Published May 09, 2006
$134,121 a year: that's what a 2006 stay-at-home mom would earn if her work were fully paid at market rates. The claim comes from a study by the Massachusetts-based Salary.com, which specializes in "salary surveys."
Although the figure is being touted as appreciation of stay-at-home mothers, it is actually both an insult and an absurdity. Stay at home mothers deserve better.
Alarm bells should already be sounding on the absurdity point. How can the monetary value of a vaguely defined and complex category, like an average stay-at-home mother's job, be assessed so exactly to the last dollar? Does it seem reasonable that a stay at home mother should receive over three times the median American household income: $43,318?
Why was the statistic released so shortly before Mother's Day?
Such obvious questions were not asked by "400+ newspapers, TV, and radio stations from the U.S. to Australia." Instead, Salary.com gleefully reported, "The survey was the #1 emailed story on Yahoo! on Monday, May 2" -- the same day it was released.
Salary.com's press release cleared up one issue. The site had conducted a survey, not a study, as the majority of the media reported. A study is a scholarly or scientific investigation that uses controls to prevent bias and error. A statistical survey collects data by interviewing or asking questions of individuals. A survey is less rigorous but, depending on its methodology, it can produce valuable results.
What was the methodology? Salary.com surveyed about 400 women online; the respondents consisted of both working mothers and stay at home mothers. Presuming an equal breakdown between the two, about 200 stay at home mothers were surveyed out of an estimated population of 5.6 million stay at home mothers. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003); that is .00357 percent.
There is no indication of whether respondents were randomly chosen or filtered in some manner.
Online surveys are notoriously unreliable because follow-up verification rarely occurs and lying is a temptation. For example, a question like "Do you hit your children?" may produce a high rate of false answers, especially with no check on accuracy. Salary.com's questions are not available.
Nevertheless, since they were used to break down the hours of stay at home mothers' labor, some questions must have been akin to "how often do you clean house?" Again, significant inaccuracy may have occurred.
Pushing aside such factors, how did Salary.com convert raw data on stay at home mothers' hours into the figure $134,121? (Working mothers who could not afford to stay at home, as much as they might long to do so, had their 'mom' time valued at only $85,878. The quality of time spent was not a factor, only quantity.)
To convert time into money, Salary.com took a great leap.
It classified the top ten tasks reported by respondents and calculated the respective hourly wages for 'equivalent' jobs in the marketplace; the jobs included day-care teacher, chef, CEO, psychologist and computer operator.
For example, if a stay at home mother acted as the family-CEO for 4.2 hours a week, then the hourly marketplace rate for a corporate-world CEO was credited to her annual 'earnings'. Then, the worth of all ten jobs were added together to produce a total salary.
Two inflationary factors were employed. First, some extremely well-paid jobs were included. Second, because stay at home mothers are deemed to be constantly on-call, 51.6 hours of overtime with overtime 'pay' were added to every 40-hour work week.
These inflationary factors ignore basic realities of the job market. For example, the 'equivalent' salaried positions do not generally receive overtime; that's a characteristic of jobs paid on an hourly basis.
Moreover, CEOs and psychologists are compensated, in large part, for their extensive education and other qualifications.
More fundamentally, however, the survey is based on fundamentally false assumptions and it leaves out essential information.
One false assumption: Stay at home mothers provide services to themselves and to their families, not to a marketplace of customers. Just as you do not 'deserve' a salary for cooking your own breakfast, neither does a parent who prepares a meal. What you do for personal benefit is different in kind from the labor you auction in the marketplace.
Two items of missing information: What of men? Fathers are repairmen, carpenters, plumbers, yard workers, accountants and occasional CEOs. Yet there is no mention of the 'salary' men should receive; perhaps such mention would destroy the sensationalism of the woman's $134,121 a year.
Where is the off-setting calculation of economic benefits that stay at home mothers receive in the form of housing, food, or transportation?
The survey's conclusions are absurd, and the act of throwing absurdity at stay at home mothers as though it were the gift of revealed wisdom is a patronizing insult. Doing it on the cusp of Mother's Day so that Salary.com's paid-services receive mega-media attention is a self-serving insult.
But the main offense is that Salary.com doesn't 'get it.' Women who stay home are lucky enough to be able to choose personal benefits over economic ones; stay at home mothers have refused to value their time in dollar signs. When Salary.com refers to sitting up with a sick child as 'over time', it commercializes and cheapens that act of love for both stay at home and working moms.
It is similar to placing a dollar value on intimate marital relations because, after all, those 'services' are available elsewhere for a fee.
When you define the value of family meals in terms of cold cash, then you've lost the importance of what's really going on. When you convert acts of love into acts for profit, you've lost at life itself.
Stay at home mothers and working moms should print out the faux-paycheck that Salary.com offers at its website Mom's Salary Wizard just for the pleasure of tearing it up.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.