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Freedom and Opportunity

A Response to Can Working Families Ever Win?

Jean Bethke Elshtain

8 Let's begin with two claims about American political culture. First, America is defined primarily as the "land of liberty." Our current war against terrorism of global reach is named "Operation Enduring Freedom," not "Operation Equal Opportunity" or something similar, and this for good reason. Freedom is the great and abiding American standard. An anthem of the anti-slavery movement was the great slave song, "Oh Freedom," a hymn at once lament and dream, and it went like this: "Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom / Oh Freedom over me / And before I'd be a slave / I'd be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free." Second, one dimension of American freedom in the minds and dreams of those born here and those who came, and come, here is opportunity. That was certainly the case for my own immigrant grandparents. America was the land where a human being, by the sweat of his or her brow, could make a living, maybe own a piece of land. The opportunity was there. The costs were huge, and in our case including back-breaking labor as hired sugar beet harvesters from dawn to dusk in the baking sun of northern Colorado's high plains. This labor included children. As a result, the two oldest children in my grandparents' family—my own mother and one of my aunts—were compelled to quit school after eighth grade in order to labor in the fields. Within a few years, the necessity for that regime altered sufficiently so that my mother's other three siblings were able to complete high school. But all sixteen of my grandparents' grandchildren had a college education of one sort of another, with a few of us going on for higher degrees.

In many ways this is the typical American immigrant story. And because it is, pushing a version of equality that goes much beyond the theme of opportunity and hard work is difficult to sell in our political culture. Too many Americans have 'made it' into the middle class, and are making it, in what might be called the old-fashioned way. But what was the old-fashioned way: what did we have that enabled so many of us, who do not come from privilege, to keep working hard and to realize at least some of our own—and our society's—vision of the American dream? We had strong families with what now is called a "stay-at-home" mother, although that doesn't begin to capture what women did in these communities. For women were a mainstay of American civil society, nurturing and sustaining many of the communal and civic institutions that eased and blurred the edges of economic difference. And we had strong, competent teachers—all women until high school—in the local school that housed grades one through twelve in a single building: our village only had 185 people, after all. Single women who never married or quit teaching when they did, and married women whose own children had grown, dominated the teaching profession. The result was that, in this little place, my own training in "the basics" was extraordinary.

That was essentially it. We felt the hand of government, when I was growing up, in foreign policy mostly—it was the era of the Cold War. We recognized it in our public schools, but they were under local control and local tax levies primarily funded them, so government's role was minimal. We recognized it in the huge interstate highway system developed by the Eisenhower administration. We recognized it in Social Security and other provisions made for those who were incapacitated by an accident at work or some other catastrophe and needed a temporary—for that is how we thought of it—hand up. We knew that veterans received housing assistance and had special hospitals and I learned, when I started college, just how many of my professors were veterans who, not being people of privilege themselves, had attained their college educations via the GI Bill.

All of this fit with the dominating ethos of our political culture, a point made ably a few years back by the distinguished political sociologist, Theda Skocpol, in her book, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers. She demonstrates what Jody Heymann fails to recognize and seems unaware of, namely, that the American form of social provision goes back at least to the Civil War era and the task of tending, as our greatest President put it, to the "widows and orphans" and to those who "should have borne the battle." Assistance was tied to honored and necessary tasks—soldiering and mothering. These tasks were, of course, gender specific in that era. But the more salient point for our era is that all of this made good political sense and did not stir widespread resentment at perceived unfairness. Doing the task one is called upon to do sometimes deserves benefits unavailable to those who do not undertake such tasks. Few would cavil at that.

But many cavil at going much further than that or, presumably, we would have in place a much more extensive social provision and assistance system than, in fact, we do. These are legislative matters, after all, and legislators are elected. When many of the working class people who are hypothetically supposed to be at the receiving end of certain dramatic alterations in how we tax and spend oppose those changes, what is one to do: push even harder for them or re-think one's strategy?

How does this apply to Heymann's hypothesized social democracy, modeled very much on standards in the European social democracies that are now in trouble or have altered the way they do business by moving away from the sorts of policies Heymann proposes? These social democracies—Norway and Sweden come to mind—are in trouble, not because a cadre of determined libertarians set out to destroy a vast array of social provisions and public goods, but because they are internally less and less sustainable given a declining tax base. As I read Heymann's article a refrain kept echoing: How is this to be funded? European social democracies are in trouble in part because the birth rate is below the replacement level in many countries and because the population is aging and living longer. That means stretching tax dollars—or Euros now—to sustain people much beyond what were average living ages when many of these regimes moved to a strong social welfare state—from cradle to grave, as the saying goes.

The implications are rather stark and simple: you are never going to push through forms of social provision and assistance in the United States unless you can demonstrate, (a) that the proposed new policies are affordable and sustainable, and (b) that the proposed new policies are consistent with the basic themes of American political culture that honors equality of opportunity and an honest reward—fair recompense—for hard work. I am not saying that Heymann cannot make this case. I am saying that she has not. A major problem is that she simply hasn't defined many of her basic terms. She speaks of the absorption of women in the labor force—as but one example—with the result that "more than 70 percent of children live in households in which every parent was in the labor force." But this doesn't sufficiently disaggregate—as social scientists like to say—the data. How many of these parents are single-parent homes—a defining factor in how children fare? How many parents, especially mothers, work full time? This, too, bears on outcomes for children in a significant way. The devil is in the details and we get too few details. It is one thing for government to play a role in caring for America's children. It is another for government to become the nurturer of first resort, so to speak, and that is the direction of a good bit of Heymann's argument. I say "appears" because she needs to do a lot more to unpack her underlying rationale. It seems that she finds the family one of those "outdated social institutions." As she well knows, you don't make that assumption and get very far in our political culture. There are ways that Heymann could retool her argument to make it more consistent with the basic values that animate our political culture. The point that too many of our children are falling through the net of equal opportunity, through no fault of their own, is one of these. But in privileging economic factors and forces, as Heymann has done, and ignoring, for the most part, cultural and historical forces, which she has also done, her argument is going to die aborning once it hits the light of political day. If I were Heymann, I would argue that our political culture relies heavily on the presupposition that somehow we are all in it together—a point the attacks of September 11, 2001 brought home in the most shocking way. And because we are all in it together, we cannot tolerate, over the long haul, fundamental and growing gaps in the ways of life that Americans lead and presume that the civic 'glue' will hold. Is it the case that such a gap is growing? Heymann says yes. But she needs to do more to make that case and to explain politically why everything that she proposes is so exigent.<


Jean Bethke Elshtain is professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago and author of Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy.

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


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



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