New Rules Represent a Change in American Attitudes

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Monday announced that it has proposed a new rule that will make it easier for stay-at-home parents (without personal income) to qualify for credit cards. This is just one example of how this period of economic stagnation has impacted the way that American parents think. The change has broad implications for everything from grocery stores to tutoring services.

The simplicity of it is this: across the country thousands of two-income families suddenly became one-income families because one partner was laid off. In a challenging job market, it’s not unusual for it to take many months to find a worthwhile job, and as a result many of those thousands of families found a way to live on half the money they were making before.

It is possible, and it doesn’t put the family in poverty. In fact, many of the things that we pay for – such as dinners out and family cruises – are actually distractions from the kind of quality time that we should be spending with our families. Once a parent starts to stay at home with their kids, a bond and a rhythm forms that is very difficult to break. A job that might once have seemed like an opportunity now feels like an imposition on the investment you want to make in the people you brought into the world.

Those feelings, and the ethics that derive from them, portend to a society that is more oriented toward quality than toward luxury. It is a society in which parents are more interested in what’s good for their kids than in what’s fashionable or hip. And that is having and will have a significant economic impact.

Today’s stay-at-home parent isn’t the same as the stay-at-home moms of the 1950s. Today’s stay-at-home mom (or dad) probably has a college degree. She probably places a high value on education. Her kids will probably be reading before they start kindergarten, and she will be much more likely to send them to school with whole grains than with chocolate chip cookies.

When those kids run into academic trouble, their parents are going to be aggressive about finding solutions, and they’ll be less willing to wait for the solutions presented by the school. They will be more likely to find tutors, and they’ll be more likely to spend extra time with their kids after school to ensure that they get the kind of instruction they need to succeed.

That the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is suggesting this rule for credit card approvals suggests that both regulation and the marketplace are adjusting to the idea that many of these parents, who stayed home reluctantly at first, have now decided to make the situation permanent.

That bodes well for the health food industry, for PBS-style children’s programming, for tutoring services, and the other enrichment programs these parents will be hungry for. It might not bode well for an accelerated economic recovery, but at least it’s good to know that we’re getting our priorities straight.

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