Anne Alstott, co-author of The Stakeholder Society, has just published another book called No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents. The theme is one we’ve explored here before: what should the state do for people who decide to have and raise children? It’s a tremendously good book, written in a wonderfully accessible style, and very affordable for an academic hardback.
At the core of Alstott’s book is a proposal for a ‘caregiver’s allowance’ of $5000 a year, to be provided by the Federal government to the primary care-giving parent. The allowance would be a kind of voucher; the caregiver could use it for any of three purposes: paying for daycare while she goes out to work; supplementing her retirement savings, or investing in her own education. The grant would be paid to the parent annually until her last child turned 13, and would be save-able; if the parent wanted, for example, to save it during the toddler years and then spend it on full time education as soon as the last child started school, she’d be entitled to do that.
The book consists of an elaborate defence of this proposal (and another, supplementary, mechanism effectively insuring against the child having a chronic illness).
[What follows is basically a review of the book, timed to coincide with Laura at Apt 11D’s review so make sure you read her’s too. The Boston Review a while back carried an article based on the book which is still online.]
The defence consists of a moral case that the state should do something for parents; a conjectural case that the caregiver allowance, though imperfect, will have the kinds of effects the moral case calls for, and a case against 2 kinds of alternative measure: the standard mix of means tested benefits and regressive tax deductions the US currently uses; and mandatory workplace-based ‘family friendly’ policies.
What is the case for the State doing something for the primary caretaking parent? First, note that unlike standard child-friendly benefits like tax deductions and the Family Allowances in Europe (on which more later), the caregivers allowance is not aimed at the child. The standard family benefit targets the child but does so through the parent because the parent has de jure authority over, and shares her life with, the child. But Alstott’s proposal is grounded in the idea that parents, when they become parents, bear a certain kind of cost for which they should, themselves, be compensated.
The core moral idea is that parenthood is a lifelong commitment; a commitment from which, uniquely in our society, we are bound for life, regardless of any subsequent change of mind/circumstance. In this it is unlike our choice of job, friends, spouse, all of whom we are legally permitted to ditch, and ditching whom tends to incur little social disapproval. Whereas you can give up a baby for adoption at childbirth, continuity of care is (rightly, in Alstott’s view) regarded as so important that society has a variety of legal and social measures that enforce it.
Parents tend to distribute care between them, and the tendency is for the burden to fall primarily on one parent (genuinely equal-split parenting is rare), usually the mother. But along with the position of primary carer comes a range of disadvantages. The primary carer is, perforce, less available for paid work in the external labour market. She is also, by reducing her workforce participation (and unlike her husband), failing to enhance her future earning potential, and as well as diminishing her retirement income. This would matter less if she was not simultaneously facing a very high probability (something like 50%) of future divorce, in an environment in which the earning power accumulated during a marriage is not regarded as community property. The primary parental carer puts herself at a major disadvantage relative to both the non-parents and non-primary-caring parents by adopting a position from which she cannot extricate herself. Something should therefore be done to ameliorate the costs she incurs.
For those unfamiliar with the US tax code, it has three main measures designed to support child-rearers. First there is the small exemption for a dependent. This was $3050 for 2003, meaning that for earners in the top tax bracket it amounted to approximately $1300 per child (assuming a top rate of 43% Fed and State income taxes combined). A second measure is the deduction for daycare expenses of $5000 per child per year, which amounts to approximately $2100 per child for high rate taxpayers (some deductions phase out for very high earners, and I don’t know if this is one, but I do know that none of them phase out till gross household income is well over $100k.) Finally, there is the Earned Income Tax Credit (a negative income tax). The maximum credit is $2,547 for persons with one qualifying child, and $4,204 for persons with two or more qualifying children. But to qualify, a single parent has to earn no more than $33,692 ($34,692 for a married couple).
