has been said that the problem with having children is once you
have them, you have them. Anne Alstott's essay "What We Owe to
Parents" turns this quip into the basis for a serious policy proposal.
She maintains that the "No Exit" clause is a social artifact,
one that obliges society to compensate parents for providing continuity
of care. Alstott acknowledges that since the state does not require
us to be parents nor is society the sole or even the main beneficiary
of our parenting, one may justifiably ask why society has any
more obligation to support parenting than it has an obligation
to come to the assistance of any other socially useful enterprise.
Her response is that while parents
may choose to have children, "they do not choose the specific burdens
society imposes on this choice." Continuity of care is crucial to the
development of the capability of autonomy, a capability that an
egalitarian society is committed to ensure for every individual.
Hence the No Exit requirement is rooted in a social demand arising
from our fundamental committment to equality. Continuity of care and
the No Exit requirement on parents provide future-oriented benefits
to children and society, and impose future-oriented burdens on
parents. Therefore, Alstott insists, it is reasonable to obligate the
state to provide support that is future-oriented to compensate
parents for the negative consequences of accepting the No Exit
Alstott's proposal, the caretaker
resource account, allocates $5,000 per year (indexed to inflation?)
to either pay for child care, the caretaker's education, or a
retirement account. The money can be accrued from year to year but
cannot be used to pay for consumer goods, thus reflecting the
future-oriented intent of the benefit.
There are many unanswered questions,
and the putative fact that $5,000 per child suffices for child care
for full-time workers should raise concerns about the low wages that
child-care workers receive. Still, we must applaud this effort to
present a cogent and compelling argument for assisting parents in the
work of child-care. The libertarian and market-oriented fever that
has gripped national policymakers has paralyzed efforts to meet the
increasingly difficult task of helping parents find the time and
resources to raise families.
While other arguments have been
offered justifying policies that support families, an advantage of
Alstott's analysis is that it simultaneously offers the rationale and
the parameters of the support that society is obligated to give.
Therefore, in evaluating this policy proposal, it behooves us to ask
whether the No Exit requirement (1) is in fact a socially imposed
demand, (2) addresses what caretakers need social supports for, and
(3) provides the best reason for making the demand of state
assistance for parents.
Is No Exit socially imposed?
Alstott maintains that the No Exit requirement, even if it is felt as
a personal commitment, is essentially socially constructed and
imposed, insofar as the need for continuity of care is grounded in
our society's dedication to autonomy and equality. But there is
little to suggest that societies less egalitarian or less committed
to autonomy place any less value on continuity of care than our own.
Although there may have been societies and periods in which parents
exited more freely, literature from very diverse cultures and ages
attest to the ongoing nature of the relationship of parent and child.
This is not to insist that a commitment to continuity of care, as any
aspect of parenting, is merely "natural" rather than inflected by the
cultural values and material conditions. But the desire and effort to
provide such continuity even in the face of great hardship (consider
the agonies endured by slave parents who were forcibly separated from
their children) suggest that continuity is less an artifact of an
egalitarian society and more a feature of what is widely believed to
be a reward as well as a condition of good parenting. I venture that
the importance our own society places on autonomy is as much a reason
why so many parents, most notably fathers, do exit, as the reason we
value continuity of care depends on the value we place on autonomy.
If signing up for parenting retains the character of the "merely
personal," and social values are less responsible for the No Exit
requirement than Alstott maintains, then signing up for the long haul
is very much a part of a voluntarily assumed personal package, and so
of little help in countering the "parenting is a personal choice"
rejection of social support for caretakers.
Does the "continuity of care"
rationale address parents need for support? Alstott succinctly enumerates the reasons we need social supports for caretakers: "Mothers work less, earn less, and achieve less in the marketplace than fathers and than childless women." At
the same time, mothers put in more hours of combined unpaid and paid work and have less to show for their labors in their old age. Single-parent households headed by women are poorer, and for families in all income groups, the effort to spend sufficient time with family and in paid employment is a struggle. For many poor mothers, holding their families together is difficult.
While the three options for caretaker
resource accounts are each helpful, women have to choose-they can
hardly have it all with the sum of $5,000 a year. Moreover, Alstott
argues against what many have called for-extended paid family leave,
cash payments to parents, more flexible work hours, no discrimination
for part-time work-and she writes off incentives for fathers to
participate more in family life given the failures of past policy to
achieve gender equity in caretaking.
