Expert Commentary

Stay-at-home dads: How unemployment, mother’s education impact family decisions about child care

2016 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family that looks at the factors that influence which married men will become stay-at-home dads.


The issue: The number of fathers staying home to care for their children has nearly doubled in recent decades – from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012, according to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. The U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate for stay-at-home dads — roughly 250,000 in 2015 — is much smaller, likely because the federal agency only includes married parents with certain characteristics in its calculation. However, the Census Bureau also found the number to be growing over time.

Some research ties the trend at least partly to economic conditions, including the job market and cost of private child care. The gender gap in education also may play a role. In the U.S., more women earn college degrees than men. In 2009-10, women earned 62 percent of all associate’s degrees, more than 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and almost 63 percent of all master’s degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

While little research has focused specifically on how the growing number of stay-at-home dads has impacted or could impact children’s well-being and academic success, a number of studies have examined the influence of fathers more broadly and found a range of benefits.  For example, a 2005 study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology “revealed a significant relationship between aspects of father involvement in their children’s education and student achievement beyond that accounted for by mother involvement.”

An academic study worth reading: “At-Home Father Families in the United States: Gender Ideology, Human Capital, and Unemployment,” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, 2016.

Study summary: Karen Z. Kramer and Amit Kramer, scholars at the University of Illinois, aimed to better understand the reasons behind the rising population of stay-at-home fathers. To follow the same families over time, they used data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, a panel study administered by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Survey participants were interviewed each year between 1979 and 1994 and continue to be interviewed on a biennial basis. The study’s authors used data from the March Current Population Surveys, which are conducted jointly by the BLS and U.S. Census Bureau, to analyze labor force and demographic information collected between 1972 and 2012. For their study, Kramer and Kramer focused on married couples and did not include same-sex couples. The two researchers examined the influence of three factors: unemployment, the education of both parents and gender ideology.

Key takeaways from the study:

  • There appears to be two distinct groups of stay-at-home fathers: those who stay home because they are unable to work – often because they cannot find jobs or are ill or disabled — and those who stay home because they want to take care of the family and household. (The authors did, however, identify a third group of stay-at-home dads, who the authors categorized as “other” because most of them refused to say why they did not work and stayed home.)
  • Families with fathers who stay home because they cannot work have lower incomes than families with “caregiving” stay-at-home dads ($31,960 and $52,440, respectively, on average). Caregiving dads also tend to have younger children than stay-at-home dads who cannot work.
  • Families are more likely to have stay-at-home fathers when the mother has a higher education level than the father, presumably because of the mother’s greater earning potential and career opportunities.
  • Men “with a more egalitarian outlook on gender ideology have a greater likelihood of being a stay-at-home father; furthermore, more egalitarian gender ideology is related to men reporting that they are caregiving stay-at-home fathers, unlike men reporting they are unable-to-work stay-at-home fathers.”
  • Among working families, the proportion of families with stay-at-home fathers increased from 0.7 percent during the 1972-1979 time range to 2.5 percent during the 2000-2012 time range.
  • Of all stay-at-home fathers, those who chose to stay home to become primary caregivers grew from 0 percent during the 1972-1989 time period to 19.3 percent in 2000-2012.
  • It was unclear how the number of children in a household affects the likelihood that a father will stay home.

Helpful resources for reporters writing about this topic:

  • This chart from the U.S. Census Bureau shows how the number of stay-at-home mothers and fathers changed from 1994 to 2015.
  • The Pew Research Center released a report in 2014 that looks at why more dads are staying home with their children and how the public views the trend.
  • Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit organization and advocacy group, regularly releases reports on infant care and child care. This 2015 report includes state rankings of affordability for child care in a center.

Related research:


Keywords: gender roles, gender differences, housework, family, stay-at-home dads, caregiver, babysitter, childcare, daycare, parenting, parental involvement

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