Closing thoughts

by Kimberly on April 2, 2005

First off, thanks to Crooked Timber for letting me guest-blog this week on work-and-family issues. In this last blog, I’d like to offer some reflections about what Americans might learn about the way other countries are addressing child care, parental leave, and working time. In the much-talked about book by Judith Warner, Perfect Madness, she argues we should look at the French model of child care and family support. I do not suggest we try to wholly transport the Swedish or Dutch or French model of public policy to the United States, as each model has distinct historical and cultural roots that would defy replication elsewhere. Moreover, it seems that the quickest way to doom an idea in American politics is to point out that this is how it is done in some other country.

No, instead I suggest we might learn from the way some European countries go about dealing with what is often a controversial issue – whether or not mothers should work when their children are young, and what the role of the state should be in subsidizing these decisions — and then figure out our own homegrown solutions. While conservative observers hold that official European policy increasingly favors the imposition of “radical feminism” – meaning the elimination of the full-time homemaker – the reality is considerably more complex. In countries such as Germany or Austria, the attachment to parental care is so strong that state policy has long sought to subsidize mothers (or the very few fathers) who stay home with young children. In France, because people have different views on this question – much as in the United States – government policy subsidizes both child care and parents at home, rather than impose one model on everyone. France’s free, universal preschool system appeals as much to stay-at-home-moms as it does to working mothers. Even in Sweden, one conservative commentator has to admit, the very long parental leave time is indicative of a strong commitment to parental care. As a result, many more babies are breast-fed for six months in Sweden than in the United States.

In addition, publicly-subsidized child care is not the Leviathan envisioned by many conservatives, by which the state uses its power to manipulate the hearts and minds of young children. In Germany and the Netherlands, the state subsidizes voluntary organizations – many of which are religiously-based – who then provide kindergartens, day care, and other family-related services. While services for families are subsidized, parental choice is maintained. This is very much in line with the church-run day care favored by social conservatives as a last resort.

In short, a commitment to the material well-being of families does not imply a one-size-fits-all solution, whereby one set of values gets imposed on everyone else. What is needed is first some agreement that subsidizing families with children is a worthy goal – something we have long done through both the tax code and publicly-supported education. Then, a pluralistic vision of family needs could bring together liberals and social conservatives, if the latter are willing to shed their alliance with economic libertarians, and the former relent in their focus on abortion and the strict separation of church and state (which complicates state subsidies to church-run day care). But first, we need to start having that sensible national conversation about work and family.




Glenn Bridgman 04.02.05 at 7:34 pm

Did someone on CT just mention a social conservative-libertarian split in the context of the left siding with the *social conservatives*!?


Michael Blowhard 04.02.05 at 8:06 pm

Sounds lovely!

Back in life as we live it: good luck bringing such a state of affairs about. Left and right setting aside antagonisms … Government behaving in a hands-off fashion … General agreements being reached by nearly all parties about what is to be done … And, presumably, lawsuit-lawyers and special interests generally putting what they usually do on hold …

Why any of this should be thought likely to happen is beyond me.

Some of us who are modest-government-is-generally-better-especially-in-America types are that way largely because we suspect that the odds of such a constellation of factors ever coming about are very, very long.

America’s a big, big place, nearly the size of Europe, full of many different populations and regions. We’ve got a largely-open border that we share with a poor country. We’ve got hordes of lawyers. Special interest groups swing enormous amounts of weight around. There’s a lot of churn. National consensuses simply aren’t as easy to come by here as they are in a centralized, relatively homogeneous country like, say, Sweden (pop. 8.6 million).


Andrew Boucher 04.03.05 at 12:46 am

K; “France’s free, universal preschool system…”

MB: “National consensuses simply aren’t as easy to come by [in America]…”

Since the school systems are run locally or by the states in the U.S., I’m not sure the U.S. needs a national consensus before proceeding. Why doesn’t Massachusetts or Vermont or New York introduce universal preschool education? Shouldn’t proponents work to get it passed in one state, which can then serve as a laboratory and convince other states on its benefits?


John Quiggin 04.03.05 at 1:16 am

Thanks for visiting. I’ve enjoyed your posts.


nikolai 04.03.05 at 3:21 pm

I’ve found these series of posts facinating. Thanks for writing them.

What is needed is first some agreement that subsidizing families with children is a worthy goal – something we have long done through both the tax code and publicly-supported education.

I think it’s interesting that you don’t support a one-size-fits-all solution to subsiding children, where one set of values gets imposed on everyone else. But you are imposing a system of non-pluralistic system of values by the very act of subsiding children. As this (implicitly) discriminates against people who do not have children and between people who choose to have different numbers of children.

I don’t think there’s been a credible reason given yet why children should be subsidied. The “children are public goods” argument fell at the first hurdle as (1) children aren’t public goods, (2) even if they were, we don’t neccessarily subsidise something just because it’s a public good.

I also don’t think the education analogy works. Publicly funded education is in effect a subsidy to families with children, but this isn’t the rationalisation most people would give for publically funding it. Most people would justify it on the grounds of the importance of education, not because people with children are morally deserving of other people’s money. Because of this the subsidized education doesn’t automatically cease when someone stops being a child.


Doug 04.04.05 at 11:10 am

And of course, it’s not all sweetness and light Over Here either. The German situation is generally best in Berlin and the former East Germany. Here in Munich, the one city-supported early-child-care facility has a waiting list of more than 700 for 70 available spaces. Call the administration and they openly acknowledge that the vast majority of children who are in the center’s catchment will spend the whole three years of their eligibility on the waiting list. The situation is not terribly different in other parts of the city. (The University of Munich opened its first creche for the children of staff and faculty last year; creating two dozen spots took more than two years of effort–this for a university of 50,000 students and a staff size to match.) The lead time for building a new facility is on the order of ten years.

And on the other side of the ledger, long parental leave is still a career-killer in competitive fields. There’s also a very clear assumption that it is the woman’s career that will come to an end, and a corresponding unwillingness to hire women into responsible positions.

Europe, in its wealth and variety, may be a source of ideas for some policies in the US, but don’t look for copyable models.

7 04.04.05 at 8:34 pm

Thanks for the posts Kimberly. Just curious – have you lived in any of these European countries you mention?

After living in Northern Europe for a year (then returning to Australia) I’ve often tried to grapple with their sorts of ‘gestalt’ political environment – ‘way’ of dealing with any issue.

The first things that comes to mind are the notions of ethicity and nationality that stand in rather stark opposition to ‘more post-colonial’ countries like the US and Australia.

Nevertheless, concocting ideal policies are fun thought experiments though.


Andrew 04.05.05 at 1:23 pm

Kimberly and other readers, you may be interested to know that in 2004 Congresswoman Hilda Solis of Los Angeles introduced a bill in the United States Congress that seeks to help state governments improve the quality and scope of their preschool programs. The bill is called the “Smart from the Start Preschool Education Act (HR 5084).”

As you probably know, Georgia and Oklahoma have the most comprehensive preschool education programs in the country (free for all 4-year-olds). Thirty-seven states have limited programs, although some are quite excellent where they are available. And eleven states do not invest in preschool education at all, although that seems to be changing as word spreads about preschool’s positive socio-economic and educational benefits.

You can track news about what’s going on at the state level regarding preschool education at Its sister site,, is more advocacy oriented and has info on HR 5084 in the US House of Representatives.

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