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U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer interacts with children at Marks of Excellence Child Care in Amityville, New York, on April 7, 2021.Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images
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Against Families

Why progressives oppose child care choice

Michael Lind
May 26, 2021
Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer interacts with children at Marks of Excellence Child Care in Amityville, New York, on April 7, 2021.Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images

On May 7, Elizabeth Bruenig wrote an innocuous Mother’s Day column in The New York Times celebrating the joys of family and the unexpected virtues of having children at an early age. Bruenig became a mother in her mid-20s.

In response, Twitter was aflame for days as young feminists, progressives, and social media trolls excoriated her as a racist, sexist oppressor of women. She was skewered for using her privileged position to promote “natalist propaganda” and was pilloried for her reactionary pro-family values.

Bruenig signaled her support for federal subsidies to allow young mothers to stay at home without working if they choose to, which should be an uncontroversial opinion. Among American families with children, diversity in the choice of child care options is the norm. According to the Pew Research Center in 2019, only 55% of mothers with children under 18 worked full time—higher than the 34% who did so in 1971, but still only slightly more than half. Another 17% were employed part time, while 28% of mothers with children under 18 were stay-at-home moms.

Majorities of mothers who work full time and part time think their choices are best for them. Among at-home parental caregivers, only 25% say they would prefer full-time work and only 35% would rather work part time, according to Pew:

When asked more generally about the ideal situation for men and women with young children—rather than about what works best for them personally—about three-quarters of U.S. adults (76%) say working full time is ideal for fathers, while just 33% think this is the ideal situation for mothers. About four-in-ten (42%) say working part time is ideal for women with young children, while 21% say not working for pay at all is ideal for this group.

In light of the expressed preferences of American adults, you might think that the Biden administration and the Democratic majority in Congress would propose flexible family subsidies like Canada’s child benefit, which Canadian families can spend either on a parental caregiver at home or on institutional child care.

You might think that, but you would be wrong.

With the exception of a universal expanded child tax credit, all of the provisions in the American Families Plan—paid leave, universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-old children, capping the amount of income spent on child care outside the home, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit—are intended to help full-time or part-time working parents, who therefore must turn over their children during work hours to paid public, private, or nonprofit functionaries for supervision. In other words, billions for institutional care, but not a penny for parental child care at home.

U.S. adoption of paid family leave for working parents, which the Biden administration supports, is long overdue. Preferably paid leave would take the form of transferable tax credits or social insurance benefits that each parent or chosen family caregiver—married or divorced, straight or gay/lesbian—could either use personally or choose to assign to another family caregiver. Empowering families to choose among options as they see fit should be the basis of all child care programs. Policymakers should reject a rigid, one-size-fits-all set of policies like Biden’s American Families Plan, which favors only working parents in two-earner or one-earner families, with nothing for at-home family caregivers.

Why is it that most progressives, who ardently defend choice when it comes to abortion, oppose choice when it comes to different models of child care?

Democratic Party coalition politics provides part of the answer. The two public school teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), regularly give almost all of their campaign contributions to Democratic candidates, including Joe Biden, who received the lion’s share of their contributions in the 2020 election cycle. Removing child care from the home, and thereby expanding the public school monopoly to children younger than school age, translates into more jobs and money for unionized public school teachers—and thus more donations to the Democratic Party, taken indirectly out of the pockets of American taxpayers.

In addition, employer lobbies argue constantly for expanding the share of “female labor force participation.” Translation: More mothers should be separated from their young children by work during the day.

Like teachers unions, business lobbies stand to profit from the outsourcing of child care from the home. How? Consider that there are two ways to expand output. The hard way is to increase labor productivity per worker by innovative labor-saving technologies or innovative processes. The easy and lazy way to boost output and profit is to use old technology and add workers.

Better yet, when both parents work, many activities in addition to child care, including cooking and cleaning, must be performed by firms outside the home for money. Busy parents must drop off their children, drop off their laundry, and pick up fast food for the family. That means more money for day care operators, cleaners, and fast-food chains.

The Biden administration’s fact sheet explaining the American Families Plan contains passages that sound as though they were written by labor-hungry employer lobbies:

Our nation is strongest when everyone has the opportunity to join the workforce and contribute to the economy … Leading economic research has shown that the investments proposed in the American Families Plan will yield significant economic returns—boosting productivity and economic growth, producing a larger, more productive, and healthier workforce on a sustained basis, and generating savings to states and the federal government … In part due to the lack of [two-earner] family friendly policies, the United States has fallen behind its competitors in female labor force participation.

The Biden administration goes so far as to claim that the United States suffers from a day care gap in the new cold war competition with China: “Together, these plans reinvest in the future of the American economy and American workers, and will help us out-compete China and other countries around the world.”

Stay-at-home moms lower U.S. GDP by lowering female workforce participation! Parental caregivers are the fifth column of Chinese communists who want to undermine the U.S. economy! Sound the alarm! Citizens, if you see any parents with small children at home between the hours of 8 and 5 in your neighborhood, report them to the authorities immediately!

But there is more to the Democratic Party establishment’s one-size-fits-all subsidized institutional day care policy than lobbying from special interest groups like teachers unions and corporations. Progressive neoliberal ideology favors the deliberate use of both the welfare state and the labor market to liberate individuals from the alleged oppression inherent in the family itself.

