You love your mom 30 percent more than you love your dad.
Your brain might beg to differ. Your heart might protest otherwise. But, as an economic agent, you put your money where your mouth is. And according to your wallet (and the National Retail Federation), you’re going to spend $114 on dad this year. That’s $49 less than the $163 you gave mom back in May.
It’s a trend we see year after year. Annual U.S. spending on Mother’s Day is $20 billion; on Father’s Day, it’s just $12.5 billion. In the hierarchy of consumption-fueled commemorations, Mother’s Day is Christmas. Father’s Day is Chanukah.
Before you rush out and grab another necktie, let’s pause and try to understand what dad did to deserve this–or perhaps more accurately, what he didn’t do.
Along the way, we’ll discover how the answer to this holiday puzzle has a lot in common with the crisis of child poverty in America. Could nicer neckties help dads become better at their jobs?
Wired for Consumption
Maybe it’s biology. We share intimate physiological bonds with our mothers that dad will never be able to forge. No amount of catch can compensate for an umbilical cord.
But the womb can’t be an excuse for everything. After all, Junior shares half of dad’s genes, too. Just as important, modern medicine teaches us that child development depends as much on environment as it does on genes—and both parents shape the childhood context.
A second explanation is culture. Both holidays ooze with antiquated gender roles, fueled by advertising and tradition. Mother’s Day—officially designated as such by Woodrow Wilson in 1914—has been around a lot longer than its male counterpart. At the time, few women worked outside the home and autonomous earnings were scarce. Material expressions of appreciation made a meaningful contribution to mom’s consumption.
For fathers, this model never made any sense. As the breadwinner, dad could buy whatever, whenever, so showering him with presents was at best redundant (and likely came out of his wages). By the time Richard Nixon recognized Father’s Day as a national holiday in 1972, the informal annual custom of giving dad a stereotyped symbol of professional manliness (i.e., necktie) was well-established.
Surely these origins explain part of today’s behavior. But history can’t be the whole story. Today, women are working as much (if not more than) men, and dads are every bit as budget constrained as moms. There may be real differences between male and female tokens of appreciation—flowers versus power drills—but there is a shared propensity to consume. And you can bet your breakfast-in-bed that retailers and restaurateurs are doing their darndest to make Dad’s Day every bit as expensive as its maternal equivalent.
If we have all these forces for holiday equality, why does the gap persist?
The Economics of Father’s Day
I’d like to argue for a third explanation: economics.
Specifically, let’s turn the family into a simple economy. And let’s invert the generational hierarchy and think of children (both growing and grown) as the “employers” in the family firm.
Parents, in turn, are “factors of production,” supplying the household with parenting. The output of the household production process is well-developed children. Factors of production are paid in proportion to what they contribute to the production process. The more productive a factor, the more lavishly it is compensated. In our simple economy, compensation takes the form of Mother’s and Father’s Day gifts.
What our model says, then, is that if moms are getting better gifts than dads, it’s because they’re doing a better job of parenting. The test for our theory is whether this model holds up against the evidence.
Are moms better parents?
The simple answer is yes.
Moms > Dads
Despite surpassing men in education and drastically narrowing the labor force participation gap, American women still devote significantly more time to child care than do their male counterparts.
Married moms employed full time with children under age six spend an average of 1.99 hours per day providing child care, compared to 1.25 hours per day among similarly situated dads, according to the American Time Use Survey.
That’s a difference of 59 percent. The gap between unemployed married moms and dads is similarly large—3.25 hours a day versus 2.11—indeed, unemployed dads devote scarcely more time to caring for their kids than do working moms.
On an annualized basis, the typical married, working mom spends 270 more hours a year caring for her children than does a typical dad. By the time a child is age six, he or she will have received more than two months’ worth more care from mom than from dad.
Moms on the Clock
That’s more than enough to justify an extra $50 of jewelry. Even using the relatively conservative approach of valuing a mother’s time at the median wage of a child care worker ($9.42/hour), mom saves the family upwards of $2,500 a year relative to what the family would have *spent *if she had provided as little care as dad.
Chances are, the full costs to mom are even higher. As is well-known, women earn 77 cents on the dollar for comparable work as men. The gender gap has to do with workplace rigidities, particularly in lucrative professions like business and law, where a premium is placed on working long hours during conventional dayparts.
