But the brouhaha over Hilary Rosen’s injudicious remarks is not really about whether what stay-home mothers do is work. Because we know the answer to that: it depends. When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work—difficult, sacred, noble work. Ann says Mitt called it more important work than his own, which does make you wonder why he didn’t stay home with the boys himself. When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do—teenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks—changing diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath—are not only not work; they are idleness itself. Just ask Mitt Romney. In a neat catch that in a sane world would have put the Rosen gaffe to rest forever, Nation editor at large Chris Hayes aired a video clip on his weekend-morning MSNBC show displaying Romney this past January calling for parents on welfare to get jobs: “While I was governor, 85 percent of the people on a form of welfare assistance in my state had no work requirement. And I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 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.’” (Don’t be fooled by the gender-neutral language—he’s talking about mothers.) In 1994 he told the Burlington Business Council that “work is ennobling” and that “we will do everything in our power to make sure that people who are on welfare have an opportunity and an obligation to go to work, not after two years but from day one if we could.”
So there it is: the difference between a stay-home mother and a welfare mother is money and a wedding ring."