This is cross-posted from a Boston Review forum:
Nancy Hirschmann’s essay “Mothers Who Care Too Much” gestures at some desirable goals: societal appreciation of care work, good-quality care for children, gender equality (or less inequality) in childcare and housework, gender equality (or less inequality) in employment, adequate income for families with children, opportunity for parents to effectively balance employment and family (to spend a reasonable amount of time with their children). What policies and institutions would help achieve these?
Consider the following scenario: Parents of a newborn child get thirteen months of job-protected paid leave, with the benefit level set at approximately 80 percent of earnings. Two of those months are “use it or lose it” for the father; if he chooses not to take them, the couple gets eleven months instead of thirteen. Parents can put a pre-kindergarten child in high-quality public or cooperative early education (childcare and preschool) centers. Pre-K teachers are required to have training comparable to that of elementary school teachers, and their pay is similar. The cost to the parent increases with the household’s income, but it is capped at less than 10 percent of that income. During the child’s first eight years, employers must grant requests by either or both parents to reduce work hours by 25 percent (e.g., from 40 hours per week to 30), with no reduction in the hourly wage or loss of benefits. Parents can take as many as four months off per year to care for a sick child up to age twelve, paid at the same level as parental leave. Generous government-funded child allowances and social assistance benefits ensure that very few families with children have low income. Able, working-age social-assistance recipients are pressured to work, but they are provided with extensive supports, such as training, assistance with job search and placement, affordable childcare, and public-sector jobs if nothing suitable is available in the private sector.
This set of policies currently exists — in Sweden. (Denmark is similar.) Much of it has been in place since the 1970s. What has it achieved? There is virtually no poverty among Swedish families with children, because almost all such households have at least one employed adult and because government benefits substantially boost the incomes of the small number that do not. Relative to other affluent nations, the employment rate in Sweden among women is high and the gender pay gap is low. Care for children tends to be of high quality. Certainly there are some stay-at-home parents who don’t do a good job, and surely some early education centers are subpar. But high expectations and generous pay tend to make the centers quite good. They also encourage a high valuation of care work in society. The availability of affordable, high-quality childcare means that the parents who stay home tend to be ones who really want to; 75 percent of one-, two-, and three-year-olds and 97 percent of four- and five-year-olds are in childcare. Children from disadvantaged homes particularly seem to be helped by this set of policies; on international tests, those in the bottom part of the income distribution in Sweden do especially well.
What’s not to like? These programs aren’t free: their implementation in the United States would require higher taxes, though perhaps just an additional 1 or 2 percent of GDP. Sweden has not achieved gender equality in employment: far more women than men work part-time, which means their overall earnings are lower. This, though, may be a product of choice. Nor is there gender equality at home: women still do more of the childcare and housework than men. Yet the gap is smaller than in the United States, and the introduction of use-it-or-lose-it parental leave for fathers appears to have helped.
The goals listed above need not have equal priority. I believe good-quality care for children is more important than the others. Here I am sympathetic to what Hirschmann has to say about parenting. For too many children, parental care leaves much to be desired. This conclusion is not based solely on anecdote; according to Columbia University social work professor Jane Waldfogel, the best available evidence suggests that, on average, good-quality out-of-home care yields benefits for children after the first year of life.
But while Hirschmann focuses on middle- and upper-class parents who foster poor values and selfish behavior in their kids, inadequate parenting includes much more, from insufficient attention to instability caused by parents’ moving in and out of relationships, to emotional and physical abuse and beyond. Some of these parents behave selfishly; some are overwhelmed by circumstances; some simply don’t know any better.
Parents are by no means the only problem. Many American children are in out-of-home care prior to kindergarten, but much of that care is informal and unregulated and hence of questionable quality.
In my view, policy that encourages (but does not require) high-quality non-parental care and education after a child’s first year stands the best chance of achieving the kind of care we want.
The standard rebuttal is that the public school system in the United States is woeful, and we should expect no better from a public early-education system. This is wrong. Some American public schools fall short — perhaps well short — of what we would like. But most do better than parents would, particularly for children from the most disadvantaged homes and neighborhoods. Researchers have found that disparities in performance among well-off and disadvantaged students are exacerbated over the summer, when school is out. This indicates that school is an equalizer.
In any case, an effective child-care and early-education system need not rely mainly on public facilities. We could offer a voucher to help defray the cost of public or private care, with the value of the voucher shifting according to the quality of the center the parents choose.
Good early care and education isn’t a cure-all, but it would be a big improvement.