By taking time off to care for their children—or by working less traditional schedules—moms sacrifice not only current pay, but opportunities for future advancement accumulated by adhering to working patterns most valued by employers.
But it goes beyond the time commitment and the opportunity costs. Moms also invest more in their kids.
Contrary to conventional economic thinking that views households as unitary entities with unified budgets, empirical research in the developing world found it matters a great deal who controls household resources.
In the hands of women, additional financial resources get spent on children, improving their health and education. The same is not true of men. As a result, successful conditional cash transfer programs, like Oportunidades in Mexico, increasingly target women as the recipients of government assistance.
But this finding is not limited to poor countries. In the U.S., sociologist Catherine Kenney found children are less likely to experience food insecurity when household income is controlled by mothers.
Putting in Face Time
As unfortunate as ill-advised budgeting by dads may be, it pales in comparison to the effects of paternal absenteeism.
This is where the differences between moms and dads are the starkest: dads are much more likely to drop out of the parental labor force altogether. 27 percent of children under 18 live without their father; by contrast, less than eight percent live apart from their mother. Single moms outnumber single dads two to one. Many dads could afford to do more for their kids; most egregious are those who do nothing at all.
Non-existent or inadequate fathering can have severe consequences. Children in single mother-headed households are more than three times more likely to be poor (45% vs. 13%). By contrast, when dads fulfill their ends of the parenting bargain, good things happen.
Children who grow up with involved fathers are better behaved. They are less likely to use drugs, commit crimes, or engage in risky sex. They are healthier—physically and emotionally. They get better grades.
But it’s not just a one-way street. Fathers themselves also benefit from being more involved in their children’s lives. Being a father alters a man’s biochemistry, in ways that tend to increase altruism and affection and reduce risk-taking and harmful behaviors, like substance abuse.
The meaning and fulfillment children bring improve mental and physical health. Fatherhood literally changes who you are. Although parenting can be stressful, results from Pew surveys show that fathers overwhelmingly find child care more enjoyable and more meaningful than paid employment.
Regulating the Fatherhood Market
Continuing our economic metaphor, if fatherhood is a market, it’s a classic example of one that would benefit from policy intervention.
The supply of fathering services is less than its socially optimal level. One reason is externalities: the greatest benefits of fathering accrue not to fathers themselves, but to children and to the community as a whole.
As a result, fathers will tend to do less fathering than society desires. A second reason is market “frictions”—such factors as ignorance and myopia further undercut the fatherhood supply.
The Obama Administration, as well as localities around the country, has done much to promote responsible fatherhood. But we can do more.
Expand education and training. Teach dads how to be fathers. Home visiting programs like the Nurse Family Partnership have a proven track record of success with young moms. We can apply similar approaches to mentoring and training programs for dads.
Implement paid family leave. America is the only advanced country that lacks a national guarantee of paid family leave. The presence of parents during infancy and early childhood yields vast benefits—more than offsetting the modest economic costs of paid leave. The ability to take time off without worrying about lost wages or layoffs is particularly important for low-income families.
Increase workplace flexibility. Rigid workplace norms explain earnings gaps between men and women. Increasing flexibility—through regulation or through investment in technologies that lower the costs of working from home or keeping unconventional work hours—would reduce the disadvantages women face while also encouraging men to exercise the same options.
Start treating dad like mom. Perhaps the largest part of the mom-dad asymmetry is attributable to enduring cultural norms and gender roles. Policy can help dispel these stereotypes, but the lion’s share of the work falls to each of us.
Traditionally, we’ve sought to bridge gender gaps by allowing women to move into male-dominated domains. But when it comes to parenting, the opposite approach is the way to go. We need to make it accepted, and expected, that dads will be every bit as responsible for child care as moms. The good news is that this change is already well underway: the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled since the late 1980s.
If you’re lucky enough to celebrate Father’s Day this weekend, remember to thank your dad—a good dad is one of the greatest advantages you can ask for.
And while you’re at it, splurge on that extra necktie. Go for the deluxe power drill. Maybe offer him a burger-in-bed.
By pampering dad, you’ll not only be showing him how much you care; you’ll also be helping to change the way America thinks about fatherhood.