put the top back on. Twenty-five years later I still think of that as one of the world's top five dessert ideas.

              

In my house, my mom had a simple rule for class parties sign-ups: Get the list first, and sign up for soda. If you missed soda, sign up for plates. Even with these low-ambition commitments there was still typically a last-minute family scramble because we rarely had any soda or plates in the house.

              

The "soda rule," as we called it, will be familiar to many working moms. Lovingly crafted and super-creative cupcakes are not exactly on tap in my household after a full day at work, and I do not blame my mother for a second that they were not on tap in hers, either. But even if you manage to get your kid to sign up for soda at every class party, there are still countless tasks that you can't avoid.

              

And sometimes when both parents are sitting down to do these at the end of the day one does start to wonder whether it might be easier if one parent did the working and the other did everything else. I'm not talking here just about strictly watching the children but the whole enterprise of raising them: signing up for parent-teacher's conferences, packing lunches for tomorrow, ordering bathing suits, planning dentist appointments, starting the college fund and the like.

              

Feminists of my mother's generation argued that both mom and dad should work a little less and each do some of the household chores. My parents, for example, split everything 50/50. Even though my father is a terrible cook, he still made dinner exactly half the time. Lately, feminists have been resisting this argument and confessing that they may want to stay home. This is the argument in one recent New York magazine story, "The Retro Wife," which prompted the usual outrage. But a new Atlantic cover story on gay marriage revives the question in a different way. Married gay men with kids are actually slightly more likely than heterosexual couples to be in a relationship where one person stays home full time. The article implies that this is because they have no feminist baggage to worry about and because it's just a better idea. Is that true?

              

For an economist, the central question is not whether this creates a good role model for your children or upsets the power dynamic in the relationship; rather, it is simply whether this arrangement is more efficient. In fact, as the Atlantic story notes, economists have considered this question and basically argued that, yes, specialization in the household is efficient.

              

The first and still classic work on this is from Gary Becker in his book "Treatise on the Family," published in the early 1980s. Becker's basic idea is that the household should be understood as a minifirm. One implication of this is that people should specialize. Major productivity gains were achieved in the industrial revolution when we moved from one guy making a whole product in his house to a factory with everyone doing a single specialized task over and over. Similarly, your household would be more efficient if people specialized.

              

At the time of publication, feminists were a bit up in arms about this idea, even though Becker is surprisingly agnostic about who should specialize in what. He does make the point that if women are even slightly better at the tasks of child-rearing, this means they should specialize in this even if both spouses are comparable in the labor force. But he does it not for political but economic reasons: This is a basic comparative-advantage principle - it also works for dividing your chores.

              

Since Becker was writing, a whole field of economics of the family has developed. And some of what Becker said in his book has been challenged - his idea, for example, that the family always makes decisions as a single unit without conflict often fails when brought to data. But this argument on specialization is difficult to argue with - in the book it's right there in black and white equations: Specialization is efficient. The consensus still holds that if you do organize your family with one parent at home and one working, you can be confident in achieving efficiency.

              

But does it mean that the rest of us are failing on this metric? I'm not so sure. The broader insight of Becker's theory is the idea that you should treat your household like a firm. That suggests (among other things) that people in the household should specialize and you should choose who does what based on a person's ability at various tasks. What it doesn't say anything about is how large that firm should be.

              

My household firm is pretty large. It contains me and my husband, our nanny, a cleaning lady, the service that delivers the groceries, as well as my daughter (who, to be fair, does not contribute much to household production) and typically a few other rotating characters. And we do pretty well on specialization. Only my husband and I split our time between work and child care. Everyone else is doing just one task that, frankly, they are much better at than he or I would be.

              

The specialization insight doesn't mean that one parent needs to stay home. But it does suggest that trying to do literally everything yourself may not be efficient. If you can, take a different lesson from actual firms: outsource.

