Stay-at-Home Fathers: Liberalizing Social Norms or Economic Desperation?

The growth in men choosing to stay home to take care of children reflects two positive changes in society, but this is not the only story. This piece was developed with, and originally published by, our partner Capita
The growth in stay-at-home fathers

Over the past 30 years, the share of parents who do not work outside the home has remained fairly constant at 17-18%.¹ That consistency, however, masks a large increase the number of stay-at-home fathers, who went from just 4% of fathers in 1989 to 7% in 2016 (see figure below).² The stories behind that increase are complicated and involve social and economic changes that have been playing out for decades. We try to unpack a few of them and consider what impact they may have on children.

From the above figure, it is clear that most of the growth in stay-at-home fathers is not driven by the inability to find work (except during recessions). Instead, many more fathers are staying home for other reasons, the largest of which is disability or illness (see figure below).³ Close behind that, and the reason that has seen the most growth from 1989 to 2016, is taking care of family. About a quarter of all stay-at-home fathers cited this as their reason for staying home in 2016.

The growth in men choosing to stay home to take care of children reflects two positive changes in society. First, women have far greater freedom to enter the workforce today than a half century ago, making up nearly half of the civilian labor force in 2016. ⁴ Their earnings, though still not equal to men, are growing, enabling some two-parent families more freedom to choose which spouse plays which role. Second, societal attitudes about the role of fathers are changing, albeit slowly. A 2013 survey of fathers conducted by Pew Research found that "values and morals," "emotional support," and "discipline" were all seen as more valuable contributions from fathers than "income." ⁵

Long-term decline in male labor force participation

But this is not only a story of liberalizing social values. Even the 8% of fathers who were home in 2016 because of an inability to find work constitute hundreds of thousands of fathers. Adding in the 40% of stay-at-home fathers who are there due to illness or disability suggests that almost half of stay-at-home fathers are out of the workforce due to forces beyond their control. Economists have puzzled at the steady decline in labor force participation rate for men, especially prime working-age men (25-54). The share of such men who are in the labor force has steadily decreased for six decades, from 96.7% in 1965 to 88.4% in 2016 (see figure below).⁶ That 8.3 percentage-point decline equates to about 11 million more men not in the labor force in 2016 compared with what the number would have been had the share held constant. This decline is primarily attributable to reduced demand for certain workers, according to a 2016 review of studies by the White House Council of Economic Advisers. A decline in demand for less-skilled labor has shut many workers out of work, and workforce and economic policies have thus far failed to meet the scale of the problem. The rise in incarceration rates further complicates this problem, as millions of formerly incarcerated workers (mostly men) face discrimination in this already challenging job market (see figure below).⁷

Taken together, these figures suggest that a small but significant number of stay-at-home fathers are in that situation due to larger economic changes that have shut them out of the workforce.

The impact on children

In 2016, 3.2 million children in the U.S. lived with a father who was not it the labor force.⁸ Taking the reasons fathers give for staying at home, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest that just over 250,000 of those children (8% of 3.2 million) are living with a stay-at-home father who was only there because he couldn't find work, and that an additional 1.28 million children (40% of 3.2 million) were living with a stay-at-home father who was there due to illness or disability.⁹ These numbers should concern us, as there is ample evidence of the effects of paternal unemployment on child well-being. Paternal unemployment has been associated with greater mental health problems and stress in parents and children, worse school performance, and lower graduation rates.¹⁰ Unemployment has also been linked with parental substance abuse and child abuse.¹¹ At its most extreme, unemployment has been shown to increase the risk of suicide.¹² Most of these effects constitute adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which have been shown to negatively affect the well-being of children well into their adult lives.¹³

If we only see the increase in stay-at-home fathers as the result of liberalizing social norms and greater freedom for fathers to choose their family role, we risk failing to see the real economic desperation that also underlies the trend. That desperation may have serious long-term consequences for hundreds of thousands of children. Unfortunately, we don't know as much about these not-by-choice stay-at-home fathers, but given what we do know, we think it is important to consider the following questions:

  1. What resources would make it easier for not-by-choice stay-at-home fathers to grow into their role as primary caregiver to children?

  2. To what degree are our social programs (public or non-profit) set up to address the needs of stay-at-home fathers, particularly those without a spouse?

  3. What are the real long-term effects on children of having a father who is out of work for an extended time in a society that is slowly coming to accept fathers in a child-rearing role?

Finally, it can't be stated enough that our goal as a society should be to increase opportunities for people. This entails creating the institutions and norms that will allow fathers to play the role of primary caregiver should they wish to and ensuring a robust economy that has jobs and adequate wages for fathers and mothers who want to work.

¹ five-u-s-parents/

²Figure adapted from account-for-about-one-in-five-u-s-parents/.

³ Ibid.

Figure adapted from


U.S. Census American Community Survey 1-year estimates, Table B23008. Note, this includes only children living in families.

Note: There are a lot of assumptions in this quick calculation that might not stand up to scrutiny, since families have different numbers of children and those family sizes may be correlated to the reasons fathers stay home.

¹⁰ Unemployment.PDF