Balancing the Ledger of Family Policy
The customary package of family-friendly policies provides the kind of benefits that transmit both public support for and confirmation of the life choices of mothers with young children who opt for the male model of early entry and continuous labor-force participation. At the same time, the state offers few, if any, benefits that aid and endorse mothers inclined toward the sequential approach to balancing work and family life. Neither the simultaneous nor the sequential approach to work and family life is so unmistakably superior in promoting private happiness and the public good that it deserves exclusive backing from the state. Something needs to be done to correct the current discrepancy in public incentives and symbolic approval, which skews the social context of modern lifestyle choices.
To propose that public officials rethink the conventional design of family-friendly policy is not to dispute the importance and value of subsidized day-care services, paid parental leave, sick leave for dependent care, and other measures that make it possible to manage the concurrent approach to work and family life in the early childrearing years. The objective here is not to reduce public subsidies for existing benefits but rather to increase flexibility and choice by extending family – friendly policies beyond the established realm of work-oriented supports.
Three goals frame various initiatives to balance the ledger of family policy by lending equal weight to the sequential approach to childrearing and paid employment. These goals involve recognizing the economic worth of motherhood, particularly during the preschool years; facilitating the transition of women’s labor from the household to the market after the early years of childrearing; and protecting against the heightened insecurity faced by mothers who elect to care for their children at home.
Arguably the most essential way to acknowledge the economic value of motherhood is the same way we recognize the worth of all caring services in society—that is, to pay for it. In 2000 the federal government provided about $16 billion to subsidize a variety of cash and in-kind benefits for working parents who placed their children in day care, and such public spending is on the rise. In addition, a few states have started to provide universal preschool programs, and others are taking the provision of universal preschool under consideration. No equivalent public support is offered to parents caring for their own children at home.
A home-care allowance to full-time homemakers with children up to five years of age would afford mothers greater freedom to choose between caring for their own children and placing them in state-subsidized day care. (Of course, if the provision of a home-care allowance ever came to pass, it should be made available to either parent. It is evident, however, that this benefit—as with Swedish parental leave—would be drawn on mostly by mothers.) Although it is generally naive to assume that social benefits can be expanded in one realm of family policy without constricting the availability of support in other areas, this is not necessarily the case when the objective is to provide choice. Under a publicly subsidized system of universal day care, for example, the state could actually reduce expenditures by giving mothers the choice between consuming the public day-care service for which their child is eligible and receiving a cash grant for home care, calculated at 80 percent of the cost of the subsidized service.
Various objections to such a measure would no doubt ask: What about welfare mothers? And rich mothers? And gender equality? Regarding welfare mothers and rich mothers, some constraints would have to be set. To guard against home – care benefits that would end up disproportionately subsidizing wealthy families, these schemes could be progressively indexed as a refundable tax credit that tapers off rapidly for those earning more than twice the median family income. In addition, it could be limited to cover the first five years of care for up to three children. This would create a time-limited benefit that is longer than the period of welfare coverage currently available under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but not as open-ended as the social assistance benefits previously available in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Although the home-care allowance might create some incentive for low-income mothers to stay at home during the early years of childrearing, it is not necessarily the case that on balance such an outcome would be harmful to their children or society. (In any case, few if any social policies dealing with family life have no negative side effects.)
As for the issue of gender equality, feminist arguments that allowing mothers to choose between a simultaneous and sequential approach to work and family life is detrimental to women’s interests rest on a wholeheartedly authoritarian claim that what is advantageous for some women, particularly those in the elite professional classes, is best for all women. This argument advances the position that caring for children is a job the government should pay for only when it is performed by strangers, most of whom are women. Publicly subsidized day care, whether in the form of collective arrangements in day-care centers or nannies in individual homes, tends to redistribute the role of mothering. Women best qualified to command high salaries in the marketplace delegate the responsibility to others with less marketable potential. (Some men certainly might enter this work and do it as well as, if not better than, some women. But honestly, how many readers would be comfortable dropping off their three-year-old daughter in a day-care center staffed by three forty-year-old men whose marketable skills did not commend them to more gainful activities?)