              

In fact, even though more women stayed at home in Becker's day (although notably not his wife), I think even he recognizes that he is laying out a theory that does not simply confirm the rightness of the status quo. When he starts his theory, there is nothing about gender and nothing about household size. It could be two or it could be 10. When I think back to my childhood I can't fault my mother for not producing cupcakes herself; what I suppose I can fault her for is not tracking down a baker to do it for her.

              

               Oster is an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School. Her forthcoming book is "Expecting Better: How To Fight the Pregnancy Establishment With Facts."

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Features
  • 7-10-ducks.jpg PAWS: Happy Easter

    As I was growing up, it seemed that Easter was always a time for giving a cute little furry animal as a gift. We seem to associate this holiday with bunnies and chicks, and of course, kitties and puppies.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fairly Snotty McAlester livestock report

    On Tuesday, 1,200 head of cattle were sold at the McAlester Union Stockyards. Steers sold $2 to $9 higher than at the last sale and heifers sold $4 to $8 higher.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Low blood-sugar levels make for grousing spouses

    Husbands and wives reported being most unhappy with their spouses when their blood-sugar levels were lowest, usually at night, according to research released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Missing a meal, dieting or just being hungry may be the reason, researchers said.

    April 18, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • David Cantrell OSU Extension: Cattle tips for spring

    As we continue to move into spring here in Pittsburg County and cattle prices are at an all-time high, here are a few basic management tips to ensure herd health and productivity of the herd.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • RICHARDSON 50 1.jpg Richardsons celebrate 50 years of marriage

    Haileyville High School graduates Jim and Connie Richardson, of rural Claremore, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary Saturday.

    April 15, 2014 2 Photos

  • MHS Student Painters MHS Student Paintings

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pet of the Week Pet of the Week

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Book Sale Book Sale

    April 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • Miss Teen McAlester Miss Teen McAlester

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

Seasonal Content
AP Video
Raw: Orthodox Christians Observe Easter Rite Ceremony Marks 19th Anniversary of OKC Bombing Raw: Four French Journalists Freed From Syria Raw: Massive 7.2 Earthquake Rocks Mexico Captain of Sunken SKorean Ferry Arrested Raw: Fire Destroys 3 N.J. Beachfront Homes Raw: Pope Presides Over Good Friday Mass Raw: Space X Launches to Space Station Superheroes Descend on Capitol Mall Man Charged in Kansas City Highway Shootings Obama Awards Navy Football Trophy Anti-semitic Leaflets Posted in Eastern Ukraine Raw: Magnitude-7.2 Earthquake Shakes Mexico City Ceremony at MIT Remembers One of Boston's Finest Raw: Students Hurt in Colo. School Bus Crash Raw: Church Tries for Record With Chalk Jesus Raw: Faithful Celebrate Good Friday Worldwide Deadly Avalanche Sweeps Slopes of Mount Everest Police Arrest Suspect in Highway Shootings Drought Concerns May Hurt Lake Tourism
NDN Video
Jabari Parker's Top 5 Plays From Duke Career Kourtney Kardashian Is a Bikini Babe More Manpower Than Ever Expected At 4/20 Rally Debunk'd: Miley Cyrus AIDS, Cheeseburgers Cause Cancer, Military Warning Bill Previewing the NBA playoffs Raw: Orthodox Christians Observe Easter Rite My name is Cocaine Raw: Space X Launches to Space Station Lohan Gets Candid About Her Sex List The 2014 New York Auto Show Meet Johnny Manziel's New Girlfriend Chelsea Clinton Announces Pregnancy Funny: Celebrating Easter with Martha Stewart and Friends Man Accuses 'X-Men' Director Bryan Singer of Sexually Abusing Him As a Teenager Man hit with $525 federal fine after he doesn't pay for soda refill Lea Michele & Naya Rivera Feuding? Jabari Parker declares for the NBA draft Singing Nun Belts Out Cyndi Lauper New West, Texas Explosion Video Swim Daily, Throwback Thursday
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.