It has been said that the problem with having children is once you have them, you have them. Anne Alstott’s essay “What We Owe to Parents” turns this quip into the basis for a serious policy proposal. She maintains that the “No Exit” clause is a social artifact, one that obliges society to compensate parents for providing continuity of care. Alstott acknowledges that since the state does not require us to be parents nor is society the sole or even the main beneficiary of our parenting, one may justifiably ask why society has any more obligation to support parenting than it has an obligation to come to the assistance of any other socially useful enterprise.

Her response is that while parents may choose to have children, “they do not choose the specific burdens society imposes on this choice.” Continuity of care is crucial to the development of the capability of autonomy, a capability that an egalitarian society is committed to ensure for every individual. Hence the No Exit requirement is rooted in a social demand arising from our fundamental committment to equality. Continuity of care and the No Exit requirement on parents provide future-oriented benefits to children and society, and impose future-oriented burdens on parents. Therefore, Alstott insists, it is reasonable to obligate the state to provide support that is future-oriented to compensate parents for the negative consequences of accepting the No Exit requirement.

Alstott’s proposal, the caretaker resource account, allocates $5,000 per year (indexed to inflation?) to either pay for child care, the caretaker’s education, or a retirement account. The money can be accrued from year to year but cannot be used to pay for consumer goods, thus reflecting the future-oriented intent of the benefit.

There are many unanswered questions, and the putative fact that $5,000 per child suffices for child care for full-time workers should raise concerns about the low wages that child-care workers receive. Still, we must applaud this effort to present a cogent and compelling argument for assisting parents in the work of child-care. The libertarian and market-oriented fever that has gripped national policymakers has paralyzed efforts to meet the increasingly difficult task of helping parents find the time and resources to raise families.

While other arguments have been offered justifying policies that support families, an advantage of Alstott’s analysis is that it simultaneously offers the rationale and the parameters of the support that society is obligated to give. Therefore, in evaluating this policy proposal, it behooves us to ask whether the No Exit requirement (1) is in fact a socially imposed demand, (2) addresses what caretakers need social supports for, and (3) provides the best reason for making the demand of state assistance for parents.

Is No Exit socially imposed? Alstott maintains that the No Exit requirement, even if it is felt as a personal commitment, is essentially socially constructed and imposed, insofar as the need for continuity of care is grounded in our society’s dedication to autonomy and equality. But there is little to suggest that societies less egalitarian or less committed to autonomy place any less value on continuity of care than our own. Although there may have been societies and periods in which parents exited more freely, literature from very diverse cultures and ages attest to the ongoing nature of the relationship of parent and child. This is not to insist that a commitment to continuity of care, as any aspect of parenting, is merely “natural” rather than inflected by the cultural values and material conditions. But the desire and effort to provide such continuity even in the face of great hardship (consider the agonies endured by slave parents who were forcibly separated from their children) suggest that continuity is less an artifact of an egalitarian society and more a feature of what is widely believed to be a reward as well as a condition of good parenting. I venture that the importance our own society places on autonomy is as much a reason why so many parents, most notably fathers, do exit, as the reason we value continuity of care depends on the value we place on autonomy. If signing up for parenting retains the character of the “merely personal,” and social values are less responsible for the No Exit requirement than Alstott maintains, then signing up for the long haul is very much a part of a voluntarily assumed personal package, and so of little help in countering the “parenting is a personal choice” rejection of social support for caretakers.

Does the “continuity of care” rationale address parents need for support? Alstott succinctly enumerates the reasons we need social supports for caretakers: “Mothers work less, earn less, and achieve less in the marketplace than fathers and than childless women.” At the same time, mothers put in more hours of combined unpaid and paid work and have less to show for their labors in their old age. Single-parent households headed by women are poorer, and for families in all income groups, the effort to spend sufficient time with family and in paid employment is a struggle. For many poor mothers, holding their families together is difficult.

While the three options for caretaker resource accounts are each helpful, women have to choose-they can hardly have it all with the sum of $5,000 a year. Moreover, Alstott argues against what many have called for-extended paid family leave, cash payments to parents, more flexible work hours, no discrimination for part-time work-and she writes off incentives for fathers to participate more in family life given the failures of past policy to achieve gender equity in caretaking.