A home-care allowance would probably lead to more mothers staying at home with their children for longer periods of time than at present. This would not mean a return to traditional family life as it was practiced half a century ago. Whatever changes a home-care allowance might bring, birth control technology, market forces, civil rights legislation, and modern sensibilities seem to assure that there is no turning back the clock on gender relations. In this regard, I should repeat for the sake of emphasis that all the measures being discussed here— home-care allowances, social credits, and other benefits—to balance the public incentives of family policy should apply with equal consequence to both mothers and fathers who might elect to provide home care for their children. Moreover, these measures should be flexible, so that parents who so wished could share the benefits by alternating periods in which each assumed the full-time homemaking responsibilities. I would fully expect that in some cases, particularly in families where the mothers were the primary earners, the benefits would be drawn upon mainly by stay-at-home fathers. I discuss these benefits in terms of their use by mothers, however, because of the reality that more often than not mothers would be the ones choosing to invest in the endeavors of childrearing and domestic life.
The proposal for a home-care allowance is neither unique nor revolutionary. Many countries provide a cash allowance for home care for the elderly which can be used to pay relatives.23 And for decades in the United States, feminist organizers, politicians, religious leaders, and academics have backed the development of policies supporting in-home child care.24 In the 1920s, feminists in the mothers’ pensions movement sought financial aid that was initially described as a childrearing salary, which “inevitably raised the possibility of paying all mothers.”25 In 1980 the White House Conference on Families recommended that homemaking be classified as a career, and that tax credits be established for full-time homemakers. These recommendations, however, were buried far down in the list of more than 150 recommendations adopted by the delegates.26 A few years later, in 1983, the Vatican published a “Charter on the Rights of the Family,” which counseled that social measures such as remuneration for work in the home should be taken so that “mothers will not be obliged to work outside the home to the detriment of family life and especially of the education of the children.”27 And in the 1990s various groups proposed the reform of U. S. tax policy to make parents who stayed home to care for their preschool children eligible for the child-care tax credit.28 Despite these encouragements, proposals for home-care benefits have not gained much purchase on the modern agenda of U. S. advocates of family-friendly policy. Instead, public discourse tends to focus on nonmaternal care, parental leave, men assuming more household duties, and other arrangements that support the simultaneous performance of paid work and childrearing responsibilities.29
In Europe, by contrast, home-care policy has sparked public debate and significant division in the measures taken by governments.30 Indeed, home-care benefits are the centerpiece of the “neofamilialist” model, which is seen as one of the dominant European child-care alternatives. Offering long-term payments for in-home care (three to four years per child), the new familialism emphasizes a woman’s right to choose between a housewife-mother role and labor-force participation in the childrearing years, rather than simply choosing from among different types of nonmaternal care. This approach to family policy is followed in Norway, Finland, France, Belgium, and Austria. An alternative approach adheres to the egalitarian model of Denmark and Sweden, which emphasizes the provision of universal nonparental care services and the equal division of remaining child-care and domestic responsibilities between fathers and mothers.
Although family-friendly policies of the Nordic countries are often spoken of in one breath, on the matter of a woman’s right to spend a significant period as a stay-at-home mother there is a clear division, with Sweden and Denmark on the one side and Norway and Finland on the other.31 When most advocates of family-friendly policies in the United States recommend emulating the Nordic model, they are not referring to the decisive lifestyle choices advanced by the essential home – care policies of Finland and Norway.
In 1998, Norway initiated a policy to pay cash benefits to all families with children up to three years old who were not enrolled in a state-subsidized day-care center. According to the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, this policy was designed to permit parents to spend more time caring for their own children and to give them genuine freedom of choice regarding child-care arrangements. It also sought to introduce greater equality in the cash transfers that parents received from the state—regardless of child-care arrangements. In 2004, home-care payments amounted to approximately $595 per month, at which time 70 percent of the children under three years old were cared for at home.32 Finland employs a similar policy, which was fully implemented in 1989. Between 1989 and 1995, labor-force participation among Finnish women with children under three years old declined from 68 to 55 percent.33 In 2005 approximately 70 percent of Finnish children between one and two years old were cared for by their parents, who received support from home-care and parental-leave benefits. In 2002 Austria implemented a new home-care benefit that provides approximately $570 per month to parents of children who are under four years old—along with social security pension, health insurance, and accident insurance. France has a complex system of family benefits that includes a parental education and upbringing allowance for home care until the child is three years old.
