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Shooting for the Moon

Deborah Stone

8 I'm all in favor of public support for caregiving, but the rationale for this proposal comes out of a world I don't understand. Anne Alstott and I must live on different planets.

On her planet, parental love is "a social creation as much as a natural phenomenon." Society needs to motivate them with carrots and sticks. Hence caretaker resource accounts-they're carrots.

On my planet, parental love is about the most natural and fiercest emotion there is. Most parents desperately try to protect their children from such dangerous social creations as crime, drug rings, violence as entertainment, violence as recreation, junk food as national cuisine, and toxic living conditions as the lawful norm. Parents would be helped by a few more sticks wielded at these threats to child development.

On Alstott's planet, if society didn't place a No Exit obligation on parents, a lot of them might abandon their children. On my planet, most parents would sooner harm themselves than abandon their children. On her planet, parents take good care of their children in large part because if they don't, "the state revokes or curtails their parental prerogatives." On my planet, parents regularly curtail their own prerogatives to expand their children's opportunities.

On Alstott's planet, it's largely thanks to legal and social institutions that parents tend to make good choices for their children. On my planet, legal and social institutions are often the biggest obstacles to good parenting. The requirements of work-rigid schedules, long hours, showing up no matter what, and physical presence in the workplace-are antithetical to the requirements of parenting-constant availability, physical presence in the home, attentiveness, and putting the kids first. The rules of public assistance prohibit low-income mothers from taking care of their own kids instead of working for pay, virtually require them to put their kids in somebody else's care, and pay them-pay mothers-to take care of somebody else's kids, for pitiful wages and no benefits. How perverse is that?

Our planets orbit around the same sun, to be sure-the universal human desire to infuse children's lives with warmth, energy, growth, and happiness. We both think the state should help parents fulfill their altruistic yearnings. But where I live, caretaker resource accounts wouldn't do the job.

Caretaker resource accounts embody the conservative approach to many social problems: give people a meager, stingy, absolutely fixed pot of resources and let them choose how to spend it. Then wax eloquent about how you're giving them "options" and "autonomy" and "freedom of choice," and isn't that what all right-thinking citizens want really? The magnanimous benefactors of these meager resources emphasize all the things the money might possibly buy-if it could be spent seven times over. Never mind that the still-poor, albeit sovereign, consumer is more focused on which necessity he or she will choose to do without. Medicine or food? Heat or clothing? Child care or retirement income?

This is the same strategy that would replace Medicare with medical savings accounts; replace Social Security with personal retirement accounts; replace defined-benefit pension plans with defined-contribution plans. It is the strategy of employers who cut back their employee health benefits, then give employees a choice between two or three plans, none of which will cover enough. It is the strategy behind replacing entitlements with fixed budgeting, and replacing a commitment to meeting needs with a commitment to meeting budgets. Somehow, people are supposed to feel good even when they come out with the short end of thestick, because they had the freedom to choose between several bad options.

Alstott's proposal is well-intended. It is, after all, a scheme to expand entitlements, not to undo them. But I'm not persuaded it will accomplish a smidgen of what it's meant to do. Encourage "continuity of care?" The accounts certainly don't provide any incentive (as if economic incentives and moral commitment have anything to do with each other) for parents to stay married or get married or remain involved in their children's lives day in and day out, for the money goes to only one parent, no matter what the behavior of the second parent.

The accounts are supposed to enable women to devote more of their time to parenting and to choose a bit more autonomously between full-time work, part-time work, stints out of the workforce, or full-time mothering. Realistically, low-income women will have no choice but to keep working as hard as ever to pay the bills; if they use their accounts for anything, it will be child care. If they choose to rely on relatives or very inexpensive day care, they may devote their allotments to retirement as Alstott intends, but they might also see the nest egg as a cruel taunt: "I've got all this money waiting for me if I live long enough to be a great-grandmother but I can't use it to be a better mother now." What about education? I can already see Wal-Mart and McDonald's starting to charge tuition for their management-trainee classes, now that their employees are sitting on a fat checkbook they can't use for much else.

If we really want to enable people to earn a living, improve their education, save for retirement, and raise children, there are better ways to do it: raise the minimum wage, pass more living-wage laws, fund better public education at every level, give people who do unpaid care work entitlements to Social Security and other assistance, make health insurance universal, enforce health and safety laws, and reform the entire culture of work to recognize workers as people with families.

Of course, I'm shooting for the moon. Alstott's proposal has the virtue of staying down to earth. <

Deborah Stone is a research professor of government at Dartmouth College and an independent scholar. She is at work on a book called Help: The Good Samaritan in American Life.

Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum “What We Owe to Parents.”

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.



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