In the debate kicked off by Senator Mitt Romney’s family plan, a saying keeps coming into my head: “Every baby comes with a loaf of bread under her arm.” I’ve always interpreted it as an affirmation of the dignity of need and the need to provide: The baby brings the hunger, and then it’s the job of everyone within earshot to come over with the bread.
Mr. Romney’s proposed child-benefit program is a step in the right direction and is as unconditional as the baby’s need. It would include monthly payments to families of up to $350 per child; moreover, it would be universal. That has made it a target of some conservatives, who prefer a narrower approach with tax relief. There is dignity in work, but we should support more than just work done for wages.
For critics like Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida, the universality of the program is a drawback. Both senators oppose the proposal because it would be a child allowance for all parents, “not tax relief for working parents,” as they said in a statement.
The senators called the Romney proposal “welfare assistance” and added: “An essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work. Congress should expand the Child Tax Credit without undercutting the responsibility of parents to work to provide for their families.”
But the senators are pro-work only in a narrow sense, and in that sense they sell families short. There is no intrinsic value to labor outside the home that raises it to a higher dignity than the work of parents or other caregivers within the home. If only wage work is seen as “real” work, then a father who stays home with his young children doesn’t count as providing for his family.
To convert care into “real” work, he has to perform a sleight of hand. If the father swaps kids with a neighbor and each family pays the other to take care of its kids, then the same diaper changes, food preparation and reading of storybooks become official work. It’s hard to call this shell game pro-family policy, in which child care has value only if you don’t provide it to your own child.
Mr. Romney’s plan (like the Family Fun Pack from Matt Bruenig, the president of the People’s Policy Project, a think tank) would allow families to be flexible. (President Biden has also released a plan for a similar benefit, which would be less generous to families with younger children and would be limited to a single year of payments as part of Covid-19 relief.) Mr. Romney and Mr. Bruenig would put money directly and unconditionally into families’ hands. They would not issue child care vouchers or otherwise dictate a single, “right” way to balance work and parenting.
In contrast, the position of Mr. Lee and Mr. Rubio isn’t pro-family; it’s pro-employer. Their goal seems to be to fit parents to the needs of increasingly totalizing work, rather than expect jobs to accommodate the needs of families. It’s the same attitude lurking behind the proposal from Kamala Harris when she was a senator, to cover the gap between the ends of school days and workdays. She proposed extending the school day by three hours, rather than shortening the workday. When children and work come into conflict, work usually wins.
It’s almost as if some critics of the Romney plan are asking: How can we work around the demands children place on their parents? This is a shallow liberty that treats parents as equal only if they are equivalent to childless job candidates.
But parents are usually worse employees from their employer’s point of view. What employer prefers someone who could be chronically sleep deprived for months? All else being equal, who would pick the person whose children spend the winter working their way through every stomach bug at school? Pregnancy is a protected category in employment law, just as disability is, because an employer that views its employees simply as raw material will treat anyone facing physical challenges as dispensable.
For employers who see employees as short-term line items, the ideal worker is an unencumbered individual. No kids, no parents old enough to need care, no strong commitment to anyone outside themselves and their work.
It’s why tech companies offer to pay for egg-freezing services and provide perks to make your office feel like your home. They may genuinely feel they’re providing a benefit — and their carrots are kinder than the sticks of no sick days and unpredictable schedules offered by shift-work employers. But at the high and low ends of the pay scale, anyone else who depends on a worker is viewed as competition for commitment.
A pro-family policy uses parents’ needs as a test for a humane economy. A workplace hostile to parents will also harm the person one cubicle over whose father is slipping into dementia, the colleague who needs time off to help a friend struggling with depression, the co-worker whose coronavirus infection festers into a long-haul chronic illness.
No one remains healthy or independent forever. When we love our children, our parents, our friends, we become entangled with them and make promises that cost us something to keep.
Mr. Romney’s benefits would be tailored to parents, but they would serve everyone if they shifted our expectations of what work should look like and what counts as valuable labor. And his proposal should be followed by a similar package for anyone doing care work at home for a parent or other relative.
Call the Romney plan a capital investment, not a child allowance. It supports the work that statistics like gross domestic product don’t count but that is the foundation for strong families and communities.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She writes about the dignity of dependence at Other Feminisms.