A primary narrative in family policy in the United States is that parents should have choices. The idea of choice fits neatly within the values central to the founding of the United States—freedom, independence, and individualism. These values assume that people should be responsible for themselves and should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” In this country we talk about family choice, healthcare choice, and school choice as code words for limited government involvement or small government conservatism, as solidified by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s regarding children. But, as Claire Cain Miller explains in the New York Times, mothers often feel they have no choice at all.
Women are still the primary childcare providers in heterosexual marriages. Three-quarters of mothers are employed, yet the structural problems mothers face are rarely discussed. Instead we talk about work-life balance, but this is not the right conversation. Without attention to the structural issues that mothers face, the choices are difficult ones. For example
- Very few companies offer paid family leave to all employees
- Childcare is often unaffordable or difficult to find
- Mothers are often expected to work long hours
- Work schedules are often irregular and unpredictable
- The rising costs of healthcare and housing also limit women’s options
The language of “choice” is misleading because it hides inequalities based on gender, race, and wealth. Miller explains that the concept dates back to the 1980s when women started entering the workforce in large numbers, which implied that women had the choice about whether to stay at home to raise families or to work. While white, married, middle-class women may have had some degree of choice, many women did not and had to work to support their families.
Miller notes that while more women than ever are in the workforce today, they still “feel forced to make painful decisions, like leaving their child in inadequate care, or working in scaled-back jobs they say they wouldn’t have chosen under different circumstances.” The language of individual choice still frames the public policy debate as women are told to “lean in or lean out.”
We need structural solutions. Democratic candidates propose structural solutions such as new federal programs, financed by taxpayers, that would provide paid family leave, subsidized daycare, and free public preschool. Republican proposals offer individual solutions such as letting new parents draw down their social security earnings to help pay for childcare or get tax credits. At this time, the choices women (and men) have for caring for families while working to support those families are very limited. You could say they don’t have choice at all.
Something needs to change.
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash