You may have heard that today marks “Equal Pay Day,” the date reflecting how far into 2013 a woman must work to earn what her male peers were paid in 2012.
Lots of debate about the size and causes of this pay gap. I won’t get into the arguments here, because there’s a much worse pay gap that we should all care more about.
I’m talking about the devaluation – actually, the non-valuation- of the domestic labor that an at-home parent (usually, though not always, a woman) provides. Our Congress (through tax statutes), and the IRS (through regulation), regard domestic labor as something akin to a hobby: I can’t pay myself for doing it or give it any kind of tax treatment that corresponds to its actual economic value.
When I pay someone else to clean my house, wash my clothes, cook my meals, or care for (and, especially, educate) my children, you, me, and the IRS all agree that those activities have economic value, because money changes hands. When I do those things, they simply don’t count. The labor isn’t a business expense because I’m not trying to make a profit.
Childless taxpayers might consider my domestic labor hobby-type leisure; after all, no one made me have children, and no one forces me to be anything more than a laissez-faire parent. I could just as easily have taken up hang gliding, right? Or I could just put all my kids in school and daycare, stuff them with fast food, and go out and join the full-time paid workforce.
But there’s one crucial distinction between parenting and other “hobbies”: If I do my job right, I’m raising taxpayers, and YOU (society, writ large) will profit. My (hopefully college-educated, employed) kids will pay the taxes that will help sustain your Social Security, your Medicare, the economic prosperity of this country.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are other, arguably less socially significant “leisure” pursuits in the domestic sphere that the tax code rewards handsomely. Chief among these is fixing up and selling houses.
Before kids, my husband and I did this a lot. We burned up a lot of leisure time swinging hammers and wielding paint brushes. You might have called this our hobby, because we only renovated a house if we actually lived in it – we weren’t in the business of renovation – but it was shocking how the tax code rewarded us . You could, and still can, exclude $500,000 in profit on the sale of a house from ANY INCOME TAXES. You heard right, NO TAXES.
That’s how much we, as a society, value granite counter tops and refinished hardwood floors. Why not give parenting – and home schooling – the same treatment? Why not let me exclude from my future taxable income the collective earnings of my children?