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Limited Options

A Response to Can Working Families Ever Win?

Anne Alstott

8 There is much to admire in Jody Heymann's essay. She deftly reveals the outmoded assumptions that shape American social policy. She offers practical programs that could improve the lives of vulnerable people—poor children and their parents. Heymann's work is a welcome effort to transcend these libertarian times and to harness the redistributive power of the state to the service of social justice.

Still, I have serious reservations about the limited conception of equality that may be suggested by Heymann's proposals. Heymann begins by invoking a broad, liberal-egalitarian principle of equal opportunity to motivate her program.1 And her prescriptions for children would advance that goal, although more might be done. When it comes to adults, Heymann focuses specifically on mitigating the harsh working conditions that pit paid-work success against children's needs. But the equal opportunity principle—the idea that there should be "equal chances to succeed"—demands consideration for the aspirations of poor parents as individuals and not merely as workers. Thus the proposals Heymann presents here do not address the needs of poor parents who cannot or do not hold paid jobs. More fundamentally, job-leave and day-care programs, for example, fail to challenge the deeper injustices that limit the life options available to parents and to the poor: the choices they make about whether to enter the labor market or not in the first place. A better approach would focus in the first instance on expanding poor parents' options for combining paid work with child-rearing and other life projects over time, not just on mitigating their burdens once they have taken on paid employment.

I want to emphasize that I am not simply urging that more be done for non-working families: my disagreement with Heymann is not that her program is partial rather than comprehensive. I am suggesting, instead, that policies to ensure justice for the working poor themselves will look very different once we see that our basic aim is to ensure equal opportunity for individuals with limited resources, working or not. Though I think that the United States would be a more just country if we adopted Heymann's proposals, my conclusion is not that we need to supplement her proposals, but that we should explore a different design of basic policies.

* * *

Providing equal opportunity means offering every individual the freedom to shape a life plan of her own choosing, regardless of her class background, her gender, or her race. To this end, the state should commit adequate resources to the education and development of each child. Each child deserves a chance to make meaningful choices among the different lives she might lead. Heymann's proposals for children proceed in this spirit. Public subsidies for preschool for poor children are an especially good idea, although universal public preschool, from age three through kindergarten, might be even better.2Realization of her proposals would represent substantial progress toward equal opportunity for children, though we also need to address the glaring inequalities in public education.

But a just society should also pay attention to opportunities for adults. Parents and the poor confront serious constraints on their capacity to choose and pursue different life plans. Parents care for their children for the long term, and they usually put children's needs ahead of their other life projects when circumstances demand it.3 Poor people face obvious financial obstacles to life-planning. And many poor adults were denied adequate educational and developmental resources as children. A liberal state should respond by enhancing the quality and range of life options that poor parents and individuals might pursue.

Today's families choose a variety of arrangements for combining paid work and child-rearing. Although Heymann emphasizes mothers' increasing labor-force participation, that trend is only part of a more complex picture. In 2000, for example, a slight majority (54 percent) of mothers worked full-time, while 27 percent were not in the labor force at all, and another 16 percent worked part-time.4 This diversity persists throughout the income spectrum. (see figure) Many families of modest means make economic sacrifices in order to care for their children themselves. For example, families with incomes under $25,000 are at least as likely as more affluent families to have a mother who stays at home or works part-time. The very poorest families have the most tenuous connection to paid work.5 For them, job leave and day-care policies offer highly uneven coverage, improving life for full-time workers but offering little to families with a disabled or unemployed worker or a mother whose child-care responsibilities lead her to work part-time or not at all.

Liberal equality counsels respect for parents' choices. Some parents work full-time, for financial security and for the dignity they find in that endeavor. Others forgo income and job prospects to take time away from paid work to rear their children. For reasons of religion, tradition, or personal conviction, they believe that parental care is best.6 Some have children with special needs, who require more intensive care than even a flexible paid job will permit. And these choices may change over time, as a family's needs and opportunities evolve.

Child-rearing is not a mechanical task. It is value-laden work. For parents of all incomes, choices about child-rearing express heartfelt purposes and aspirations. No matter how high the quality of day-care or after-school programs, some families will strive to arrange their lives so that one—or both—parents can provide personal care. These facts indicate some important limits on the role of day care and paid job leave in advancing equal opportunity. To be sure, some parents might gladly seize the opportunities to work that Heymann's programs would extend. But it is also essential to support parents' ability to choose among a variety of options.

