Now we are told to add parents and children to the list of privileged groups who are getting a free ride from the government. Leading the backlash against "family friendly" social policy is Elinor Burkett's Baby Boon, which argues that nonparents shouldn't be forced to pay taxes and suffer other inconveniences to help support other people's children. "Handing out goodies to parents just because they are parents," writes Burkett, "is affirmative action--the preferential treatment of one group designed to correct real or perceived discrimination or inequality--based on reproductive choice."
Philosophically, Burkett's argument is grounded in the libertarian assumption that Ayn Rand so effectively popularized: We don't have obligations to others, except the ones we freely choose, which, of course, are entirely our own responsibility. She assumes that children provide no benefits to anyone but their parents and themselves. It's as though she thinks of them as golden retriever puppies. Their owners get to name them and cuddle them, and in return, we expect them to pay for the kibble and to bring along a pooper-scooper when they come to the park. If the owners decide that the puppies aren't that cute after all, they can always drop them off at the pound.
Puppies and children are both cute, and people do get some intrinsic satisfaction from caring for them. Unlike puppies, however, children in our society have both rights and obligations. They grow up to become taxpayers, workers, and citizens. The claims we collectively enforce on their income will help finance our national debt and fund Social Security and Medicare. Even if all the intergenerational transfers built into our tax system were eliminated, leaving all us baby boomers to rely on our own bank accounts in old age, we would need to hire the younger generation to debug our computers and help us into our wheelchairs. The wages that future workers will charge will reflect many of the factors that go into developing their produc-tive capabilities today.
In more technical terms, children create "positive externalities," spillover effects for the rest of society. The argument that they represent "public goods" underlies the principle of pub-lic support for education. Parents make contributions to the develop-ment of our human capital that are every bit as significant as schools-- and they do so at considerable cost to their personal income, leisure, and peace of mind. In most advanced industrial economies, fertility rates are at or below replacement levels precisely because the relative costs to parents have become so high. Parents deserve more support, and their children need it--especially in families where the risk of poverty is high.
If this argument seems rather abstract, it may be because economists have long been reluctant to impute a monetary value to productive work that takes place outside the market. Furthermore, when they do make such imputations, they usually lump general housework in with care activities, exerting little effort to ask how either the costs or benefits are distributed. The lack of specific estimates makes it easier to overlook the social benefits that nonmarket work generates. This is no excuse for Burkett, who ignores the scholarly literature that is available, despite its obvious relevance. Her peppy journalistic account is accessible and easy to read, partly because she deftly avoids consideration of any difficult conceptual issues.
Nor does she bore her readers with facts or figures. Her claim that government generously subsidizes parents is not accompanied by any discussion of the relative size or context of public programs. Current estimates suggest that the cost of raising a middle-class child through age 17 is about $160,140, not including the loss of wage income attributable to taking time out of the labor market to care for that child. A childless person who invested a similar amount of money in the stock market would pay more taxes on it than a parent would, for the obvious reason that he or she would profit from it. If, however, the same person borrowed that money and bought a house or even a second home, he or she could tax-deduct all the mortgage interest paid, enjoying a public subsidy far greater than that which low-income families receive for raising a child.
Burkett argues that the real motive behind tax breaks for families with children is the ubiquitous liberal desire to equalize. She elaborates at length on how "using the tax system to socially engineer kids into meaningful equality won't work." But she never shows that the tax system has tried to do this. If she went to the trouble of actually calculating the value of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Dependent Child Care Tax Credit, the dependent exemption, and the other modest tax subsidies available to parents, she would find that the benefits to families with income under the poverty line are about the same as benefits to affluent families in the 31 percent tax bracket. Indeed, for families with three or more children, the average per-child benefits are higher for the affluent.
Burkett is more convincing when she focuses on individual rights rather than on public subsidies. As she correctly insists, childless individuals should not be stigmatized or labeled as selfish. Furthermore, they shouldn't be expected to cover at the office when parents have to go to soccer games or swim meets. Family leaves from work and other forms of social support for care shouldn't be limited to parents of young children. In general, they are not; but they are typically defined in terms of responsibilities to kin. I believe that they should also encompass responsibilities to friends and community. I doubt that Burkett would agree that such responsibilities exist. She would probably prefer to call them choices.
