Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
My essay alienated critics from the traditional Left (Deborah Stone) and Right (Richard Epstein) but elicited exceptionally thoughtful responses from others.
Stone's critique badly misreads my argument. I do not slight parental love; nor do I propose to dismantle social protections for parents. I can only assume that Stone missed the opening paragraphs, which state in part that "most parents will be responsible because they genuinely want to do right by their children, but because of the social importance of parenting, it makes sense to provide them with public support." She also overlooked my affirmation that "good parents care for children out of love and a sense of moral obligation."
I do emphasize society's interest in parental persistence. But nothing in my argument supposes that parents act only in response to the law's carrots and sticks. My claim is that parents who take their No Exit obligation seriously are helping society fulfill its obligation to children-and sacrificing their own autonomy to do so. Because the capacity to exit is crucial to personal freedom, the renunciation of exit is no small sacrifice. Whatever parents' motives may be, personal or political, their actions deserve social commendation and protection.
The puzzle is that Stone's essay so mistakes the nature of the No Exit claim. I underscore society's stake in continuity of care in order to challenge the libertarian idea that parenthood is an entirely private matter. Highlighting society's expectations of parents brings into relief society's responsibilities toward them.
Stone and I certainly disagree on some policy details. She endorses a traditional Left agenda, heavy on labor-market regulation. While I am sympathetic to her aims-improving the incomes of low-wage workers and expanding parents' work options -I have doubts about whether these policies would achieve them. As I suggest in the essay, economic theory and data raise questions about the side effects of family-friendly mandates. For prudential reasons, I worry that linking social benefits to the workplace may backfire.
But Stone and I agree on other progressive policies that could benefit parents and non-parents alike: universal health insurance and health and safety laws. We also share a belief in the importance of improving public education. And elsewhere I have endorsed reforming Social Security to improve caretakers' retirement security. (See Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, The Stakeholder Society, 1999.)
Bafflingly, Stone deems my strategy "conservative," even though $5,000 per year for 13 years is more generous than any existing subsidy for parents. Her mistake lies in assuming that I offer caretaker resource accounts as the exclusive remedy for social ills. Caretaker resource accounts address a carefully defined social problem: the limited autonomy of parents, and especially mothers. I do not suppose that caretaker resource accounts could also cure child poverty, raise low wages, or reform the health care or Social Security systems. The broader reforms Stone suggests may be justified, but they do not address the distinctive situation of parents. After all, parents and the childless alike may suffer from poverty, low earning power, lack of health care, or old-age insecurity. My effort is to show what society owes parents quaparents-and not to delineate all the policies that might characterize a fair society.
Robin West's essay beautifully captures and extends my effort to construct a liberal theory in support of care work. She suggests-rightly, I think-that it may be politically and legally important to constitutionalize the No Exit understanding of parenthood-to insist on a rights-based understanding of parental entitlement.
West's response makes me wonder why I didn't frame my proposals in terms of rights. The answer, I think, is that I was working within the peculiar American legal landscape relating to economic entitlements. In the legal fields in which I work-taxation and social-welfare policy-there are few constitutional protections, and the legislative field is wide open. West brings constitutional expertise to an important and complementary project. While my focus is on the normative case for caretaker assistance, and on the design of institutions, she is asking a different question: what legal structures could best protect caretakers' entitlements? I applaud the project and take seriously her central point: that we should not confuse our present understanding of rights with "their necessary core."
Amy Wax's essay offers principled objections to caretaker resource accounts, which aim to be neutral across life plans. Wax's key point is that public policy shouldn't be neutral: she considers Kate (the married woman who has a child in her 30s) morally superior to Jan (the single mother who has a child as a teenager).
I might quibble with details of Wax's hypotheticals. But quibbles aside, Wax is pointing out a difference of principle. I am not prepared to judge Jan as morally inferior to Kate, assuming that both provide continuity of care to their children (as both do in the hypotheticals). It strikes me as dangerous and wrong to endorse Kate's choices over Jan's-dangerous because moral judgments of this type invite public scrutiny of both women's lives. Does Kate spend too much? Drink too much? Perhaps Jan is a happy, tolerant mother, and Kate a bitter and vindictive shrew-or vice versa. Society can't make these judgments and shouldn't. Both women are capable of planning their own lives, even if they make mistakes. If both mothers are doing right by their children, then both deserve society's assistance.
I am more troubled by Wax's point that children of single parents, on average, do worse than children of married parents. That fact calls into question my claim that both the single mother and the married mother are providing adequate care to their children. Should we deny benefits to single mothers? I think not, largely because I read the social science evidence more cautiously than Wax does. While children of married parents fare better as adults than children of single parents, the causal mechanism isn't clear. Single parents are, as a group, desperately poor and disproportionately likely to have less education, to live in bad neighborhoods with bad schools, and so on. Studies that isolate these sources of disadvantage find that the absence of a parent has relatively little impact.
Still, single parenthood poses a challenge for my project: why is it that society demands that only one parent to be bound by a No Exit obligation? Our society has decided, deliberately or by default, that it cannot compel both parents to provide continuous care to their children when they cannot or will not stay with each another. Although I take these trends as given, I am open to measures to encourage parental persistence. For instance, the law professor Elizabeth Scott suggests making divorce more difficult for parents than for the childless. Still, I think this will be an uphill battle.
