Opposition to Caregiving Isn’t Policy-Driven or Based on Economics

By Julie Kohler, Stephanie Odiase, and Jessica Forden


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The current discourse over care policies is rooted in beliefs about gender, race, class, and family.

Political opposition to care infrastructure investments is a by-product of the unique ideologies and interests that have shaped U.S. social and economic policy over the past half-century. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has embraced both a form of market capitalism often called neoliberalism — characterized by privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts — and a form of “family capitalism” that affixes different rewards and penalties to various family structures and uses the resulting discrepancies to define and reinforce the parameters of what’s “desirable.”

Neoliberal economists and social conservatives, specifically the white evangelical Christian churches, became increasingly politicized as a right-wing force beginning in the 1970s. Social conservatives’ reverence for the “traditional” nuclear family provided a values-based language to justify neoliberal efforts to dramatically erode the welfare state. And neoliberals elevated the married, two-parent family as a heteronormative family ideal by solidifying it as the basic economic unit of society — the container, so to speak, for individual economic success — and, by extension, personal virtue.

Embedded in this approach has been an intertwined set of economic and cultural norms: the expectation that families will provide for their own support with little (and typically insufficient) public support, and the belief that the two-parent nuclear family is the optimal family structure to do so. Together, they have shaped an economy that is riddled with double binds and contradictions when it comes to women’s employment, with policy incentives and deterrents that differ widely for women across race, class, and other axes of identity.

There’s been a resurgence of “family values” crusaders who ignore the realities of contemporary family life.

Opponents claim that public investments in child care, in particular, would disadvantage parents who want to stay home with their children and further cement the dual-earner family as a cultural norm. A select handful of scholars and politicians, most notably Senators Mitt Romney and Josh Hawley, have embraced the notion of cash payments to families and parent tax credits, in part as a way to support families in which one parent, implicitly assumed to be a mother, stays home with children.

Suggesting that the solution to the challenges many families face in managing work and family demands is for one parent to opt out of the labor force ignores the realities of contemporary family life. In 2015, 26% of children lived with a single parent; as of 2017, 41% of women were the sole or primary breadwinners for their families. Comprehensive child care would not push women who would have preferred to stay home into the workforce. It would provide many parents, single and married alike, with the support that is necessary to perform their various roles.

Opponents’ overwhelming focus on two-parent families who can afford to have one parent stay home also erases the overwhelmingly BIPOC and immigrant women who provide such care. Public investments in caregiving are not merely strategies for helping relatively privileged women enter or return to the workforce. They are also solutions for the market failures that plague a privatized child care industry, including providers’ depressed pay and limited access to benefits.

Proposed policies make clear whom opponents view as “deserving” and “undeserving” of support. Senator Hawley’s Parent Tax Credit, for example, includes an earnings requirement, meaning that the poorest families, who are more likely to be Black, Indigenous, and Latinx, wouldn’t qualify. And single-parent families, who are overwhelmingly headed by women, would receive half as much money as two-parents under Hawley’s plan, despite the fact that 58% of poor children lived in families headed by single mothers in 2018, including more than 600,000 families in which the mother worked full-time throughout the year.

There are reasons to be hopeful that in 2021, attempts to privilege the so-called “traditional” nuclear family ideal over others may be unsuccessful. Americans today are far more accepting of a wide range of family forms than at any other point in history. And unlike 1971, when President Nixon vetoed the Child Care Act, which would have established a national child care system, large majorities of women with children under the age of 18 are part of the workforce — or trying to return to it. At a moment in which there is a new appreciation of the fact that most people — regardless of their work and family situations — both need and provide care, attempts to dichotomize the two actions may, at long last, fall flat.

This is a modified excerpt from “Women’s Work: Key Policies and Paradigms for an Inclusive Post-Pandemic Economy” by Julie Kohler, Stephanie Odiase, and Jessica Forden. This is part 3 of 4 in a series of blog posts about our report that addresses women’s labor participation, the structural social-political and economic factors that hold women back, and the path forward. Read the next part here.