April 1, 2004
With Responses From
Apr 1, 2004
9 Min read time
Our individualism continues to move us too far in the wrong direction.
Suppose we enact Alstott's caretaker benefit. Now consider Jan and Kate. Jan, age 17, is an indifferent high school student from a broken working-class family. She gets pregnant by her boyfriend, who quickly drops her and takes up with another woman. She has the baby, lives at home, and enrolls in a cosmetology course paid for by her $5,000 caretaker benefit. Erratic child care causes her to quit before completing her training. She stays home for two years with her daughter and puts her yearly $5,000 benefit into a retirement fund. After a short-lived relationship with a man she meets at a bar, she has another baby. She tries various part-time jobs and finally buckles down to junior college, using her $10,000 yearly caretaker benefit for tuition and childcare. After six years, she finally earns an associate's degree. She works as a secretary while her sister watches her children after school. She once again starts socking her benefit away for retirement. By the age of 36, she has more than $60,000 in savings.
Kate, age 17, is an indifferent high school student from a broken working-class family. She is fanatical about birth control because she dreams of marriage and doesn't want to raise a child alone. She doesn't have the money or grades for college, so she joins the army. After the army, she takes various low-wage jobs and lives at home. The years go by, and she finally moves into her own tiny apartment. She dates a series of men, but all balk at marriage. Meanwhile, most of her friends have had babies (mostly out of wedlock). She is envious and longs for a child. She finds a job as a bank teller. She works hard and is promoted to head teller. (She is turned down for a managerial position because she lacks a college degree.) At the age of 32, she starts dating a salesman. For three years they save money for a house and then marry. She wants to have two or three children but has trouble getting pregnant. Following infertility treatments, she has a baby in her mid-30s. She never has another child.
My problem with Anne Alstott's proposal lies in the story of Jan and Kate. At age 36, Jan has two children. She has a college degree and a tidy nest egg financed at taxpayer expense. Kate has neither college degree nor savings, and only one child. This picture is, in my view, disturbing. It is perverse. It is unfair.
Reactions like mine have defined the debate over public welfare for decades. Some would challenge the premise implicit in the label of perversity-that the benefit will encourage or induce women to become single parents or to take that step prematurely. Some would reject the notion that, regardless of incentives, the program is somehow objectionable because it leaves Jan better off than Kate. Still others would recoil at the tacit judgment of Kate as more responsible, restrained, and prudent than Jan. They would condemn this stance as indulging a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving that has no place in the formulation of public policy.
Anne Alstott's plan rests, I believe, on two questionable assumptions. The first is that the government can remain neutral on matters of reproductive choice and family form while subsidizing caretaking. The second is that the government should remain neutral on these matters in all respects.
The first proposition is easier to defend than the second, as it rests on inexorable logic rather than vexed value judgments. The social function of caretaking encompasses two distinct decisions: whether to have children and how to bring them up. We may seek to lighten the burden of all parents once they become parents. But do we really want to reward those who would have children without considering the consequences at the expense of those who exercise restraint? Viewed in this light, a caretaker subsidy is not evenhanded. Even if government neutrality toward reproductive choices is generally laudable, the example of Jan and Kate shows that a universal cash handout for parents can't be neutral. It enriches the Jans of this world and cheats the Kates.
Should the government treat Jan and Kate as equals? Our society is committed not to interfere with reproductive choice. Everyone is free to be a parent and to decide whether and when to have children. But that does not mean that all decisions are equally wise and all parents equally capable. Nor do people refrain from making judgments about their own and others' choices in their daily lives. Everyone has an opinion about what makes for good or bad parents and about what circumstances are more or less conducive to children's well-being. Such questions are central to moral life.
Ordinary experience enters the picture in other ways, too. Providing public financial support for caretakers is in tension with the belief that parenthood is a choice for which people should be held responsible. The widespread availability of birth control and abortion reinforces the idea that childbearing should be regarded as a deliberate decision that is within a person's control. Many use contraception to limit the size of their families, and many delay or forgo childbearing because of a lack of resources, a reluctance to make tradeoffs, or concerns about giving their children the right start in life. Those who show restraint and prudence, often at great personal cost, understandably resent subsidizing those who show less. Our recognition of reproduction as an individual right makes us resistant to policies that actively discourage childbearing. But concerns about the detrimental effects of poor parenting and single parenthood further undermine support for programs-including those that shunt public resources into private hands-that already smack of active encouragement rather than tolerant non-interference. Because the public doesn't want to subsidize bad parents, unconditional aid is regarded with suspicion, and voters are inclined to withhold money from recipients who flout dominant behavioral norms. This is regarded as only fair when so many who fund the benefits are working so hard to be good parents themselves.
