Suddenly hope for less financial stress for families


When Patty Murray joined the Senate in 1993, one of the first bills she worked on was the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid family leave to people who worked in companies in the 50 or more employees.

It was quite modest, especially compared to family benefits available in most developed countries, but Murray said overtaking was an uphill battle. In a speech at the time, she described a friend of hers, the mother of a 16-year-old dying of leukemia, whose job was threatened because she wanted to take time off to be with her son in her family. last months. . Afterwards Murray told me, another senator approached her and said, “We do not tell personal stories on the floor of the Senate of the United States.”

Still, Murray, who made the fight for family leave and affordable child care a central part of his career, believed FMLA was just the beginning. But in the 28 years that followed, no other major family law was passed. (Probably the most important was the bill signed by Donald Trump in 2019 granting paid time off to federal employees.) Among rich countries, the United States has remained an outlier when it comes to how little aid it receives. they bring to parents.

But now we may be on the verge of adopting a human family policy. On Wednesday, Joe Biden unveiled his American plan for families, which would, among other things, fund paid leave for caregivers, subsidize daycare and establish a universal preschool. It would extend the monthly cash payments parents will receive under the American Rescue Plan until 2025.

America may finally become a country where having children doesn’t mean being left to fend for yourself in a cutthroat market.

There are several reasons why our domestic politics have long been uniquely hostile to parents, but two big ones are racism and religious fundamentalism. In essence, it has been politically radioactive for the federal government to support black women who want to stay home with their children and white women who want to work.

The original Support for Dependent Children program – which would become Support for Families with Dependent Children – began during the New Deal. It aimed, as the Supreme Court described it in 1975, “to free widowed and divorced mothers from the need to work, so that they could stay at home to watch their children”.

Eligibility was determined by states and localities, which found various ways to exclude black women. However, with the Civil Rights Revolution in the 1960s, more black mothers were able to receive benefits. As they did, the conservatives began to demonize “welfare mothers” as lazy black women, even though there were still more white women than black women in AFDC.

In “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Thrive Together,” Heather McGhee detailed how support for public goods collapsed among whites once blacks got there. had access. This includes a lot of relief for parents and children.

“The fear of lazy black mothers who would breed without working runs very deep in this country,” McGhee told me. It’s hard to imagine how a proposal for automatic cash payments to families could have gone anywhere during decades of moral panic over black mothers lounging on paycheck.

But universal child care programs that would help women work aren’t going anywhere either. In 1971, Congress passed a bill that would have created a nationwide network of high-quality, sliding-scale child care centers, similar to those that exist in many European countries. Urged on by Patrick Buchanan, Richard Nixon vetoed it, writing that he would “engage the broad moral authority of the national government on the side of community approaches to child rearing against the family-centered approach.”

Since then, efforts to expand government-funded child care services have met with furious opposition from the religious right. As Phyllis Schlafly said in an interview in 2011, babies “don’t like to be treated like they’re in a warehouse. Babies need more care than that and feminists don’t want to care for their babies. They still demand taxpayer funded child care. It is better, she says, “to have a mother at home and a father who takes care of them.” (Schlafly herself relied on nannies.)

But Schlafly-style conservatives have less power than before. Religious fundamentalists have definitely lost the culture war over women’s work and over family values ​​in general; Donald Trump and Matt Gaetz’s party is unable to lecture anyone about their internal arrangements.

At the same time, many on the right, motivated in part by concerns about low birth rates, have awakened to the overwhelming financial burden of parenthood. The public policy debate is no longer about subsidizing children’s education, but how. Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act, for example, would give parents $ 350 per month for each child under 6 and $ 250 per month for children 6 to 17, up to $ 1,250 per family per month. month.

Pseudo-populist JD Vance might claim on Twitter that “universal child care” is a class war against normal people, “but he supports other types of grants. The idea that it is not up to the government to help parents raise their children is obsolete.

Now a window of possibility has opened. By weakening America’s already exhausted child care system, COVID has made family policy an urgent priority. Among Democrats, there is a political imperative to help mothers who have been excluded from the workforce by the closure of schools and daycares rebuild their careers.

With the laissez-faire economic assumptions that have dominated America since the Reagan administration discredited, Democrats no longer curl up when the right accuses them of favoring a big government. As Biden said in his speech to Congress on Wednesday, “the economy of gout has never worked.”

And – this is important – there are now many more women in positions of power. When Murray first came to the Senate, she said, she was one of the few members speaking on issues like child care. Every time she mentioned it, she would say, ‘that was kind of the end of the conversation’, and there was a ‘pat on the head, like,’ Oh, that’s so cute ‘.

Now Murray is the chairman of the committee that would oversee Biden’s proposed bill. To support it, “other women, members of our committee, of the Senate, of the House, echo what I am saying”. There are also women in the Biden administration who have been thinking about family policy for years; feminist economist Heather Boushey, author of Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict, is on the Presidential Council of Economic Advisers.

This does not mean that the American plan for families is going to materialize. With little chance of securing Republican support, he would have to go through the reconciliation process, so his fate is likely in the hands of Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. Still, it’s astonishing that it’s suddenly possible for American parenthood to become a less financially brutal experience.

“Our country has taken a turn and I think COVID has a lot to do with it,” Murray said. Families, she said, are keenly aware of the unmanageable stress they are under and say, “I want my country to face it.” For the first time in my life, we hope that will be the case.

Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for the New York Times.


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