Is apparently close to nothing if they choose to be stay-at-home moms.
You had to know it was only a matter of time before someone used the faulty New York Times article about college women predicting an eventual return to the dometic to argue that more men should be admitted, as they will likely be more “productive” members of society.
A better idea, though counterintuitive, might be to raise tuition to all students but couple the raise with a program of rebates for graduates who work full time. For example, they might be rebated 1 percent of their tuition for each year they worked full time. Probably the graduates working full time at good jobs would not take the rebate but instead would convert it into a donation. The real significance of the plan would be the higher tuition, which would discourage applicants who were not planning to have full working careers (including applicants of advanced age and professional graduate students). This would open up places to applicants who will use their professional education more productively; they are the more deserving applicants.
Although women continue to complain about discrimination, sometimes quite justly, the gender-neutral policies that govern admission to the elite professional schools illustrate discrimination in favor of women. Were admission to such schools based on a prediction of the social value of the education offered, fewer women would be admitted.
There are lots of ways to pick apart this assertion, but I’ll focus on two: First, the truth to the assumption that stay-at-home moms will never have careers; and second, what the terms “productivity” and “the social value of education” mean.
Most of the women interviewed in the Times article do plan on working — they just also think that, when it comes time to have kids, it will be difficult to balance work and parenting, and they expect to have to choose between the two. As far as I could tell, these women weren’t planning on graduating college and going straight into their husband’s home. Some of them talked about grad school. Others mentioned working, then quitting or going part-time once they had kids. Lots of stay-at-home moms end up re-entering the workforce after their kids go to college. So it’s a bit simplistic to say that young women who, at 19, project a future for themselves that involves being a stay-at-home parent will not contribute anything to the workforce.
We also have to ask, “who are the deserving candidates for higher education?” Is an eventual career the only measure of how well an education is used? The fact is, career success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Part of the reason that so many men are able to be so successful is because they have a family that works to support their career choices — perhaps the couple put his graduate school amibitions first; he can afford to work over-time and come home late because he knows his wife will pick the kids up from school, make them dinner and put them to bed; he knows his family will be taken care of because his wife is there, and so he can afford to be a harder worker (indeed, it may push him to be a harder worker). She, then, is a contributor to the family as much as he is, and she enables his contribution to the economy. She also is likely to have most of the family’s purchasing power, and exercises her economic contributions that way.
Does she need an Ivy league education for that? Maybe not. But he doesn’t need an Ivy league education either. It helps, but it’s not a necessity — why is his worth more than hers? And as I stated earlier, the likelihood of her never being part of the workforce is slim. Further, viewing education simply as a means to a career is extremely limited. If that’s the line of thought, then it doesn’t make much sense to offer majors (or even classes) in philosophy or literature — the likelihood of people having a career in either is relatively small. But the argument can be made that these classes are valuable simply for learning’s sake; that the fact that they don’t offer a direct career path isn’t a detriment; that most people who study these things do end up being part of the workforce or otherwise contributing to society, and that their knowledge in these areas makes them more socially, intellectually and culturally adept human beings.
Posner offers a solution that basically amounts to a penalty for people who choose not to enter the workforce. This assumes that stay-at-home parents offer no economic contributions to the family, and ignores the fact that (as I said earlier) being a stay-at-home parent often enables the other parent to work harder and increase the family’s total income. It would also place a unique burden on mothers — they are held socially responsible for their children in a way that men aren’t, are handed a nearly impossible set of SuperMom standards to live up to, and under Posner’s plan would additionally be financially penalized for making what they feel to be the most responsible decision for themselves and their families.
As I wrote in an earlier post, it’s not a choice to stay home if social and cultural messages demonize working women as less-than-adequate mothers. But it’s not a choice to work if you will be, in effect, financially penalized by your university for choosing not to do so (or, if not penalized, given a major financial disencentive not to stay at home, on top of the existing financial concerns that go hand-in-hand with not working). I should also add here that we’re talking about an elite community — most middle and lower-income women don’t get to consider the “choice” of whether to work or not.
Posner also writes,
Those men have on average high expected incomes, probably higher than the expected incomes even of equally able women who have a full working career. Given diminishing marginal utility of income, a second, smaller income will often increase the welfare of a couple less than will the added household production if the person with the smaller income allocates all or most of her time to household production, freeing up more time for her spouse to work in the market.
So part of what we have to address here is, why do those men have average higher expected incomes? It is clearly rational, in some families, for the party with the higher income to remain in the workforce, and the one with the lower income to manage the household. So, all other things being equal (similar education, same number of children, etc), why are women the ones with the lower average income? Conservatives will argue, “it’s because they work part-time, stay home with their kids, etc etc.” But many a rational couple where both partners work and have put equal time and effort into working has to look no further than their pay stubs to determine who should stay home in the first place, according to nothing more than economic efficiency. That is problematic, and won’t be solved by Posner’s suggestion.
What I find most troubling about Posner’s post is how reductive it is. He associates value and productivity with being a member of the workforce, but doesn’t entirely recognize that membership in that workforce is enabled by others, and often not freely chosen. The same argument which says that there are social pressures on women to stay home when they have kids also dictates that there are (in my opinion, even stronger) social pressures on men to be breadwinners for their families. Posner’s arugment reflects an incredibly male-centric view that “worth” is purely economic, and directly tied to one’s endeavors as a worker. Assuming that one relinquishes their worth by not working is not only problematic, but untrue even if we do consider worth to be related to economics.
We also need to take a good look at what the real problem is here. The fact that high-power career paths do make it close to impossible to have a family life is a problem for mothers and fathers. A cultural shift toward more family-friendly policies and workplaces could have tremendously postive effects on employment retention and productivity.
Finally, it’s interesting to see how this stands up when you apply the “insert other disenfranchised group here” test. Suppose we do a survey and find that black college-educated men make less than their white counterparts, and are more likely to drop out of graduate school. Is it a fair argument to then assert that a white college applicant is the “best person” to accept, because of the higher likelihood of a black graduate contributing less to the economy? Should we proscribe what basically amounts to a penalty for making less money, or not being part of an organized profession? Or should we instead evaluate the wide scope of social and institutional factors which influence perceived worth, economic worth and individual decision-making?
I have more to say, but (obviously) am not able to organize my thoughts in the most coherent way right now. There will be more on this later.