Trump’s Child-Care Proposal: Be Like Sweden?

Published September 16, 2016

National Review Online

There may be valid criticisms of the Trump (Ivanka as much as Donald) child-care proposal, but the New York Times and the Huffington Post did not find them.

As is always the case with new proposed social spending, the New York Times chides the United States for being so very retrograde:

Within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a consortium of 35 countries, including the world’s wealthiest, the United States stands out as the only nation that does not already guarantee paid maternity leave.

This is the familiar refrain. All other advanced countries do X. It’s embarrassing that the United States is the only country without nationalized healthcare, or paid leave, or universal pre-school, etc., etc. During the Cold War, we were constantly hectored that while the Soviet Union didn’t have political freedom, it sure did provide economic freedom in the form of a guaranteed job, free health care, family leave, and so forth. When the Soviet Union fell, we learned that its actual standard of living was the rough equivalent of Bangladesh’s, that Leningrad’s hospitals had raw sewage in the taps, and that no one except the Communist Party elite had ever seen a banana. (But for her husband’s connections, Lyudmila Putin would have died from injuries sustained in a car crash because the public hospital was so dreadful. So writes Steven Lee Myers in The New Tsar.)

We are encouraged to emulate the enlightened policies of Sweden, where paid family leave is very generous. Admirers of Scandinavian social democracy never mention the trade-offs though. If Sweden were to exit the EU and become a U.S. state, it would rank below 38 other states in wealth based on purchasing-power parity.

The Huffington Post reproaches the Trump proposal for something else too — aiming it only at women. “The plan, while ostensibly embracing a progressive stance, rolls back decades of progress in work and in parenting in the U.S., where men have taken on more of the parenting work . . . ”

Tell it to Bernie Sanders, who betrayed his own backwardness last year when he proclaimed: “Every other major country on Earth, every one, including some small countries, say that when a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby.” Whoops, he used the “m” word — mother.

Surely new parents ought to be free to decide for themselves who is going to care for new babies (or sick grandparents, for that matter). But the high dudgeon of the Huffington Post is ridiculous. HuffPo is indignant at the idea that mothers are more likely to care for babies. It is part of the progressive project to make mothers and fathers fully interchangeable.

Sweden again demonstrates progressivism’s limitations. Both mothers and fathers get eight months (yes, months) of paid leave in Sweden, for a total of 16 months per child. Paid paternal leave was introduced in Sweden in 1980. Yet mothers and fathers continued to make different choices.  In 1993, disappointed in the relatively few fathers who took advantage of the policy, the Swedish government instituted a use-it-or-lose-it policy for paternal leave. Still, mothers and fathers made different choices. In 2008, Swedish mothers were taking 78 percent of leave days, and fathers only 22 percent. Clearly frustrated at the recalcitrant fathers, the Swedish government introduced a “gender equality bonus.” Couples who shared parental leave equally got the equivalent of $1,900 from the state.

How did that work out? Here’s how Swedish radio summarized it: “A year and a half after the bonus was introduced, the verdict — according to a review made by the Swedish Social Insurance Agency — is clear. The bonus has not helped at all.”

“Why should the state care?” you may ask. Excellent question. Because good progressives believe that the only reason women do more child care than men is benighted, pre-feminist thinking. “I believe in carrots,” explained then–prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt about the gender equality bonus. Opposition leader Mona Sahlin retorted, “It seems that no one really wants to eat these particular carrots, because hardly any have applied for them.”

The progressive utopias of Scandinavia (or here, as it seems we’re headed in the same direction) can fiddle with subsidies and bonuses all they want, but they will continue to bash their heads against a fundamental reality — women enjoy being with their babies and will choose to spend their time that way if they possibly can. Fathers make irreplaceable contributions to child rearing, but not in the form of nursing infants. There, was that so hard?

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Copyright © 2016

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