Is It Always More Efficient for One Parent to Stay at Home?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 3 2013 5:45 AM

Housebound

Does one person staying at home always make the household more efficient?

Tired parent.
Is specialization in the household, with one parent working and the other staying at home, more efficient?

Photo by Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

When I was in elementary school, my friend 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.

Emily Oster Emily Oster

Emily Oster is an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School. Her book is Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong. Follow her on Twitter.

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.

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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.  

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