Home-care benefits facilitate the childrearing phase of a sequential approach to work and family life, which might last from five to ten years depending on the number of children in the family. Although the lifelong job of motherhood is far from over when children enter grade school, the full-time demands of daily care are greatly reduced—along with the caregiver’s economic contribution to family life. At this juncture, women who chose to be stay-at-home mothers during the early childhood years encounter the challenge of shifting their labor from the home to the market. With a large gap in their resumes, they are somewhat disadvantaged in the search for work compared to women who follow the male model of early entry and continuous employment. Still, one might argue that for many jobs prospective employers should judge reentry mothers as more attractive candidates than younger women fresh out of school. Having gone through the critical junctures of childbearing, early child care, marriage (usually), and sometimes even divorce, reentry mothers are likely to be more mature and stable workers than younger women for whom the future remains uncertain. Admittedly, however, this view has not yet captured the popular imagination of human-resource personnel.34 Thus, to balance the ledger of family policy, home – care benefits need to be supplemented with policies that smooth the transition into paid employment.
Transitional policies have already been established in several countries. France, for example, introduced a measure in 2000—the Return-to-Work Incentive for Women—which offers a temporary cash benefit to stay-at-home mothers who cared for at least one child under the age of six when they return to a job, start a business, or enter a training program.35 Similarly, Australia provides a return-to-work credit of $1,200 for education and training for parents who spend two years caring full-time for their children.36 An alternative policy might involve a “social credit” awarded by the government for each year spent at home with up to three children under the age of five.37 When the mother is ready to enter or reenter the labor market, the accumulated credits could be exchanged for various benefits that would assist her in making the transition. For example, the credits could be applied to cover tuition for academic training and enrollment in technical schools, or they might be traded for preferential points on federal civil-service examinations. As with the home-care benefit, concerns about the social credits unfairly benefiting the wealthy could be allayed by setting an appropriate family-income limit for eligibility. The social credit scheme would be somewhat akin to veterans’ benefits, which were granted in recognition of people who sacrificed career opportunities while serving the nation. Homemakers sacrifice employment opportunities to invest their energies in shaping the moral and physical stock of future citizens. By recognizing this contribution to national wellbeing, the social credit scheme would revive the sagging status of motherhood.
Even with a home-care allowance and transitional policies, postponing entry into the labor force is a risky proposition for young mothers. Among other concerns, the modern probability of divorce, volatility of the marketplace, the erosion of health-insurance coverage, and dire predictions about the future of social security pensions pose an uncomfortable bundle of vulnerabilities for the stay-at-home mother. What happens to the family’s health insurance if her husband loses his job? How will she fare in old age without paying into social security during the childrearing years? What resources will she be left with in the event of a divorce? There are no guarantees against the vicissitudes of modern times. To lend equal draw to the sequential approach to work and family life, however, the final entries on the ledger of family policy should offer a measure of protection against the risks accentuated by withdrawal from the labor force for a period of childrearing.
Although home-care allowances afford some immediate compensation for childrearing, these benefits do not insure against illness or the inevitable decline of income in old age. In the United States, the prevalence of employment-related health insurance is a powerful motivator for early entry and continuous participation in the labor market. Although most middle – class stay-at-home mothers would be covered under their spouses’ health-insurance plans, the risk of divorce and unemployment, along with the absence of insurance coverage in low-wage occupations, poses a level of insecurity surrounding access to health care, which would drive many women away from the opportunity of home-care. Access to health care is, of course, a complex and pressing issue that goes well beyond
the matter of balancing work and family life. In this context, though, it’s worth noting that an arrangement for some form of universal health insurance would do much to allay the anxieties of young mothers contemplating a temporary retreat from the labor market.
