One Million Stay-at-home Dads in 2011

News outlets predominantly rely on a Census Bureau report — released on Father’s Day each year — for updated statistics on the number of stay-at-home dads in the United States. The most recent version of the report states that there were 154,000 stay-at-home dads as of 2010.

The Census estimate understates the number of stay-at-home dads in the country. In reality there are more than one million stay-at-home dads in 2011 in the United States.

The Census definition of a stay-at-home dad is:

“These married fathers with children younger than 15 have remained out of the labor force for at least one year primarily so they can care for the family while their wives work outside the home.”

By comparison, Statistics Canada (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Census Bureau) has a definition of a stay-at-home dad based on just two criteria:

1) there must be dependent children at home
2) the stay-at-home parent must not be looking for work, but must be able to work and not attending school.

If the Census Bureau used a definition of stay-at-home dads similar to that used by Statistics Canada, there would have been 1,049,000 stay-at-home dads in the United States as of 2011.

Analysis of One Million Stay-at-home Dads

The phrase “primarily so they can care for the family” in the Census Bureau definition severely limits the publicized estimate of the number of stay-at-home dads. Since the Census relies on men to self-report their intent on that portion of the American Community Survey, a dad who prefers not to be called a stay-at-home dad can simply misreport his intent.

When given a choice between relying on what people say and what they actually do, I prefer to rely on data based on actual activity. Thankfully the Census Bureau has a report that allows me to analyze actual labor force participation of dads rather than relying on self-reported intent.

The Census Bureau releases tabulated data on America’s Families and Living Arrangements. Table FG2 (80% down the page) cross-tabulates family income by labor force participation of both spouses. Looking at the sub-table for married couple family groups with own children under 18, two columns are dedicated to families where only the wife is in the labor force.

In order for the husband to be considered out of the labor force, he must not have worked in past year and he must not have looked for work in the past year. For 926,000 couples, the husband was not in the labor force and the wife worked. For 73,000 couples, the husband was not in the labor force while the wife was unemployed, but looking for work.

Taken together, for 1,049,000 married couples with children under 18, the wife either works or is looking for work while the husband does not work and is not looking for work.

Something close to this definition:

“A stay-at-home dad is a married father with his own children living in the household under the age of 18 who is not working and is not looking for work while his wife works or is looking for work.”

is more reasonable than the current Census definition which relies on self-reported intent.

To phrase the situation differently: What would you call a married father with children who is not looking for work while his wife is working?

I call him a stay-at-home dad.

Additional Considerations

The current Census Bureau definition relies on children in the household being younger than 15 while my broader definition counts children who are as old as 17. The difference is primarily due to the Census definition of being in the labor force. The Census considers 16 to be the minimum age for a person to be eligible to be a member of the labor force. Correspondingly, the Census includes 16 and 17 year-olds when calculating the labor force participation rate.

Thus, logically for the Census, if 16 year olds are old enough to be members of the labor force, they are too old to necessarily be considered children for the definition of a stay-at-home parent. While that view is internally consistent, I think most parents of 16 year old kids would disagree.

The treatment of children ages 15, 16, and 17 is meaningful. The Census notes [table "0" not found /]
that 7,925,000 children between the ages of 15 to 17 who lived with their married parents. 7,925,000 equals 16.3 percent of all children under the age of 18 who live with their married parents. Depending on the treatment of 15 year-olds and assuming the proportions of childrens’ ages remain consistent for households with stay-at-home parents, my definition may be overstating the number of stay-at-home dads by as much as 16.3 percent.

However, there is also reason to believe my definition may still understate the number of stay-at-home dads in the country. Census table C3 also shows three separate categories of married couples with children under 15 where the father is not in the labor force. 343,000 dads were not in the labor force due to caring for family [self-reported] while their wives were in the labor force. 168,000 dads were not in the labor force due to caring for family [self-reported] while their wives were not in the labor force for at least 1 week out of the previous year. 2,221,000 dads were not in the labor force over the past year for some other reason.

In 2011, 2,732,000 dads who were married with children under 15 were not in the labor force. What should we call these dads?