The problem with the deductions, obviously, is that they are highly regressive—the more you earn the more they are worth. And the problem with the childcare deduction and (in effect) the EIC is that they reward parents who choose to take paid work over those who would want to stay at home and provide care for their children themselves. But sometimes it is more efficient (in a number of senses) for parents to stay home and care for their young children, and those who do so more vulnerable, other things being equal, than those who don’t. Finally, even the EIC is ungenerous in the extreme—it would not, for example, pay for more than half-day day care even in the least expensive available options. (As a wage subsidy, furthermore, it’s not even clear how much of it actually benefits the recipient, and how much it accrues to the low-wage paying employer).
The allowance Alstott proposes is, by contrast, generous enough to pay for something close to full-time daycare (except in the most expensive areas in the US), is highly progressive (because it makes a much larger proportional contribution to the budget of a poor than to that of a rich family); does not skew the caregiver’s choice toward paid employment (because you get it whether you go out to work or stay home with the kids); and is targeted to reduce the long term risk to the primary caregiver of taking that role. If, like me, you think that there is something to be said for parents staying home with young children, this is a plus. Even if you don’t, but think that child-targetted subsidies should not be tied to paid employment, it is still a plus.
Against mandating family-friendly policies in the workplace she argues that they introduce all sorts of perverse incentives for employers, and, of course, require employment for the recipient, and risk economic efficiency. Her proposal has none of these drawbacks.
The first thing to say about the proposal itself is that it does not promise to do anything to undermine the gendered division of labour. Some feminists (like Susan Okin) argue of equal-split parenting, as an alternative to mother-centered parenting. Alstott dismisses this as unfeasible, rather than as undesirable. (See Dick Arneson’s objections to equal-split here). But her proposal also does not actually promote the gendered division of labour—it does not, in itself, stand in the way of cultural movement away from the so-called traditional division. It is a freedom-enhancing proposal, relative to the existing arrangements.
The second thing to note about the proposal is that it’s not clear how revolutionary it is, outside the United States. European welfare states tend to eschew means-tested benefits (and reverse means-tested benefits, which is what the tax deductions amount to), for universal cash payments. I did a quick back of the envelope calculation concerning the UK’s Child Benefit, and it compares pretty well with Alstott’s proposal. Someone who has 2 kids, 2 years apart, will get a total of about 26k sterling ($40k) over the next 18 years in the UK, rather than 75k over the next 15 years on Alstott’s US based scheme. For people with just one kid, or kids substantially further apart, it’s a bigger difference (and for people with more kids closer together Child Benefit is bigger). Now, Alstott’s scheme is technically more restrictive: it demands that you spend the money on doing something to enhance your future income prospects. And it is targeted (in intention) toward the carer herself not the child for whom she is caring. But in practice it is really hard to distinguish from the European style-schemes, especially if people can borrow against the future income, in which case they can effectively convert the voucher into current consumption.
This connects with the objection that it will be impossible to restrict the schemes use to future-income-enhancement. Alstott is right to acknowledge that this will be difficult. But it is not clear to me why she is even so worried about restricting use of the funds this way. Yes, that’s the aim of the program. But why should the state expend lots of energy (and licensing activity) to ensure that it is actually spent that way? Its pretty clear you can’t – not only, as she herself points out, is it hard to distinguish between prospective-income enhancing programs and fun programs, but what is frivolous fun for one person is income enhancing for another. Are German classes for business, or for dating, or for seeing good movies without subtitles? Is cooking for employment or for eating well? Even keep-fit classes have more than one aim: being thin and good-looking helps you get a higher paying job; having the energy that comes from fitness makes you more productive)). It seems to me that variability of use is a reasonable cost of a program that has the desired level of flexibility.
I’m very well-disposed toward the proposal in the US; I share Alstott’s hostility to tax-deductions, and her skepticism about mandating workplace benefits; and I like the open character of the scheme, even though I don’t see it being quite as revolutionary as it might at first appear. I am much more skeptical, though, about her more fundamental argument for the state doing something-like-this for parents. This is because I don’t see the choice to become a parent—or even to become the primary caregiver for a child—as a restriction on one’s autonomy—or perhaps, to put it better, as a restriction on one’s autonomy that the state should compensate for.
