Amy L. Wax
8 Suppose we enact Alstott's caretaker benefit. Now consider Jan and Kate.
Jan, age 17, is an indifferent high school student from a broken
working-class family. She gets pregnant by her boyfriend, who
quickly drops her and takes up with another woman. She has the
baby, lives at home, and enrolls in a cosmetology course paid
for by her $5,000 caretaker benefit. Erratic child care causes
her to quit before completing her training. She stays home for
two years with her daughter and puts her yearly $5,000 benefit
into a retirement fund. After a short-lived relationship with
a man she meets at a bar, she has another baby. She tries various
part-time jobs and finally buckles down to junior college, using
her $10,000 yearly caretaker benefit for tuition and childcare.
After six years, she finally earns an associate's degree. She
works as a secretary while her sister watches her children after
school. She once again starts socking her benefit away for retirement.
By the age of 36, she has more than $60,000 in savings.
Kate, age 17, is an indifferent high
school student from a broken working-class family. She is fanatical
about birth control because she dreams of marriage and doesn't want
to raise a child alone. She doesn't have the money or grades for
college, so she joins the army. After the army, she takes various
low-wage jobs and lives at home. The years go by, and she finally
moves into her own tiny apartment. She dates a series of men, but all
balk at marriage. Meanwhile, most of her friends have had babies
(mostly out of wedlock). She is envious and longs for a child. She
finds a job as a bank teller. She works hard and is promoted to head
teller. (She is turned down for a managerial position because she
lacks a college degree.) At the age of 32, she starts dating a
salesman. For three years they save money for a house and then marry.
She wants to have two or three children but has trouble getting
pregnant. Following infertility treatments, she has a baby in her
mid-30s. She never has another child.
My problem with Anne Alstott's
proposal lies in the story of Jan and Kate. At age 36, Jan has two
children. She has a college degree and a tidy nest egg financed at
taxpayer expense. Kate has neither college degree nor savings, and
only one child. This picture is, in my view, disturbing. It is
perverse. It is unfair.
Reactions like mine have defined the
debate over public welfare for decades. Some would challenge the
premise implicit in the label of perversity-that the benefit will
encourage or induce women to become single parents or to take that
step prematurely. Some would reject the notion that, regardless of
incentives, the program is somehow objectionable because it leaves
Jan better off than Kate. Still others would recoil at the tacit
judgment of Kate as more responsible, restrained, and prudent than
Jan. They would condemn this stance as indulging a distinction
between the deserving and the undeserving that has no place in the
formulation of public policy.
Anne Alstott's plan rests, I
believe, on two questionable assumptions. The first is that the
government can remain neutral on matters of reproductive choice and
family form while subsidizing caretaking. The second is that the
government should remain neutral on these matters in all respects.
The first proposition is easier to
defend than the second, as it rests on inexorable logic rather than
vexed value judgments. The social function of caretaking encompasses
two distinct decisions: whether to have children and how to bring
them up. We may seek to lighten the burden of all parents once they
become parents. But do we really want to reward those who would have
children without considering the consequences at the expense of those
who exercise restraint? Viewed in this light, a caretaker subsidy is
not evenhanded. Even if government neutrality toward reproductive
choices is generally laudable, the example of Jan and Kate shows that
a universal cash handout for parents can't be neutral. It enriches
the Jans of this world and cheats the Kates.
Should the government treat Jan and
Kate as equals? Our society is committed not to interfere with
reproductive choice. Everyone is free to be a parent and to decide
whether and when to have children. But that does not mean that all
decisions are equally wise and all parents equally capable. Nor do
people refrain from making judgments about their own and others'
choices in their daily lives. Everyone has an opinion about what
makes for good or bad parents and about what circumstances are more
or less conducive to children's well-being. Such questions are
central to moral life.
Ordinary experience enters the
picture in other ways, too. Providing public financial support for
caretakers is in tension with the belief that parenthood is a choice
for which people should be held responsible. The widespread
availability of birth control and abortion reinforces the idea that
childbearing should be regarded as a deliberate decision that is
within a person's control. Many use contraception to limit the size
of their families, and many delay or forgo childbearing because of a
lack of resources, a reluctance to make tradeoffs, or concerns about
giving their children the right start in life. Those who show
restraint and prudence, often at great personal cost, understandably
resent subsidizing those who show less. Our recognition of
reproduction as an individual right makes us resistant to policies
that actively discourage childbearing. But concerns about the
detrimental effects of poor parenting and single parenthood further
undermine support for programs-including those that shunt public
resources into private hands-that already smack of active
encouragement rather than tolerant non-interference. Because the
public doesn't want to subsidize bad parents, unconditional aid is
regarded with suspicion, and voters are inclined to withhold money
from recipients who flout dominant behavioral norms. This
is regarded as only fair when so many who fund the benefits are
working so hard to be good parents themselves.
