Mitt Romney Didn't Flip-Flop on Stay-at-Home Moms

Mitt Romney's seemingly contradictory statements on motherhood and the "dignity of work" are not as big a deal as Ezra Klein thinks.

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We can't call it a gaffe per se. Former Gov. Mitt Romney said it months ago, and it didn't seem remotely controversial at the time. But in light of last week's controversy involving Hilary Rosen and Ann Romney's skirmish in the "Mommy Wars," the remark has taken on a fresh significance.

Here's what Romney said, as heard in a video unearthed by MSNBC's Chris Hayes:

I wanted to increase the work requirement ... I said, for instance, that even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, "Well, that's heartless," and I said "No, no, I'm willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work. It'll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work."

[Vote: Will the Hilary Rosen-Ann Romney Uproar Matter for the Election?]

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein pounces:

So what Mitt Romney was saying, in other words, was that he believes poor mothers should go out and get jobs rather than to stay home with their children. He believes that going out and getting a job gives mothers —and everyone else —"the dignity of work." And so, finally, he believes that staying home and taking care of children is not "work," and does not fulfill a "work requirement," and does not give poor mothers "the dignity of work." And he believes all of this strongly enough that, as governor of Massachusetts, he signed those beliefs into law.

Much as I enjoy pouncing on Romney, I don't think the contradiction is as stark as Hayes and Klein make it out to be. In my last post on this topic, I tried to make the case that we should look at a household with children as a single economic unit, a joint venture, irrespective of whether just one or both parents worked outside the home. A job in the marketplace plus domestic labor and childrearing; or two jobs in the marketplace plus shared responsibilities for domestic labor and childrearing—the particulars of the arrangement should not matter. What matters is total output: as measured in widgets made, plus human citizens molded.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney]

In the case of single mothers, however, the widgets are missing. Now, contra comedian Chris Rock, I realize most women don't typically choose to be single mothers. I realize, further, that the children of single mothers can turn out perfectly well (they can even become president!). And I certainly don't mean to imply that single mothers lack dignity in any sense.

But the reality Mitt Romney was trying to convey, back in January, is that some form of productivity, in addition to childrearing, is an essential feature in the life of a family. As I explain to my kids when they ask why mommy and daddy can't both stay home every day—"Somebody has to do it."

Alas, that includes single moms, too.

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