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Ann Romney and the Economics of Being a Stay-at-Home Mom

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Hilary Rosen's comments may be insensitive, but they raise an important issue: Just how much do we value full-time moms?

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Hilary Rosen is probably persona non grata in the Obama camp right now. Last night, the former Democratic strategist and PR expert at SDKnickerbocker appeared on CNN and said that Ann Romney "has never actually worked a day in her life."

Predictably, the backlash over her remark came swiftly, with top Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom tweeting minutes after Rosen's appearance on Anderson Cooper 360 that Rosen had "insult[ed] hard-working moms."

Democrats, who had been criticizing the Republican Party for waging a war on women and hounding Mitt Romney on his position on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, quickly distanced themselves from Rosen's shooting-the-Democrats-in-the-foot remark. Chief Obama campaign strategist, David Axelrod, tweeted that Rosen's comments were "inappropriate and offensive" while Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, called for Rosen to apologize for what she said.

On her part, Ann Romney also responded via Twitter. The First Lady hopeful joined the social network minutes after Rosen's segment and tweeted, "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."

Indeed, it is an increasingly widely-held belief that being a stay-at-home mom is essentially a full-time job. In fact, both Germany and the UK have considered plans to pay parents who stay at home to take care of their children.

Many have also attempted to quantify the value of a stay-at-home mom. For example, every Mother's Day, Salary.com releases a study which estimates the annual income a homemaker ought to make, based on a survey of more than 8,000 mothers to find out the top 10 most time-consuming tasks they did and how much time they spent on each weekly. In 2012, the firm calculated that a stay-at-home mom's job, including tasks like cooking, housekeeping, and doing the laundry, was worth an annual salary of $112,962, or $17.80 an hour.

Investopedia conducted a similar calculation, adding up the monetary value of six jobs: childcare, private chef, driver, lawn maintenance, laundry service, and housecleaning. The annual total turned out to be $96,261, not too far away from Salary.com's figure.

For a real-world, non-hypothetical example of how much stay-at-home moms' work should be worth, consider the earnings of full-time nannies. A New York Times feature on upscale nannies of Manhattan's wealthy class revealed that top earners take home as much as $180,000 a year for the pain of being at the beck and call of their employers 24/7.

Seth Norman Greenberg, vice president of domestic workers agency Pavilion, told the Times that nannies can up their asking prices if they can do things like "ride, wash and groom a horse," "steer a 32-foot boat, [or] help manage an art collection." We're guessing that given her socioeconomic status, Ann Romney might be well-acquainted with tasks like that, though it is not clear if she ever had a nanny.

Of course, the number of stay-at-home moms in the US has been decreasing, especially after the recent economic crisis, which disproportionately affected men, such that there are more and more working moms and stay-at-home dads these days. Examples include former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Carly Fiorina, whose husband Frank Fiorina exited AT&T (T) early to help with the family, and Fortune 500 CEOs like Xerox's (XRX) Ursula Burns, PepsiCo's (PEP) Indra Nooyi, WellPoint's (WLP) Angela Braly and IBM's (IBM) Ginni Rometty.

In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, stay-at-home moms are disproportionately young, Hispanic or foreign-born, and without high school education, which goes against Ann Romney's point, which she made earlier today on Fox News, by stating, "We have to respect women in all the choices they make." Obviously, most women do not have the economic luxury to be able to choose whether or not to stay at home to care for children.

This was the argument Hilary Rosen, clarifying her comment in an op-ed for CNN, made. Rosen wrote that Ann Romney, because of her privileged background, is not able to serve as Mitt Romney's "touchstone for women who are struggling economically."

Now let's be clear on one thing. I have no judgments about women who work outside the home vs. women who work in the home raising a family. I admire women who can stay home and raise their kids full time. I even envy them sometimes. It is a wonderful luxury to have the choice. But let's stipulate that it is NOT a choice that most women have in America today.

Progressive blogger Matt Yglesias of Slate made the same point in questioning whether the Romney's championing of stay-at-home mothers might contradict their views on socioeconomic policies. He tweeted, "Do Mitt & Ann Romney think unemployed single moms have a full-time job? Do such moms deserve a living wage?"

The faux campaign outrage over Hilary Rosen's comments is business-as-usual election year politics (See: Mitt Romney's dog-on-car-roof-gate), but this latest controversy does bring up socioeconomic issues that deserve debate.

Both parties seem to agree that staying at home and parenting clearly has an economic value, one that can even be quantified. Where they differ is how they approach the issue. Voters will need to decide whether or not taxpayers should have any role in supporting social programs that help full-time mothers, most of whom do not have Romney-like income levels, to raise their children.

Twitter: @sterlingwong
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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