For example, public policy should recognize that children's emergencies can disrupt family life, whether or not each parent holds a full-time job. The problem of work disruption is really a special case of life disruption. A child with a serious illness, a developmental disability, or an educational crisis will require large investments of parental time and energy, interfering with family work at home as well as performance on the job. Instead of paid job leave just for workers, or a conjunction of paid job leave for workers with support focused on non-working families, we might consider an encompassing program of "crisis insurance" for families, which would provide appropriate support, including financial help but also home help and social-work resources, to every affected household.7

In a similar vein, public policy should endeavor to expand child-care options rather than day-care programs. Universal preschool is a sound proposal for ensuring that every child comes to kindergarten ready for school. But extended-day programs and other day-care subsidies should not be the exclusive source of support for child care outside the standard school day. Full-time workers bear the obvious financial costs of day care, but parents who care for children at home incur opportunity costs, measured not only in lost wages but also lost "human capital" and retirement contributions. A more encompassing program might offer each family an annual grant, which could be used to purchase child care, to pay for a parent's education or training when re-entering the workforce, or to contribute to a retirement plan. It is not difficult to imagine a "cafeteria-style" program that would offer every family a menu of options.

Heymann argues that after-school programs and longer school years could improve children's educational outcomes. If these programs are the best way to redress inequalities in education, they deserve serious consideration. But emphasizing education—rather than day care—raises new questions. For example, resources might be better spent on more intensive academic programs (e.g., tutoring) directed to students who need extra academic support. However long the educationally-sound school day or year, children will still need residual care, and parents should have a range of options for providing it. This is particularly true for infants and toddlers under age three, who would not be eligible for preschool.

Heymann's focus on crafting policies targeted specifically at poor working parents may reflect the conventional assumption that poor parents have no choice—they must work. It is true that poor families struggle to make ends meet in low-wage jobs. But the financial constraint itself is an artifact of public policy, not a law of nature. Labor markets may allocate resources efficiently, but they cannot distribute to every individual the resources she needs to make meaningful choices among life options. Paid job leave, transportation help, and after-school programs could ameliorate working conditions for poor workers. But equal opportunity supports a broad effort to underwrite the educational, social, and financial resources necessary for poor people to engage in life-planning. Stakeholding or basic income, for example, could alleviate the financial constraint with an unconditional cash grant for all individuals. Additional programs should address the educational and social injustices that contribute to poverty. Adult education and training are worth discussing, as are geographic-mobility programs, which offer poor people the chance to leave blighted areas for more stable neighborhoods offering the "social capital" that supports wider opportunities.

All these proposals are controversial, and every one requires more sustained justification and explication than this short essay can provide.8 My intention here is merely to suggest the generative potential of a broader vision of equal opportunity. True equality would endow individuals with resources to form a vision of the good life and to pursue that vision. Tolerance and mutual respect are most familiar in debates over free speech, where the First Amendment protects the expression of diverse ideas. The same values should inform our social policy. In a just society, people should have a chance not only to talk about diverse ideals but to live them. <


Anne Alstott is professor of law at Yale. She is co-author with Bruce Ackerman of The Stakeholder Society and author of the forthcoming No Exit: Justice for Caretakers.

Return to the forum on Caregiving, with Jody Heymann and respondents.

Notes

1 By "liberal-egalitarian," I mean the strand of liberal philosophy represented by, among others, John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, Ronald Dworkin, and Philippe Van Parijs.

2 Barbara Bergmann, Saving Our Children From Poverty: What the U.S. Can Learn from France (New York: Russell Sage, 1996).

3 This does not imply, of course, that every parent should sit at home for eighteen years. Parents can meet children's routine needs by themselves or with paid help; but parents must be prepared to drop their own plans when a child's illness, accident, or developmental crisis occurs. To do otherwise would be neglectful.

4 Bureau of the Census, Fertility of American Women: June 2000, Table 4 (Washington D.C., 2001). These data are for mothers, aged fifteen to forty-four, whether married or unmarried, excluding mothers of infants, who work much less. Although Heymann is correct that more than 70 percent of mothers are in the labor force, a significant percentage work part-time.

5 Bureau of the Census, Fertility of American Women: June 2000, Table 4. Mothers with family income of less than $10,000 have the smallest percentage of full-time working mothers and the highest rate of maternal unemployment.

6 The great majority of Americans from every income class prefer to have one parent take time out of the paid workforce to care for young children. See Caring For Infants and Toddlers (2001), at http://www.futureofchildren.org/information_show.htm? doc_id=80499; see also information from an ICR/Washington Post poll, reported in "Child Care: A Nation Divided?" at http://www.publicagenda.org/issues/nation_divided_detail.cfm?issue_type=childcare&list=2

7 Combined with FMLA, which ensures unpaid leave, such a program would, de facto, provide paid leave for workers while also offering support to non-working and single-earner families.


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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