Yet caretaker resource accounts fall short of what is required, and does least for those who are in the greatest need. Let me begin with the second point. While Alstott claims, “As long as parents provide their children with continuity of care, they scarcely feel the law’s supervision,” a significant number of poor families feel the law’s arm hauling their children away because they cannot provide adequately for their needs. Dorothy Roberts’ work provides disturbing accounts of high rates at which poor African-American children are removed from their homes on charges of neglect directly correlated with deficiencies in housing, nutrition, and other basic needs that these mothers find themselves unable to provide. When, in addition, mothers rely on arrangements of “other mothers” rather than paid child care or immediate family members to provide child care while they work, they are under further suspicion of neglect. It is not the parents’ unwillingness to abide by the No Exit requirement but rather the difficulties they have in carrying out the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting that result in them being forcibly prevented from persevering in their parenting roles.

Will caretaker resource accounts help? If a (solo) parent can afford daycare and find suitable employment, then presumably her earnings will allow her to meet day-to-day as well as long-term needs. If her skills, as is likely, are not rewarded with good paying full time work, then presumably she can use the money to go to school to improve her prospects. But the grant cannot be used for consumption needs. How is she to feed, house, and clothe her children as she goes to school? She could always use the caretaker resource account for her retirement years. But without resources she can lose her children, and if she loses her children, she loses the caretaker resource account. Of course, a resourceful mother may find a way to split the benefit, do some part-time work, get some education, and eke out a living in this way. But while $5,000 is a lot better than nothing, and with a number of other welfare benefits may make a crucial difference, it falls far short of answering the most pressing problems faced by these parents.

When we shift our attention to middle-income families, the question becomes one of meeting the time crunch and correcting for the gender inequity in caretaking responsibilities. Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers (Families that Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment, [Russell Sage Foundation, 2003]) have recently concluded a study examining the family and work policies of 13 nations, looking for workable policies that allow men and women alike to engage both in paid labor and caretaking. They call for a combination of strategies. These include generous paid leave, the expense of which is shared by employers and the state and directed at encouraging fathers’ participation with “use it or lose it” paid-leave incentives. The latter have begun to show results in the Nordic states where they are used. Gornick and Meyers call for stipends for each child to be used both for child care and the added consumption demands of child-raising. They recommend non-discrimination against part-time workers in benefits and pay, which is to become law in the European Union. They also call for good salaries and training for child-care workers, and child care that is paid for on a sliding scale by families and subsidized by government. These policies will not be justifiable on the grounds of a social No Exit requirement alone. Instead they depend on a principle of equity, especially gender equity, in the spheres of work and family. The countries that best exemplify these policies have good work-force participation by women, improved child-care involvement by men, low rates of child poverty, and, surprisingly, steady fertilization rates. It also appears to me that such policies are far more respectful of individual autonomy and dignity than those that designate a relatively small amount of money that can only be used in very specific ways.

Is “continuity of care” the best justification for the social support of parenting? I have already suggested that gender equity should also have a role in justifying family support policy. As women become increasingly integrated in the work force the fact that care of dependents has largely been accomplished through the exploitative labor of women becomes apparent. (See Diemut Bubeck, Care, Justice, Gender, [Oxford University Press, 1995], for an excellent sustained discussion.) But a limit of Gornick and Meyer’s policies, I believe, is that they privilege the responsibility to care for children and ignore the responsibility to care for other dependents. Alstott raises the question asked by many: why should parents get benefits not provided to the rest of the population? To this we should respond that they should not-all are entitled to benefits that help alleviate the personal costs of caretaking.

I have argued (Love’s Labor, [Routledge, 1999]) that children, the frail, the elderly, the ill, and the disabled exhibit inevitable dependency (see also the work of Martha Fineman). Part of what it is to be human is to experience periods of dependency (which all experience at least once-during childhood) and to care for someone during a period of dependency (which not all people, but most women are called on to do). The dependency of the person in need creates a dependency in those who do the work of care, and thus third parties must provide for dependents and their caregivers. These relationships are embedded in nested dependencies that form among the most important social bonds upon which society is constructed. If society has an obligation to support the care of dependents, it is precisely because this care and consequent relationships necessitate the creation of social arrangements in the first place.

Alstott’s rationale addresses a very limited set of concerns. It does not focus enough on the day-to-day challenges that particularly affect poor, single-parent families; it does not adequately address the gender inequities that are part and parcel of parent-work patterns set by family and employment policies; and it isolates the care labor of parents from other caregiving, thereby undercutting the possibility of a truly universal set of policies that affect the lives of each of us. Such universal policies will be costlier and doubtless harder to enact in the short term, but once installed will have broader and more steadfast support than those directed only at parents.