The Magazine


Dec 15, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 14 • By DANIELLE CRITTENDEN and DAVID FRUM
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The fatal combination of snobbishness and ideological rigidity has doomed national daycare projects in the past -- most recently in 1990, when conservatives in Congress were able to substitute the present tax credit for the daycare subsidies liberals sought. It's tempting to hope that once again conservatives need only delay the administration's plans to defeat them. But there's good reason to fear that, over the longer haul, a strategy of delay will probably fail.

However little they want to pop their kids into institutions, millions of Americans -- whether they work 10 hours or 40 -- still experience the care of their children as a huge, never-ending, all- consuming problem. The executive frantically gulping down every detail of the Louise Woodward au pair trial; the claims adjuster who suspects that the neighbor she pays to watch her kids is plopping them in front of the TV all day; the former welfare recipient who must rouse her kids at 5:00 a.m. to get them to a church basement before she's due at her hotel cleaning job -- in this one gripping preoccupation, they're all sisters. Many of these working mothers have friends who don't work outside the home, and they know that those other mothers are holding their babies, talking to them, playing with them, watching what they eat, and generally treating them as the most important people in the world. And they know that their own children are, in most cases, receiving distinctly second-class treatment by comparison. They feel guilty, anxious, envious, and defensive -- an explosive mixture. In the debate over national health care, Republicans could ask Americans, "How's your health care?" in reasonable confidence that most would reply, " Pretty good, actually." In the debate over national child care, the advocates of an expanded government role are tapping into a pulsing vein of parental dread and dissatisfaction.

What can Republicans say? They will be tempted to buy off the daycare advocates with an expansion of the child-care tax credit, as they did in 1990. As the federal deficit attains zero, somebody is bound to propose this. The trouble is, increasing the federal tax credit will tilt the economics of family life even more deeply against at-home mothers. The tax credit can only be used against the lower of two spousal incomes: A family in which the mother stays home cannot benefit from it.

Look at the effect of the credit on the decision-making of a reasonably typical middle- class family. Mr. Kowalski earns $ 35,000 as the assistant manager of a hardware store. He hasn't had a raise in five years, and since the birth of their second child two years ago, the Kowalski family has begun to feel pinched. He considers taking a second part-time job that would pay another $ 12,000. If he lives in a high-tax state, that extra $ 12,000 will be worth about $ 7,000 after taxes. Alternatively, Mrs. Kowalski can work half a day, for the same $ 12,000. Thanks to the child-care tax credits, her work will actually bring home about $ 4,000 more than the same labor by her husband. Outcome: Mrs. Kowalski probably goes to work.

Most people engaged in politics have a hard time saying that this is an unsatisfactory outcome. They know that they'll be accused of "wanting to send women back to the home," of joining the "backlash." And it's especially hard for them to think of the Kowalskis' decision as unsatisfactory because, in the world of people engaged in politics, most women not only work but experience their work as liberating. Tell a woman working on Capitol Hill that you think the mothers of young children should stay at home with them, and she'll clomp you on the head with her cellular phone. Say it on the floor of Congress, and brace yourself to be sledgehammered with press warnings that you are alienating women voters from the Republican party.

But it's worth remembering that women with interesting, fulfilling jobs (like men, for that matter) represent a tiny minority of the workforce. There are about 100,000 female lawyers in America. More than 600,000 women work as receptionists, more than 1 million work as waitresses, and close to 2 million work as bookkeepers. Nearly 80 percent of working women earn less than $ 26,000 per year. These women by and large do not experience the world of work as a liberation from the drudgery of child- rearing. For them it is work that is drudgery and child-rearing that is fulfilling.

This is not to suggest that conservatives should be urging women to quit work en masse. With the average woman bearing only two children, such attitudes are obviously out of date. But conservatives can say this to the modern woman: You are probably going to live 80 years. You will probably work for almost 40 of those years. But for six or seven or eight of those years, you will be a mother to very young children. Do you really want society to try to reinvent itself so that you can delegate the care of those babies to strangers? Or would you rather society tried to figure out how to help you to care for them yourself, and then return to work once your children are in school? Feminists will insist that anyone who utters these sentiments is committing political suicide. But that's not what the polls say.

The question is, of course, how to help the mothers of young children stay home. Part of the job involves changing cultural attitudes, persuading at-home mothers that they should not be embarrassed for their choice, persuading society to respect and honor their work, and persuading working women to try to speak a little more politely to them. (A good start would be a first lady who could refrain from sarcastic quips like, "Well, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.") There's reason to hope that this cultural shift has already begun: It's hard to imagine a Laura Schlessinger attracting a national radio audience in 1977 by urging women to stay home with their kids.

But we must also recognize that, for many women, remaining in the workforce when their children are young is an act of economic necessity. Some of these women are single mothers: Nearly one out of three American children is growing up in a home headed by a woman who either never married or is divorced or separated. Conservatives are sometimes accused of hypocrisy because we encourage married women to stay home with their young children while believing that single mothers should work rather than take welfare. But there's no analogy between a married couple who sacrifice the wife's contribution to the household income so that she can care for their children and an unmarried mother dependent on the state. Half of all the children in the United States will live in a single-parent household at some point before the age of 18. It's clearly not feasible for the government to play husband to half the women in America. Single mothers will have to work. That's another reason why single motherhood is such an enormous social problem.