Citizens, if you see any parents with small children at home between the hours of 8 and 5 in your neighborhood, report them to the authorities immediately!

“Defamilialization,” alternately “defamilization,” is a term coined by the British academic and member of the House of Lords Ruth Lister, Baroness Lister of Burtersett, in her 1997 book Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives. Lister built on the work of the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen, who in his 1990 book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism identified three different welfare state regimes: the liberal welfare states, identified with market-oriented countries like the United States and other English-speaking nations; the corporatist welfare states of Germany, France, and other continental European countries; and the social democratic welfare states of Scandinavia. Some scholars have added other models to the typology.

In liberal countries like the United States and corporatist countries like Germany, the welfare state is viewed as supplementing, not supplanting, the family. By contrast, in the idealized Nordic social democratic model, the welfare state is deliberately designed to replace the family by providing universal child care, accompanied by social pressure on all parents to be in the workforce at all times, except during a limited period of family leave.

Esping-Andersen’s use of the term “social democratic” to describe this model is questionable. The golden age of Swedish social democracy between World War II and the 1970s was known in Sweden as “the housewife era,” as union policy and welfare state policy were based on the model of the single-earner breadwinner family. The contemporary Swedish experiment with mass public day care, mostly provided by female workers, has only been in place since the 1970s, and has been accompanied by an escalating divorce rate and, apart from an ephemeral uptick, a declining birth rate.

The radicalism of contemporary Sweden’s statist approach to child care is clear from a description by the Danish journalist Mikael Jalving, writing in Quillette:

Central to this “cradle-to-grave” arrangement are such initiatives as universal daycare, a comprehensive program of direct student loans to teenagers and young adults, and the creation of a special ombudsman to protect children’s rights. The very language of public discourse now reflects such expectations: When the current government recently introduced the idea of making it mandatory for parents to send their young children to daycare in order for immigrant children to learn Swedish early on, this was presented as vindication of “the right to compulsory pre-school.” Implicit in these projects is the idea that a reliance on traditional forms of community and upbringing sets one at risk of oppression and inequality, while the welfare state is idealized as a liberating agent that frees citizens from hidebound social norms [emphasis added].

In 2006, Swedish historians Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh coined the term “statist individualism” for the Swedish model in their essay, “Is the Swede Human? Radical Individualism in the Land of Social Solidarity.”

As one summary of Berggren and Trägårdh notes, Swedish-style statist individualism “has, on the one hand, liberated the individual from the ties of dependency that characterize the traditional family, churches, and charities, on the other, it has left the individual relatively powerless in relation to the state.”

Writing in 2014 in the Journal of European Social Policy, Esther Yin-Nei Cho distinguishes defamilization from “decommodification”—reducing the dependence of individuals and families on the market for income, goods, and services, which is favored by the traditional labor left: “Freedom from the market, therefore, is not the solution for bringing about the economic independence of women; the solution is freedom from the family” [emphasis added]. According to Cho, working for pay outside the home liberates women, while child and elder care oppresses them: “The demanding care needs of young children and old parents in particular could serve as a barrier to a woman’s employment … The cluster of strong defamilization in this study [and others] is characterized by a partial unburdening of the family’s caring responsibility while the family’s right to care is not honoured.”

Think about that chilling phrase. In a strongly defamilizing welfare state system like that of Sweden or Biden’s American Families Plan, the family’s right to care is not honored. Following this logic, in 2020 the governing Social Democrats in Sweden proposed to make day care from the age of 2 compulsory, effectively turning parents who choose to raise 3- and 4-year-olds at home into criminals. This was too much even for Swedes; the left-wing government has since retreated to pushing 5 as the age of compulsory preschool.

The mystery of why progressives are pro-choice when it comes to abortion but anti-choice when it comes to child care is thus solved. They do not want to give families cash subsidies that can be used either for home care or institutional care because they fear that some families might make the wrong decision.

As Simone de Beauvoir told another feminist icon, Betty Friedan, in a 1976 interview: “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to bring up the children … because if there is such a choice, too many people will make that one.” In another interview, Beauvoir warned ominously: “Those who profit from their ‘collaboration’ have to understand the nature of their betrayal.” Note her implicit comparison of stay-at-home moms with French collaborators who betrayed their country to the Nazi occupiers during World War II.

Discussing Beauvoir’s 1949 polemic The Second Sex in The New York Times in 2010, Francine du Plessix Gray observed:

Written in an era in which a minority of women were employed, its arguments for female participation in the work force seem particularly outmoded. And Beauvoir’s truly paranoid hostility toward the institutions of marriage and motherhood—another characteristic of early feminism—is so extreme as to be occasionally hilarious … Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound … Already alarmed? Wait until you come to the discussion of motherhood. A woman experiences the fetus as “a parasite. … There is nothing like an ‘unnatural mother,’ since maternal love has nothing natural about it.” It is significant that the only stage of a woman’s life Beauvoir has good things to say about is widowhood, which, in her view, most bear quite cheerfully.

Indeed, there is nothing like the death of a husband to mark the triumph of defamilization over patriarchy.

Defamilizing welfare state reforms like the Biden administration’s American Families Plan implicitly treat the two-parent, one-earner family as illegitimate and outmoded, ignoring the preferences of the majority of American parents. America needs leaders who trust parents to do what they think is best for their own families—not arrogant politicians and ideologues who think they know what is best for the families of other people.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.