Still, progressive thinkers need to offer better answers to the question Burkett raises: "At what level and to what extent is reproduction a social good?" General responses range from the mainstream treatment offered by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West in The War Against Parents to the more explicitly feminist tone of Gwendolyn Mink's case for a caregiver's allowance in Welfare's End. A broader and more systematic framework is developed in Mona Harrington's Care and Equality, which reflects a burgeoning progressive effort to rethink, degender, and redesign the social organization of care.
Harrington articulates three fundamental points with eloquent conviction: The unequal division of responsibility for the care of children, the elderly, and other dependents impedes movement toward economic equality between men and women. Competitive pres-sures threaten the quality of care both at home and in paid services such as child care, elder care, and health care. And we urgently need a new family politics that can dovetail with a larger progressive social agenda. Still, Harrington fails to situate the problems of organizing care for dependents within a convincing historical context, focusing instead on the politics of the past decade.
The Clinton administration has successfully--though not unwaveringly--ridden a wave of social concern about tensions between family and paid work. But the origins of these tensions lie in the development of capitalism itself and were pointed out long ago by the first advocates of social democracy. As the Swedish feminist Alva Myrdal put it in her classic Nation and Family, first published in 1945: "Unproductive age groups have no assured place in the new economic order of individualistic money-making in nation-wide competitive markets."
The same may be said for those who take care of them. Harrington offers many fine examples of how responsibilities for care continue to limit women's career opportunities. She emphasizes outmoded cultural norms, lags in social policy, and the high cost of market substitutes for family care. But however important these factors may be, they pale in comparison with the fundamental asymmetry that has shaped the impact of feminism on free market capitalism: It has proved much easier for women to win new rights for themselves than to impose new obligations on men.
Indeed, women who are willing to assume traditional masculine priorities and abjure direct responsibility for the care of dependents now fare relatively well in the labor market. Unmarried, childless women earn virtually the same as their male counterparts. Unlike those counterparts, however, they are under more pressure to choose between a parent track and an equality track. It's still harder for women than for men to find a partner willing to specialize in providing care for children and other family members. Of course, it's getting harder for men to find homemakers, too, because everyone is increasingly aware of the costs and risks of devoting time to family and community. Most professional careers are ruled by an arms-race logic of escalating work demands. The least encumbered are the most competitive.
The same logic applies to countries: Social spending, like family responsibility, begins to seem like a luxury that serious contenders can ill afford. The structural tension between individual rights and social responsibilities is a central dilemma of modern capitalism. Those who really want an every-man-for-himself world will have to throw patriotism and family values out the window along with socialwelfare spending. This dilemma is at the heart of a historical melodrama that doesn't easily fit into the political anecdotes of the past 10 years.
Harrington tries too hard to personalize her account with examples from the Clinton administration and its various and largely ill-fated appointees. Hillary Clinton, Zoë Baird, Lani Guinier, and Joycelyn Elders are all interesting women whose careers have been twisted by the politics of family values. But Harrington's fascination with Washington in-fighting threatens to trivialize her larger analysis. One chapter gushes with praise for Bill Clinton as a person and as a president. His personal empathy offers us hope for a reconstructed masculinity as well as the "possibility of a deeper democracy," Harrington says. One isn't sure whether to laugh or to avert the eyes.
Still, Harrington offers important encouragement and assistance for progressive thinkers who want to resist the new "every woman for herself" individualism. If care for others is never considered more than a personal choice, those who embrace it will be penalized by competitive forces that reward only personal performance. The costs of care have always been high; it's just that traditional patriarchal societies gave women little choice but to pay them. As we move toward an increasingly market-based economy and an increasingly individualistic ethos, this solution is no longer feasible. That's the most obvious reason we need some new--and more specific--ideas about how to balance care, equality, responsibility, and freedom. ¤