Married women also often feel obliged to work. Some simply need the money. But many others are practicing economic self-protection. Absenting oneself from the workforce is costly. In fact, women's tendency to interrupt their careers to care for their children is the main cause of the notorious pay gap between the sexes. If a woman could be sure that her husband would stay with her, the cost might well be bearable. She might in that case tell herself, "Well, my income when I return to work won't be as high as it might have been, but the two of us are earning enough together, and we'll share the satisfaction of knowing that our kids are being cared for properly." But no woman can be sure. So she must make her life choices defensively, staying in the workforce -- even though she might not want to, even though she could afford to leave it -- to protect her work history in case of divorce.

Combine the women who must work because they are single mothers and the women who feel they should work to protect themselves lest they become single mothers, and you realize that what looks at first like a child-care crisis is in reality a symptom of America's larger marriage crisis. Understanding the child-care problem in these terms clarifies an otherwise puzzling mystery. We are endlessly told that women "nowadays" cannot afford not to work. This is at first glance baffling: How can it be that women cannot afford to stay home now when they could afford it in the vastly poorer America of 1955 or 1935? The answer is that then they could count on sharing their husband's income for life, and now they cannot.

Of course there are real limits on what public policy could (or even should) do to shore up marriage. But if the alternative is a multibillion dollar federal daycare policy intended to absorb child-care costs that would not exist in an America where more families stayed together, the justification for intervening on behalf of marriage becomes rather stronger than it might otherwise be. Two practical reforms spring urgently to mind.

First, by all means let Republicans expand the tax credit for child care if they feel it appropriate or necessary to do so. But at the same time, let them follow the advice offered in these pages by David Blankenhorn and Allan Carlson, and enact "income-splitting" into the tax law: Permit husbands whose wives don't work to allocate half their money for tax purposes to their spouse. Under such a rule, Mrs. Kowalski could stay home, Mr. Kowalski could take that second job, earn his $ 47,000, and each of them would be taxed at the rate on $ 23,500. That would better account for the value of the wife's work in the home, correct some of the distorting incentives of the current tax code, and send a strong signal to American families that their government recognizes and applauds maternal child-rearing.

Second, states should revive the old concept of alimony in divorce law for the benefit of at-home mothers. When a 25-year-old woman leaves the workforce for eight years to rear her children, she loses more than eight years' income: She virtually guarantees that her income at age 40 will drop below what it would have been had she remained at work. If she makes that sacrifice, she is relying on her husband's fidelity. And that reliance should be protected, just as it would be in any other contract. If her husband divorces her at 40, he should owe her more than just child support till the kids reach 18: He should owe her a continuing claim upon his future income, in recognition of the benefit he derived from her work raising the children. (There's actually evidence that the husbands of at-home women earn higher incomes than the husbands of working women: the Jenkins-can-you-get-on-the-next-plane-to- Jakarta effect. If so, that strengthens even further the at-home wife's claim on her husband's future income.)

In the 1970s, when states amended their divorce laws to eliminate alimony, feminists justified the change on the explicit grounds that it would flush women out of the home and into the workforce where they belonged. The revocation of the old promise that marriage meant "assured support as long as they live," wrote the feminist sociologist Jessie Bernard in her influential 1972 textbook, The Future of Marriage, "may be one of the best things that could happen to women. It would demand that even in their early years they think in terms of lifelong work histories; it would demand the achievement of autonomy. They would have to learn that marriage was not the be-all and end-all of their existence." But when women are forced to think in terms of lifelong work histories, there is a cost to be paid, and it is all too often paid by their children.

It may seem breathtakingly radical to argue that the solution to the daycare problem involves imagining ways to help mothers of young children to stay home. But if it does, that only exposes how baldly the proponents of universal government daycare are lying when they dress up their demands as " child advocacy." They are championing a utopian vision of women's liberation. They are zealously pursuing the ambition of the public-sector unions to recruit thousands of federally funded daycare workers. They are even paying attention to the electoral need of the Democratic party for a respectable- sounding excuse for higher taxes and more federal spending. But the interests of children rank among the least of their concerns.

What infant children need is their mother: their own mother, even if she's not the greatest mother in the world, even if she lacks a graduate degree. The difficulty that America's children have in getting her attention, the economic risks that America's mothers run if they give their children those few short years of care in infancy, the care they yearn to give -- that is America's true child-care crisis. And the solution lies not in subsidizing daycare to free Mom to go to work to pay the taxes to fund daycare; the solution lies in identifying ways to aid and protect mothers who want to do society's most important job themselves.

Danielle Crittenden, editor of the Women's Quarterly, is author of the forthcoming What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us (Simon & Schuster). David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. They are married and have two children.