The XX Factor

Why Opting Out Still Hasn’t Been Proven False

Commenter Alphabet Soup is right about one thing : It is a little odd to have a discussion of opting out on DoubleX (or, of course, anywhere) without Linda Hirshman. One explanation is, as Alphabet suggested, that I’m in the special place in hell for people who report findings that are later debunked, sentenced to read unredacted Census data for eternity. Another, which has the virtue of being true, is that I was in Europe spending my gains on a well-deserved vacation.

I’m back now, and predictably unimpressed with the so-called “findings” in the Post article. In fact, this whole DoubleX discussion starts by buying, without further inquiry, the Post suggestion that the opt-out revolution is a myth. But, as Emily correctly says, there’s been a small rise in the number of families with kids under 15 and a stay-at-home mom. So, where’s the myth?

Professional economics writer David Leonhardt skewered the Post ’s journalism in his Economix blog on the New York Times (sorry, Post ):

The Washington Post has a front-page article today arguing that the so-called opt-out revolution - the alleged increase in stay-at-home mothers-is largely fiction. … But then you get to the final paragraphs:
Historically, the Census Bureau’s annual population survey shows that there are more mothers at home now than in the mid-1990s. In 1994, 19.8 percent of married-couple families with children younger than 15 had a stay-at-home mother. Last year, it was 23.7 percent of families - an increase that Elliott said was statistically significant.
“I don’t think we exactly know why,” she said. It sure sounds as if those numbers undercut the thesis of the story, doesn’t it? And those are the only historical statistics in the story.

Well maybe, as Emily suggests, the opt-out revolution is STILL a myth, because, as the Post reports, the affluent, educated women supposedly making the “revolution” aren’t opting out. It’s the poor ignorant ones who are. But Leonhardt even disputes that, citing well-respected economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, who reported that “earlier this decade 60.3 percent of female Harvard graduates in their mid-30s were working full time. In the 1990s, the equivalent number was 63.5 percent.”

But, but, you debunkers might be thinking, Goldin and Katz must be wrong, too, because the Post said women in families with incomes over $100,000 and bachelor’s degrees have not increased their opting-out. And you would be right. Your problem is that you think making a family income of over $100,000 a year makes you elite, or, so to speak, one of Lisa Belkin’s BFFs. I don’t know about Lisa, but I wasn’t talking about the random $100,000 bachelor of arts woman. I was talking about the women who announced their weddings in the Styles section of the New York Times , which, like graduating from Harvard, often means never having to say family income of only $100,000.

Well, what about the really, truly elite? In Opting Out: An Exploration of Labor Force Participation of New Mothers , Barbara Cheeseman Day and Jennifer Downs of the same United States Census Bureau that fueled the Post article just told the Population Association of America 2009 Annual Meeting that, “Women at the highest income levels of $200,000 or more are slightly more likely to opt out than those with incomes between $100,000 and $199,999.” Actually, if you read the Census ladies’ charts you see that the really elite women opt out at almost exactly the same rate as the women making between $50,000 and $100,000.

I don’t know if the opt-out phenomenon is a myth (the revolution is a whole other story). Cheeseman and Day’s snapshot and Goldin’s Harvard data suggest opting out among the truly elite, but, since the Bureau has yet to see fit to publish historical data about the truly elite population, we don’t know if, like their sisters in families under $100,000, these elite women have decreased their work-force participation over time or not. But what we do know is that the “over-$100,000” slice so beloved of the opt-out debunkers isolates the most working of all the women surveyed. The poorer ones stay home more and the richer ones stay home more. Hardly the material for myth-unmaking.