Dorothy Roberts' essay draws out the critical point that the No Exit obligation weighs heavily on poor mothers. In interesting contrast to Wax, Roberts favors neutral public policies that enable mothers to make a wider range of choices about child-rearing and work. Roberts concludes, accurately, that caretaker resource accounts "would not raise the incomes of many single mothers sufficiently to give them a meaningful capacity to choose their way of life." She advocates adding an entitlement to public assistance in order to guarantee a "family-sustaining income."
I largely agree with Roberts here. Caretaker resource accounts would be useful to all mothers, including poor ones. But as I suggest in the concluding paragraphs of my essay, more needs to be done to address the No Exit burdens of low-income mothers and of parents of disabled children.
For this reason, Eva Kittay's concern that I overlook the plight of poor parents is overstated. But Kittay's response also includes more salient criticisms. She worries that caretaker resource accounts would not address gender inequality in child-rearing. Although I think Kittay underestimates the good that might come of improving mothers' economic prospects, she surely has a point. Caretaker resource accounts do not directly challenge the gendered division of household labor. But even if we wanted to do so, how would we accomplish this?
It has proven devilishly difficult to get fathers to take a larger role in child-rearing. The Scandinavian countries that Kittay praises have improved mothers' job entitlements, but without notable progress in increasing fathers' participation. At the same time, Scandinavian workplace mandates may have contributed to rigid labor-force patterns, including a higher degree of sex segregation in the workforce than in the United States. Perhaps the Swedish compromise is the best route, but we should understand its limits.
Kittay also argues that my approach would "[isolate] the care labor of parents from other familial caregiving." Once again, Kittay has a point. Care for adults may also burden caretakers' autonomy: they may persist in their care work for the long term, and they may take on a burden that is comparable to, or even heavier than, the work of rearing a child. Think of a husband caring for a wife with Alzheimer's, or a mother caring for an adult child rendered paraplegic in a car accident.
While I am sympathetic to the idea that these caretakers merit social support, I am reluctant to extend the No Exit obligation to them. Kittay endorses a unitary idea of "dependency," but I am wary of equating children's and adults' need for care. Adults' needs are more variable and less transparent than children's. Some adults are childlike in the relevant ways-unable to make meaningful choices about their own care. But others are not. Most people with physical disabilities, and many with mental disabilities, can participate in choosing how to live and who should care for them. Others will have been able to make such choices in the past (think of the Alzheimer's patient).
For these reasons, I hesitate to extend the No Exit model to adults who are not "childlike" in their need for continuous care. For this group, there is at least a question about whether they should share responsibility for their care. Should society expect competent adults to insure against accidents or illness? Furthermore, caring relationships between adults are generally conceived as relationships of equality, with each party able to exit. Should we really extend the No Exit obligation to peer relationships? I worry that we overlook important considerations when we equate care for adults with care for children. I applaud the impulse to guarantee care to vulnerable people, but it is not obvious that the state should respond in the same way to all needs for care.
Finally, Richard Epstein's essay utterly fails to confront the internal contradiction of libertarianism, which prizes autonomy in adults without admitting any social interest in how adults become autonomous.
Libertarians seem to imagine that free individuals magically spring into being, without any societal intervention at all. But that is a curious assumption. If government regulation is impermissible, and the "taking" of individuals' labor especially so, then parents could treat their children as they chose. Libertarians may presume that parents would naturally do right by their children, but history calls into question that happy prediction. Child labor and child abandonment remain prevalent in the developing world, and they persisted until relatively recently in the West. Absent government programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, public education, public housing, and the like, we might well see a return to those practices, at least among less fortunate citizens.
Epstein's intellectual audacity is stunning: he writes that "Alstott claims, falsely, that the principle of autonomy guarantees all individuals a sufficient resource base to lead a meaningful life when all it requires is that individuals be allowed to make choices for themselves using the resources that they have available." This statement simply brushes aside one of the major debates in modern political philosophy.
Epstein's crabbed view of autonomy also highlights the bankruptcy of the libertarian view of child-rearing. Are children, too, entitled only to make choices "based on the resources they have available"? If so, then children of poor parents will lead very cruel lives indeed. It begs the question to suppose that children could grow to be autonomous in such circumstances.
Epstein's policy solution is amusing. He concludes that what parents really need are tax cuts. This standard libertarian prescription reflects an unsubstantiated empirical claim: that if only the welfare state were dismantled, the "real income of all families, with and without children, will rise to achieve the objective that Alstott wants." But I suspect that Epstein has in mind only the upper class when he laments the situation of families that now pay high taxes "even if they send their children to private school."
Public education, social security, and caretaker resource accounts are redistributive by design: they deliver benefits to many people that are worth more than their contributions. Epstein dislikes redistribution; fair enough. But it is nonsense to suppose that tax cuts would enable ordinary workers to pay for child care while paying out-of-pocket for private schools, private pensions, and all the other government services that Epstein would privatize.
Anne L. Alstott is Jacquin D. Bierman Professor of Taxation at Yale Law School, coauthor of The Stakeholder Society, and author of No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.