Universal Child Care, In View

In this era of progressive upsurge, we’re at a point where we should start translating aspirational demands, in other words, stuff that just isn’t going to happen right away, into practical terms, which includes consideration of potential difficulties.

One such demand that appears increasingly within reach is the goal of universal child care. Senator Elizabeth Warren has put a specific proposal forward, and Matt Bruenig has offered a full-blown program of aid to families with children. Kathleen Geier covers the Warren plan here, and she argues with Bruenig about one aspect of the latter’s plan here.

It should be clear that the world would be better with either of these options, as well as with Geier’s suggested modifications.

I only want to address Geier’s argument with Bruenig, which hinges on the issue of child care subsidies for at-home care, in other words, for parents (usually mothers, which is an issue discussed below) caring for their own children at home. Bruenig is for it, Geier is against.

Geier favors a network of excellent, tax-funded facilities, open to all. I would welcome this as well. The dilemmas arise not in the abstract, but in the real. In other words, what would we actually get if the government set out to construct a network of excellent, free facilities open to all? The point is to think about the consequences of implementation. What could go wrong?

  • Free, open-access facilities do not necessarily escape falling into patterns of stratification by class, and in the U.S., inevitably by race as well. In other words, the quality of the service tends to mirror the incomes or, in the U.S., the caste status of its local consumers. An old book by Julian LeGrand, The Strategy of Equality: Redistribution and the Social Services, discusses this in the British setting.
  • If the supply of a really-existing network of child care centers is limited, then the alternative of support for home care becomes more important. In the same vein, the inclusion of community organizations, including the “faith-based,” looked upon by KG with well-deserved skepticism, becomes more important.
  • The interest in quality services, which entails well-appointed facilities and well-qualified, well-paid workers, goes against the grain of ordinary budgeting constraints, with the possibility of additional, negative ramifications for the first problem bulleted above.
  • The chief dilemma of the at-home care subsidy is that it reinforces existing gendered social and employment realities. While a male partner or spouse could choose to perform the care-giving role, the likelihood is that for a heterosexual couple it will be the woman. (And by the way, the likelihood is also that most workers in public facilities will also be women.) One response is to split the weeks of support between partners. Denying flexibility in this way could have a significant financial impact on a family, where one or the other partner’s earning power is much higher. The underlying motive for such a policy becomes absurd in the case of single-sex couples, which are growing in number. I would also look askance at any policy wherein the State seeks to re-engineer, by fiat, family roles at this intimate level. Suppose Mom really, really wants to be home with the baby or toddler? The family could abstain from the public facilities, though their taxes would continue to pay for them. In other words, there would be an implicit tax on home care. Philosophy aside, do child care advocates really want to fight this one out politically? Is this the best hill to die on, when it comes to combatting sexism in the U.S.? I frankly don’t know. I will defer to the movement, either way, but hope that the leaders have thought of how it would all go.

The bottom line is nothing is easy. Every positive feature of a new arrangement entails a possible trade-off with some other desirable attribute. I can’t tell you where to come down among these alternatives. I can say with confidence that these issues are likely to loom over the realization of any new system.


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