Liberal theorists have attacked the distinctions behind popular attitudes-between negative and positive rights, tolerance and subsidy, and non-interference and affirmative support-as based on illusory baseline entitlements, incoherent notions of pre-political ownership, and outdated concepts of individual desert. However flawed in principle, these categories maintain their currency in most people's minds and remain entrenched in our laws, if only as a rough and ready way to reconcile public respect for freedom with private moral judgment. A subsidy that fails to honor commonplace notions about responsible behavior threatens the delicate balance between competing values. However messy and lacking in rigor, this position is no less vital for its pragmatism.
Alstott tries to side-step some of these difficulties by pleading the equivalence of caretakers' circumstances. She states that what matters to children is the "quality and endurance of the relationship" between caretaker and child. She notes that "children can thrive in extended-family settings and in nontraditional arrangements of many kinds." Unfortunately, they do not thrive equally. Although all caretakers face similar pressures, their children are not similarly situated, and to assert otherwise is to conflate data with anecdote. It is now widely accepted that children born and raised in single-parent families do less well than those raised by a father and a mother, with children in biological families doing best of all. The social fallout from these patterns is especially adverse in this country, where out-of-wedlock childbearing prevails among African-Americans and theless educated, exacerbating disparities among children of different races and classes. These differences cannot be erased by any known public policy. Because no government program can effectively replace the two-parent family, we should be very reluctant to risk widening divisions by rewarding single parenthood. If only for equality's sake, we should try to shore up the two-parent family and not embrace policies that ignore its advantages.
Perhaps it is perverse to hold the aid caretakers sorely need hostage to our Jan and Kate. Perhaps we could change our story a little or a lot to make Jan more sympathetic-merely unlucky rather than heedless-and Kate less so. They are variations on a theme. But it is important to note that Alstott's proposal cannot deal with these variations adequately. Like the unconditional entitlement program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), that it seeks to replace, Alstott's plan misses the nuances of behavior upon which ordinary people base their views about whether help is deserved or undeserved, wisely proffered or best withheld. It ignores behavioral distinctions that continue to affect our moral life, inform our judgments, and influence our children's fate-and our own. As de Tocqueville pointed out long ago, government programs inexorably collapse these elemental distinctions, if only for administrative ease-inexorably because the persons in charge have no vital stake in enforcing the basic rules of conduct upon which social cohesion depends.
Finally there is the objection, noted more than once by Alstott herself elsewhere, that incentives are not behavior. Social scientists argue endlessly about whether AFDC had significant or measurable effects on out-of-wedlock childbearing or "irresponsible" reproduction, with neither side clearly winning the day. If the case against subsidies for parents must prove itself, it will probably lose. But the argument does not turn on demonstrating such effects. It is at bottom about fairness to persons who hold themselves to higher standards or who take seriously the obligation to strive for self-sufficiency. It is about respecting conventional rules of behavior, or at least not showing indifference to them under the guise of being evenhanded and non-judgmental. A willful blindness toward the moral difference between indulgence and forbearance, born of a naive optimism about human nature and social judgment, has fatally undermined support for social-welfare initiatives in the past. There is no reason to expect a different result here.
Although caretakers are under pressure and many mothers at a disadvantage, softening the impact of caretaking will always be a tough sell politically. The detriments of motherhood result from a murky mix of women's inherently weak bargaining position and their own real preferences. To the extent the former dominates, we ought to help. To the extent the latter, we are less inclined to help. Although some degree of collective support for caretaking can, I believe, be justified, government handouts on the terms Alstott proposes are not the answer. On the other hand, it is hard to know what is. Decades of scholarly work on no-fault divorce suggests that, in an era of disposable marriage, not much can be done for women who choose to devote themselves to their children. We have, to a great extent, privatized the family while simultaneously undermining or discarding the private norms that kept it intact. The informal mechanisms that guarded mothers' and children's interests have largely broken down, and our ability to rely on informal social controls to inhibit imprudent and destructive behaviors is much diminished. Official devices, blind to nuances, cannot readily take their place. We have reached the juncture at which the perversities inherent in cash handouts for caretakers combined with the premium placed on matrimonial and personal freedom leave us with little choice but to relegate mothers without partners to private mercy and self-help.
What is left for government in the area of work and family is a program of modest interventions on many fronts. Although I don't share Alstott's unrelenting pessimism about family-friendly workplace reforms, those are also best developed through private initiative rather than heavy-handed top-down regulation. But ultimately the battle is for hearts, minds, and mores rather than for policy. Private individuals and institutions must once again become more protective of family life. The prospects for this are not encouraging. Despite lots of sentimental rhetoric, our individualism continues to move us too far in the wrong direction.
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April 01, 2004
9 Min read time