As for worries about the decline of income in old age, mothers who stay home to care for their children lose the credits toward public pension benefits that would otherwise accrue if they were employed during that period. To offset this loss, several countries, including Austria, Sweden, Britain, and France, assign varying amounts of pension credit for caregiving. Sweden awards credit to either spouse for each year they care for a child under 3. In Britain people who interrupt careers to assume caregiving duties are compensated through the Home Responsibility Protection policy, which credits both men and women with a minimum level of contribution during the years they spend caring for their children or disabled family members.38
Yet, even with contribution credits added in for the time at home, at the end of the day women who temporarily leave work are still likely to qualify for pensions that are much lower than those earned by their husbands (or ex-husbands, as the case may be). Family-friendly policies designed to promote choice encourage fathers and mothers to divide up the work of paid employment and domestic labor according to their talents and personal inclinations, in order to further the mutual objectives of family life. After having made these decisions, it would seem only fair that parents be able to share equally in the assets and material benefits accrued by both parties to the family enterprise. In the case of pension entitlements this translates into policies such as those enacted in Canada and Germany, which dictate the splitting of benefit credits between
spouses. The Canadian policy requires splitting only entitlements to public pensions, whereas the German scheme is broader in scope, encompassing all entitlements acquired in both public and private pensions. While spouses have legal rights to an equal share of their combined pension credits, in both of these countries the tangible division of old-age pension entitlements occurs only in cases of divorce.39 Of course, the actual sharing of pensions need not be contingent upon divorce. One can imagine a credit-sharing arrangement based on a system of joint accounts that combine both partners’ pension credits and issue checks for equal amounts to each party— conferring explicit recognition of each member’s contribution to the family enterprise.
Unfortunately, those who advocate credit-sharing arrangements are currently swimming upstream. There is far from universal support for the view of married life as a partnership in which the members decide how to divide their labor to most efficiently satisfy their personal needs and family responsibilities, and share equally in the economic assets built up over time. For example, a 1991 report by the OECD Group of Experts on Women and Structural Change recommended that the individual, rather than the married couple, should be considered as the unit of entitlement for social security benefits in order to promote the wife’s personal autonomy and economic independence.40 Indeed, the avenue to gender equality is generally considered to be paved with the individualization of social rights. To move in this direction, the president of the Women’s University in Belgium counsels “suppressing for ablebodied adults all the rights based on relations of marriage or cohabitation with an insuree.”41
Over the years various groups in the United States have expressed serious interest in credit-sharing arrangements. In 1977 the National Women’s Conference called for federal and state legislatures to base laws relating to property, inheritance, and domestic relations “on the principle that marriage is a partnership in which the contribution of each spouse is of equal importance and value.”42 Embracing this principle, the 1979 Advisory Council on Social Security recommended consideration of a credit-sharing scheme, but the proposal was stifled by entrenched interests. It reappeared in the early 1990s but did not gain political momentum.
Once we broach the subject of equal shares in social security pensions, it is a short step to applying the same principles of equality and security to other material resources acquired by both partners, regardless of who holds title to the property. In Germany, as noted, the scheme to split credits between spouses applies to all entitlements in both public and private pensions. In the United States, nine states have enacted community property laws that treat husbands and wives as partners in married life, each of whom is entitled to one-half interest in all employment income received (including private pension benefits) during marriage and all property acquired through such income. This exemplary policy not only imparts symbolic recognition to the egalitarian ideal of family life but also affords some protection against the loss of personal resources that young mothers risk by withdrawing their labor from the marketplace to invest in childrearing and household management.
Since the turn of the century, politicians on both sides of the aisle have been bidding for ownership of family values. As pressures build to help parents manage the contemporary challenges of work and childrearing, those looking to craft a pro-family agenda in the United States are likely to begin by fiddling with the standard package of family-friendly benefits— nonmaternal day care and limited periods of paid parental leave. It is what they know best and hear most about from family – policy advocates. I put forth the case for rethinking the conventional approach neither to diminish efforts in this direction nor to cast doubt on their value to the many mothers who struggle with the daily demands of raising children and going to the office. My objective instead is to broaden the pro-family agenda by giving equal consideration to alternative approaches to balancing work and family life.
On several occasions I’ve been asked by women in professional life whether providing support for home care and the sequential pattern of mixing work and family life might detract from the status of mothers who work full-time and have young children in day care. It’s a fair question that cuts both ways, as Ann Crittenden found out. After resigning from a high-profile job at the New York Times to stay home with her infant son, she ran into an acquaintance who asked, “Didn’t you used to be Ann Crittenden?”43 As things now stand, the predominant policy proposals are far from neutral in offering incentives that lend public approval and economic support for early entry and continuous participation in the paid labor force along with the outsourcing of many traditional duties of motherhood. A home-care allowance reinforced by measures that would guarantee a basic level of health care, reform social security to incorporate credit-sharing, and extend the legal mandates of community property to all states in the union would do much to balance the ledger of family-friendly initiatives— and restore a sense of social admiration for motherhood.
This page intentionally left blank