Published February 11, 2021
Sen. Mitt Romney’s “Family Security Act” has come at precisely the right moment. The epidemic of loneliness is intensifying, and rates of marriage and fertility are plummeting. COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the social and economic insecurity of the poor and working classes, as well as on the shrinking middle class. Romney’s act proposes transforming the existing child tax credit into a larger monthly child allowance for parents—$350 per month for children ages 0–5, beginning when the child is in utero, and $250 per month for children ages 6–17. This would spread the significant financial costs of child-rearing to the community at large, so that parents are not economically disadvantaged vis-à-vis childless adults in their efforts to raise the next generation.
The proposal has many merits as a response to the bleak trends highlighted by the pandemic. More important still, it would serve as an overdue corrective to liberalism’s devastating effects on the family.
According to Mary Ann Glendon, “A nation without a conscious family policy has a family policy made by chance.” As Glendon has explored singularly throughout her career, America’s libertarian legal tradition serves as our country’s implicit pedagogical backdrop. This tradition prioritizes the individual in our cultural imagination, even as each and every individual is raised in a family. When we fail to intentionally affirm the essential work of the family—and not only rhetorically—our laws and policies will bend steadily toward the needs of the self-determining, unencumbered individual. The result, Glendon tells us, is “a climate that systematically disadvantages caretakers and dependents.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, concerned as he was about the individualistic and acquisitive tendencies of the young nation, pointed to the culture-shaping work of American women in their homes as the real reason for “the extraordinary prosperity and growing power of the nation.” Recognizing the need to direct newfound freedoms toward solidaristic ends, these women prioritized the moral formation of the young and the building of community, work that was taken for granted at the time of the founding. Allan Carlson aptly characterizes their homesteads as “islands of antimodernity within an industrial sea.” But deracinating trends that began with industrialization have intensified with the sexual revolution and globalization. These trends have made the work of caring for dependents in America increasingly precarious and costly.
Consider that the earliest acts of the mid-nineteenth-century women’s movement aimed to combat industrialization’s negative effects on women’s work in the home. As work valued with wages began to command more economic and cultural power, and new economic productivity measures excluded household labor, the traditional and productive work of the home was degraded to something other than “work.”
While male legislatures—and liberal advocates like John Stuart Mill—pushed for “separate” property and “earnings” statutes to ensure married women could hold onto any wages won outside of the home, women’s rights advocates pushed instead for “joint” property ownership. They sought to ensure that women’s household labor was recognized as valuable “work,” entitling women to an equal legal share in family assets—which they and their wage-earning husbands so clearly built up together.
It was not long before some leaders of the women’s movement shifted the focus. Instead of seeking to better value the work of women in the home, they began fighting for women’s equal participation outside of it. Trading solidaristic values for market-oriented ones, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and others insisted, in a sharp reversal of the earlier argument, that “real work” was that valued by a wage, and that women in the home were thus akin to slaves. Gilman’s early critics saw how this new perspective would affect the women themselves: “To this idea, more than any other, may be traced the prejudice against bearing children which has become so ingrafted upon the minds of married women, that tens of thousands annually commit ante-natal murder.”
As we well know, this project continued almost unabated. As the country’s legislators and judges responded in the twentieth century to industrialization, Reconstruction, and women’s just claims for equal rights, they tended (with some notable exceptions) simply to extend rights to those without them, to idealize self-sufficiency, and to downplay the nature of human dependency and the evident care it necessitates.
The hope for a family wage gave way to the need for double earners, with marriage seen as an association of separate individuals. Pregnancy became a private choice with privately borne consequences; the killing of one’s own child was likened to an absolute property right, necessary for women’s equal participation in market work. Eventually, it was even hailed by CEOs and legislators as “good for business.” Women’s eggs and uteruses are now for sale. Sex is advertised and sold for a low price or “dignified” by the term “work.” And the young are told that “gender” is a kind of consumer good that they can choose and change as prior generations once chose and changed hair and clothing styles.
Today, the liberal left and the libertarian right, both beholden to this hegemonic market frame of reference, tend to misunderstand the nature of the burden on caregivers. Most on the left assume universal institutional daycare would fix all parental ills, providing infants and young children the care they need and getting mothers back to work. While Biden’s refundable child tax credit, like Romney’s allowance, could help to reorient our nation’s priorities, the Biden Administration’s insistence on increasing tax credits (and other monies) for institutional day care—the kind few would choose for their own children—would further commercialize the goods of the home. A larger child credit or allowance—like Romney’s—would let parents determine who will give their children care, and would not discriminate against those who wish to care for their children themselves.
Meanwhile, some on the right argue that a child allowance would disincentivize “work,” implying that the work done in the home is not worthy of the name. These arguments tend to undermine the truth that joint property advocates urged more than a century ago: The work of the home is serious work. Today, it is increasingly undertaken by both mothers and fathers. More important, it is culturally essential work that provides the preconditions for our economic, political, and civil life together.
Erika Bachiochi is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her new book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, is out in July.