The problem with Democrats’ plans to help working families is that they value work more than family. Rather than providing assistance to families who are taking care of their children, Democrats want to push parents back into the workforce while handing children off to a federally funded cadre of child-care professionals.
As we criticize these proposals, conservatives should also reflect on the underlying economic conditions that make them appealing to many, and consider how to help families raise children amid our national baby bust.
Many Parents Work For Family’s Sake
First, the critique. As John Hirschauer notes in National Review, Democrats’ plans are “transparent attempts to farm out child-care responsibilities away from mothers and fathers to federally funded service workers.” The left is working to professionalize and nationalize the work of the family so parents may more thoroughly participate in the workforce. Democrats want to consolidate child care and replace individualized care provided by family with group care from an interchangeable series of workers.
Democrats’ vision is one in which only families who are well-to-do enough to afford a nanny, or weird enough to care for their own children despite economic disadvantages, would provide individual care for children during the workday. As Anna Anderson, writing here at The Federalist, observed in her dissection of Joe Biden’s about-face on the subject, such plans are regressive, subsidizing “working parents at the expense of families who provide the primary care for their children.”
There is also an element of class prejudice in Democrats’ plans. Consider this example from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s website about a hypothetical couple: “While they would like to send their kids to high-quality child care so they could work more hours, the average annual cost of child care … for their two kids is $11,000, so one of them has to stay home.” In reality, working-class parents are rarely eager to spend more hours at work away from their kids. If the government is going to splash out money to help them, they would rather just have the cash.
Warren’s plan is what happens when people who define themselves by their careers try to help those who define themselves by life outside their jobs. Part of the problem is a strain of American feminism that measures success and female empowerment in the crudest capitalist terms. The left is imposing this vision on families who don’t want it and don’t share its premises.
For many parents, both working-class and white-collar professionals, work is not what really matters. Work is simply the means to support what really matters: family. Using federally funded day care to incentivize more work and less family is not what these parents want or need. These parents believe meaning and significance are found in relationships, not economic productivity.
Democrats’ Goals Don’t Help Working Families
There are many ways to help working families that do not create extra economic incentives for both parents to work outside the home. But the Democrats’ proposals subordinate the goal of helping working families to the expansion of federal power and an increased labor force. As Biden put it when announcing his plan, “It would put 720 million women back in the workforce. It would increase the GDP — to sound like a wonk here — by about eight-tenths of 1 percent. It would grow the economy.”
Biden’s math doesn’t add up, but his goal is clear: Get women out of the home and back into the 9 to 5. This massive increase in labor force participation would drive down labor costs, especially at the low end of the pay scale, thereby putting further pressure on those working-class families that still had a stay-home parent. The Democrats here are doing the bidding of every low-wage corporate giant they pretend to oppose.
The real beneficiaries of these plans are not some hidden army of stay-at-home moms longing to rejoin the workforce but held back by child-care costs. Rather, the real winners are those already paying for child care, some of whom need the help and some of whom do not, and businesses that want an influx of cheaper labor.
Americans who want to formulate effective proposals for helping working families will be aided by recognizing the deeper root of the problems Democrats’ proposals would exacerbate — specifically, that the tension between economic participation and raising children has been greatly increased by the household’s modern evolution from a place of economic production to one of consumption only.
Our Economy Handicaps Parents, Especially Women
For nearly all of human history, economics was mostly home economics — the original Greek word literally means household management. Thus, the exemplary woman praised in the oft-quoted Proverbs 31 is an economic powerhouse, skilled at running a home business at a time when nearly all business was home business. Economic productivity was a family affair within the household.
Acknowledging this does not mean we should ignore the blessings of the present. The modern economy has given us much to be grateful for; our wealth and technological prowess are marvels. But gratitude for what we have does not mean we need to overlook the ways in which the modern separation of the home from economic production has created new problems and worsened old ones.
The market rewards economic production. It also confers social status in addition to monetary compensation. Consequently, separating the market from the home resulted particularly in women being deprived of their role in the market and their social standing. The modern ideal of a middle-class housewife was a woman who had lost access to many of the responsibilities and accomplishments described in Proverbs 31. Within this modern, capitalist framework that separated market productivity from home and family, the feminists had a point. Stay-at-home moms got no respect.
Conservative paeans to motherhood and caring for hearth and home are not wrong, but they are in tension with the currents of modern economics the right has promoted. Those of us who believe family is more important than maximal economic achievement should still be troubled by the extent to which modern economies financially and socially handicap parents, especially mothers, who want to care for their own children.
Stop Separating the Household from Production
There are, of course, other factors to consider, from single-parent families, to the problem of full-time jobs with wages insufficient to support a family, to the ways in which modern economic mobility attenuates family and community support for parents. The separation between home and the market, however, is a significant problem.
It is not just that caring for children, especially babies, is busy, exhausting work. Rather, it is that participating in economic production usually requires spending the day away from home in child-unfriendly environments. Workplaces are still organized around the ideal of men who, if they have children, can leave them home to be cared for by women.
Democrats’ response is to push parents, especially mothers, into the workforce by professionalizing more and more of what the family used to do for itself. Their plans double down on, rather than remedy, the modern propensity to separate the household from economic production.
In contrast, conservatives, and Americans generally, should be looking for ways to reintegrate households into the economy as more than just centers of consumption. Instead of more mothers working outside the home, courtesy of government day care, we need more mothers and fathers working from home. When this is not possible, we should encourage workplaces to be more flexible and family-friendly. Help families bring work home.