Lifelong caring commitments, if voluntarily entered into, can be expressions of, rather than restrictions on, autonomy – any other view presupposes a kind of frivolous conception of autonomy. Abortion and contraception are widely available in the US, as is adequate information about where babies come from. So is information about the legal and socially-encouraged role o the parent. Maybe some very young adults haven’t got a clue what they are getting into, but the median age of first childbirth in the US is well into the twenties, and most people who have children know what they are doing. For a choice to count as autonomous, or as something we should be held responsible for, it does not have to be fully informed; the person making it just has to be the kind of person it is reasonable to hold responsible for their choices, and the choice in question must be made under certain favorable conditions. These conditions typically hold for adult child-bearers. Furthermore, parents get something that non-parents don’t get – a loving intimate relationship of a certain kind which makes a distinctive contribution to their flourishing for which nothing else could substitute. And the primary caregiver enjoys a particularly close relationship with the child in its youngest stages which is, in favourable conditions at least, potentially extremely rewarding. So I’m not persuaded that there really is a loss of autonomy involved, or if there is it is not one which grounds a claim on the rest of us, as it is just of a kind with other autonomy losses consequent on voluntary choices. So I think that what Alstott calls the ‘libertarian’ objection gets much more grip than she treats it as having. The libertarian objection simply takes the institutional status quo as authoritative, and says ‘Look, you know what the circumstances are, or you should know, and if you make this choice in these circumstances, you’re on your own; why should other people have to help you out?’ Understanding the situation of the primary caretaker as one of diminished freedom or autonomy simply concedes to the basic thrust of this argument; and once it is pointed out that the parent is not lacking in autonomy, there are no further resources to respond to it.
I am more moved by a quite different, and much more openly perfectionist, kind of argument for subsidizing primary caregivers, which I can only sketch here. It is grounded in the idea that the structure of social institutions unnecessarily and contingently penalizes the primary caretaker and makes it the case that she/he faces ongoing disadvantages relative to her spouse (and relative to other non-primary caregivers). There is simply no reason to take the institutional status quo as authoritative. The idea is that we want to set things up so that primary caretaking does not have a set of costs attached to it such that one who takes it up is massively disadvantaged within the marriage and if the marriage ends. Why? First, we think that primary care-giving for children is a good thing to do. It is not just one choice among others, but something which has distinctive and intrinsic value, and should be socially validated and encouraged. Second, it will be more rewarding, other things being equal, for both the caregiver and the child if it is done in ‘favourable conditions’; circumstances in which the caregiver is not putting his or her future security excessively at risk. So it is wrong for social institutions unnecessarily to attach great disadvantages to this choice. If some downside is an unavoidable aspect to choice (high risk of death attaches intrinsically to skydiving); or if removing that downside would have unacceptable opportunity costs; or if the choice is one that we don’t think it is a good one for people to make, then it seems fine to retain the drawbacks; but the risks attached to primary care-giving are not unavoidable, and the choice is not undesirable. Alstott’s proposal (or something like it) is justified because it diminishes the unnecessary risks attached to a (very) valuable choice about what to do with a large part of one’s life, and thereby enables people to live more fulfilling lives.
This is, as I say, a much more perfectionist argument than Alstott’s. But I think it is hard (or maybe impossible) to avoid some moderate perfectionism when thinking, as we are here, about how the state should structure family relationships, so there’s no reason to resist it on anti-perfectionist grounds. The alternative is to presuppose a conception of autonomy on which restrictions on one’s freedom are limitations on autonomy even when they have been freely embraced and are a morally necessary feature of a morally valuable role.
My remarks have been moderately critical of the foundation of the argument. So I should emphasize that the book has incredibly rich discussions both in political theory and institutional analysis. Read it yourself.