Yet caretaker resource accounts fall
short of what is required, and does least for those who are in the
greatest need. Let me begin with the second point. While Alstott
claims, "As long as parents provide their children with continuity of
care, they scarcely feel the law's supervision," a significant number
of poor families feel the law's arm hauling their children away
because they cannot provide adequately for their needs. Dorothy
Roberts' work provides disturbing accounts of high rates at which
poor African-American children are removed from their homes on
charges of neglect directly correlated with deficiencies in housing,
nutrition, and other basic needs that these mothers find themselves
unable to provide. When, in addition, mothers rely on arrangements of
"other mothers" rather than paid child care or immediate family
members to provide child care while they work, they are under further
suspicion of neglect. It is not the parents' unwillingness to abide
by the No Exit requirement but rather the difficulties they have in
carrying out the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting that result
in them being forcibly prevented from persevering in their parenting
Will caretaker resource accounts help?
If a (solo) parent can afford daycare and find suitable employment,
then presumably her earnings will allow her to meet day-to-day as
well as long-term needs. If her skills, as is likely, are not
rewarded with good paying full time work, then presumably she can use
the money to go to school to improve her prospects. But the grant
cannot be used for consumption needs. How is she to feed, house, and
clothe her children as she goes to school? She could always use the
caretaker resource account for her retirement years. But without
resources she can lose her children, and if she loses her children,
she loses the caretaker resource account. Of course, a resourceful
mother may find a way to split the benefit, do some part-time work,
get some education, and eke out a living in this way. But while
$5,000 is a lot better than nothing, and with a number of other
welfare benefits may make a crucial difference, it falls far short of
answering the most pressing problems faced by these parents.
When we shift our attention to
middle-income families, the question becomes one of meeting the time
crunch and correcting for the gender inequity in caretaking
responsibilities. Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers (Families that
Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment, [Russell
Sage Foundation, 2003]) have recently concluded a study examining the
family and work policies of 13 nations, looking for workable policies
that allow men and women alike to engage both in paid labor and
caretaking. They call for a combination of strategies. These include
generous paid leave, the expense of which is shared by employers and
the state and directed at encouraging fathers' participation with
"use it or lose it" paid-leave incentives. The latter have begun to
show results in the Nordic states where they are used. Gornick and
Meyers call for stipends for each child to be used both for child
care and the added consumption demands of child-raising. They
recommend non-discrimination against part-time workers in benefits
and pay, which is to become law in the European Union. They also call
for good salaries and training for child-care workers, and child care
that is paid for on a sliding scale by families and subsidized by
government. These policies will not be justifiable on the grounds of
a social No Exit requirement alone. Instead they depend on a
principle of equity, especially gender equity, in the spheres of work
and family. The countries that best exemplify these policies have
good work-force participation by women, improved child-care
involvement by men, low rates of child poverty, and, surprisingly,
steady fertilization rates. It also appears to me that such policies
are far more respectful of individual autonomy and dignity than those
that designate a relatively small amount of money that can only be
used in very specific ways.
Is "continuity of care" the best
justification for the social support of parenting? I have already
suggested that gender equity should also have a role in justifying
family support policy. As women become increasingly integrated in the
work force the fact that care of dependents has largely been
accomplished through the exploitative labor of women becomes
apparent. (See Diemut Bubeck, Care, Justice, Gender, [Oxford
University Press, 1995], for an excellent sustained discussion.) But
a limit of Gornick and Meyer's policies, I believe, is that they
privilege the responsibility to care for children and ignore the
responsibility to care for other dependents. Alstott raises the
question asked by many: why should parents get benefits not provided
to the rest of the population? To this we should respond that they
should not-all are entitled to benefits that help alleviate the
personal costs of caretaking.
I have argued (Love's Labor,
[Routledge, 1999]) that children, the frail, the elderly, the ill,
and the disabled exhibit inevitable dependency (see also the work of
Martha Fineman). Part of what it is to be human is to experience
periods of dependency (which all experience at least once-during
childhood) and to care for someone during a period of dependency
(which not all people, but most women are called on to do). The
dependency of the person in need creates a dependency in those who do
the work of care, and thus third parties must provide for dependents
and their caregivers. These relationships are embedded in nested
dependencies that form among the most important social bonds upon
which society is constructed. If society has an obligation to support
the care of dependents, it is precisely because this care and
consequent relationships necessitate the creation of social
arrangements in the first place.
Alstott's rationale addresses a very limited set
of concerns. It does not focus enough on the day-to-day challenges
that particularly affect poor, single-parent families; it does
not adequately address the gender inequities that are part and
parcel of parent-work patterns set by family and employment policies;
and it isolates the care labor of parents from other caregiving,
thereby undercutting the possibility of a truly universal set
of policies that affect the lives of each of us. Such universal
policies will be costlier and doubtless harder to enact in the
short term, but once installed will have broader and more steadfast
support than those directed only at parents. <
Eva Kittay is a professor
of philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. Her recent books include The
Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency and
Labor: Women, Equality and Dependency.
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We Owe to Parents.
Originally published in the April/May
2004 issue of Boston Review.