Economic Analysis and Banking & Finance

HICKS: Motherhood changes, but not in importance

May 6, 2011

Even my strongest supporters will agree that I am no good as a sentimentalist. So, on this Mother’s Day, I think I will be a good economist and stick to the empirics of the matter.

The best estimates tell us that about 26 percent of all Americans are mothers, and that the past few decades have seen a big increase in the range of ages of motherhood. While very young mothers have always been common, we now see a big increase in women in their 40s bearing children. This is no doubt due to better health care and more career opportunities for women—two happy realities of the 21st century.

Across the world, women are bearing fewer children. In the developing world, the change over one generation has been enormous. Bangladesh has seen its birth rate cut in half in a single generation. In the developed world outside the United States, one-child families are the most common (statistically the mode), while the average (mean) is less than 1.4 children. I use these data to remind my three kids how blessed they are to have siblings and a tolerant, generous mother. This argument does not always resonate.

Motherhood isn’t limited to the act of giving birth—though anyone who has been in attendance knows that is significant enough. Indiana alone has about 5,000 foster mothers and perhaps 30,000 mothers who have adopted kids. May I suggest an extra hug for these mothers?

My non-economist colleagues in academia study motherhood in all its dimensions with more fullness than fellow dismal scientists, but economists note some important things about mothers. Among the most certain things about kids is that the level of education they achieve is heavily determined by that of their mother. So, when economists try to predict such things as high school graduation or success in college, it is the mother’s experience that matters in our models.

The past four decades have seen a large growth of working mothers. Of the six economists younger than 50 at my university, four are women. Of the 13 economists older than 50, only one is a woman. This trend is repeated throughout the economy, and the bulk of college students at every level is now women.

The change has not been costless. The movement of working mothers into the economy has been great for our productivity and overall economy. With it, we have lost a vast volunteer army in our schools and communities. This places a greater burden on these institutions, and could mean we will have to place more, not fewer, resources into these institutions to make up the loss. We should perhaps keep this in mind when talking about spending and taxes.

On this Mother’s Day, I am blessed to visit with my mother, mother in-law and the mother of my children. And as often happens to busy and caring mothers, even on this special Sunday, I am pretty sure I know who is going to be cooking dinner at the Hicks household.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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