Tax Reform Means Working Moms Do Less Housework

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M. Taghi / Corbis

Call it the law of unintended consequences: according to a study released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), tax reforms enacted in the last 30 years have led to messier homes.

The study, conducted by two Ivy League economists, looked at single women who had been coaxed into working outside the home by the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and what activities they had cut back on when they started doing paid work. By examining time-allocation studies from 1975 to 2004, the researchers found that single mothers who joined the workforce reported spending the same amount of time with their children, and only a little less time on leisure activities or sleep. The women made up most of the time — more than two-thirds of it — by doing less work around the home: cooking, cleaning, laundry and the like.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a series of policy reforms aimed at trying to get single mothers on welfare back into the workforce," says Alexander Gelber, an associate professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; he co-authored the study with Harvard doctoral fellow Joshua Mitchell. "There was a perception that these mothers were idle and it would be good to get them to be productive. Our study suggests they have traded one kind of productive activity for another." The EITC encouraged low-income women to enter the paid workforce partly by refunding the tax the women paid on their earnings as well as reducing the payroll tax for employers. When Gelber and Mitchell crunched the time-allocation numbers for single moms, they found that for every hour worked outside the home in response to lower taxes, time spent on housework fell by about 47 minutes.

There's no firm consensus on the minimal number of hours a week it takes to run a home. But in a 2008 study by the University of Michigan, married women with more than three kids reported doing an average of about 28 hours of housework a week, while married men with more than three kids reported putting in about 10 hours. So it's reasonable to assume that single mothers, who have to go it alone, face a significant amount of labor after they get home from work.

Increased participation in the workforce by women of all income levels and marital status in recent decades helps explain why the home-organization industry has proved pretty resilient in the recession. Demand for products that help working moms deal with what is commonly referred to as the second shift — i.e., all the work they have to do after they get home from work — is projected to increase 4.3% annually to $8.9 billion in 2013, according to the Freedonia Group, a market-research company.

Gelber and Mitchell's study for the NBER, a nonpartisan research group, does not explore whether the tradeoff of less housework for more paid labor is for good or ill. "That's up to policymakers to decide, according to their values," says Gelber. But signs point to housework as becoming less valuable to all levels of society; new data even suggests an ultra-clean home may not be the best environment for children. According to anthropologists at Northwestern University, a lack of exposure to dirt and germs could put them at increased risk for inflammation when they grow up. So next time, you feel bad about your messy home, remember that it's good for the children — and that it's the IRS's fault.