Liberal theorists have attacked the
distinctions behind popular attitudes-between negative and positive
rights, tolerance and subsidy, and non-interference and affirmative
support-as based on illusory baseline entitlements, incoherent
notions of pre-political ownership, and outdated concepts of
individual desert. However flawed in principle, these categories
maintain their currency in most people's minds and remain entrenched
in our laws, if only as a rough and ready way to reconcile public
respect for freedom with private moral judgment. A subsidy that fails
to honor commonplace notions about responsible behavior threatens the
delicate balance between competing values. However messy and lacking
in rigor, this position is no less vital for its pragmatism.
Alstott tries to side-step some of
these difficulties by pleading the equivalence of caretakers'
circumstances. She states that what matters to children is the
"quality and endurance of the relationship" between caretaker and
child. She notes that "children can thrive in extended-family
settings and in nontraditional arrangements of many kinds."
Unfortunately, they do not thrive equally. Although all caretakers
face similar pressures, their children are not similarly situated,
and to assert otherwise is to conflate data with anecdote. It is now
widely accepted that children born and raised in single-parent
families do less well than those raised by a father and a mother,
with children in biological families doing best of all. The social
fallout from these patterns is especially adverse in this country,
where out-of-wedlock childbearing prevails among African-Americans
and theless educated, exacerbating disparities among children of
different races and classes. These differences cannot be erased by
any known public policy. Because no government program
can effectively replace the two-parent family, we should be very
reluctant to risk widening divisions by rewarding single parenthood.
If only for equality's sake, we should try to shore up the two-parent
family and not embrace policies that ignore its advantages.
Perhaps it is perverse to hold the
aid caretakers sorely need hostage to our Jan and Kate. Perhaps we
could change our story a little or a lot to make Jan more
sympathetic-merely unlucky rather than heedless-and Kate less so.
They are variations on a theme. But it is important to note that
Alstott's proposal cannot deal with these variations adequately. Like
the unconditional entitlement program, Aid to Families with Dependent
Children (AFDC), that it seeks to replace, Alstott's plan misses the
nuances of behavior upon which ordinary people base their views about
whether help is deserved or undeserved, wisely proffered or best
withheld. It ignores behavioral distinctions that continue to affect
our moral life, inform our judgments, and influence our children's
fate-and our own. As de Tocqueville pointed out long ago, government
programs inexorably collapse these elemental distinctions, if only
for administrative ease-inexorably because the persons in charge have
no vital stake in enforcing the basic rules of conduct upon which
social cohesion depends.
Finally there is the objection, noted
more than once by Alstott herself elsewhere, that incentives are not
behavior. Social scientists argue endlessly about whether AFDC had
significant or measurable effects on out-of-wedlock childbearing or
"irresponsible" reproduction, with neither side clearly winning the
day. If the case against subsidies for parents must prove itself, it
will probably lose. But the argument does not turn on demonstrating
such effects. It is at bottom about fairness to persons who hold
themselves to higher standards or who take seriously the obligation
to strive for self-sufficiency. It is about respecting conventional
rules of behavior, or at least not showing indifference to them under
the guise of being evenhanded and non-judgmental. A willful blindness
toward the moral difference between indulgence and forbearance, born
of a naive optimism about human nature and social judgment, has
fatally undermined support for social-welfare initiatives in the
past. There is no reason to expect a different result here.
Although caretakers are under
pressure and many mothers at a disadvantage, softening the impact of
caretaking will always be a tough sell politically. The detriments of
motherhood result from a murky mix of women's inherently weak
bargaining position and their own real preferences. To the extent the
former dominates, we ought to help. To the extent the latter, we are
less inclined to help. Although some degree of collective support for
caretaking can, I believe, be justified, government handouts on the
terms Alstott proposes are not the answer. On the other hand, it is
hard to know what is. Decades of scholarly work on no-fault divorce
suggests that, in an era of disposable marriage, not much can be done
for women who choose to devote themselves to their children. We have,
to a great extent, privatized the family while simultaneously
undermining or discarding the private norms that kept it intact. The
informal mechanisms that guarded mothers' and children's interests
have largely broken down, and our ability to rely on informal social
controls to inhibit imprudent and destructive behaviors is much
diminished. Official devices, blind to nuances, cannot readily take
their place. We have reached the juncture at which the perversities
inherent in cash handouts for caretakers combined with the premium
placed on matrimonial and personal freedom leave us with little
choice but to relegate mothers without partners to private mercy and
What is left for government in the
area of work and family is a program of modest interventions on
many fronts. Although I don't share Alstott's unrelenting pessimism
about family-friendly workplace reforms, those are also best developed
through private initiative rather than heavy-handed top-down regulation.
But ultimately the battle is for hearts, minds, and mores rather
than for policy. Private individuals and institutions must once
again become more protective of family life. The prospects for
this are not encouraging. Despite lots of sentimental rhetoric,
our individualism continues to move us too far in the wrong direction. <
Amy L. Wax is a professor
at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She teaches courses
on social-welfare law and the law and economics of work and family.
Click here to return to the New
Democracy Forum What
We Owe to Parents.
Originally published in the April/May
2004 issue of Boston Review.