Averting Generational War
Two issues form the centerpiece of President Clinton's final term: Social
Security and child care. If this president is to make any claim to the progressive
mantle, he will need to craft approaches to these problems that are fair,
generous and equitably financed. And he must reject the siren songs of the
fiscal and social right, who repeatedly claim that government neither can
nor should do more to address these dilemmas.
As baby boomers age, more working Americans will struggle with the burdens
of a young family and aging parents. Conservatives maintain that government
can no longer afford generosity to both. They propose generational triage:
the needs of kids are not being met because older Americans are laughing
all the way to the bank with their exorbitant Social Security checks.
I draw different conclusions. Rates of poverty among older Americans are
less than for other segments of the population, but precisely because Social
Security has played a role in mitigating the worst inequalities and vicissitudes
of a market society. We should not resolve the very real problems of the
young by weakening a safety net that has served its purposes. A wealthy
society has the resources to meet the basic needs of its children and its
elderly. What is lacks is the political will to fund those needs through
Social Security is a model for the kind of support that should be provided
to our citizens in childhood as well as old age. By following that model
we can build the political will to sustain equitable taxation and adequate
funding for future child care initiatives. And when children's needs are
met, support for the elderly is more easily defended.
When Social Security was enacted in 1935, it included both pensions for
the elderly and support for mothers with dependent children. The former
program was far more universal in its application: it was not means tested
and did not require background checks. Pensions for elderly retirees have
become a fiscally large but very popular program. One reason for its popularity
is that in addition to providing reliable benefits it generated administrative
costs proportionately far lower than those for the private insurance industry.
Welfare, as it is called, consumes relatively few tax dollars but requires
a disproportionately large bureaucracy and is widely despised.
Welfare is the kind of big government our citizens, including many welfare
recipients, rightly despise. It is intrusive, it makes invidious and largely
arbitrary distinctions among citizens, and it is paternalism. The vast majority
of its recipients, conservatives to the contrary, are victims of economic
and cultural forces beyond their control. By any reasonable standard, they
merit assistance in some form. Nonetheless, most citizens and most recipients
would prefer alternatives that offer more independence. Employment training,
with adequate job opportunities guaranteed by government or the private
sector upon completion, would serve this purpose.
Now, in one of the great paradoxes of political life, a president who opposed
welfare as we know it is proposing child care legislation that fits the
welfare model. Businesses are to receive subsidies for establishing day
care programs and facilities. Working parents who send their children to
day care will receive a tax credit.
Many liberals and labor groups have commended Clinton's proposal, but I
believe it will foster unnecessary divisions among working class citizens
and blunt support for any child care initiatives. Worse still, it ties child
care for some to their place of employment, a model that has been disastrous
in health care. The quality of child care, like the quality of health care,
should not depend on where one works.
Rep. Marge Roukema, a moderate Republican from New Jersey, zeroes in on
another central failing of the Clinton initiative: "There has to be
an explicit credit for the stay-at-home moms. They cannot be penalized.
There should not be an unequal benefit for those who go to work."
Conservatives are wrong in thinking that the private market will solve our
child care dilemmas. Markets don't automatically guarantee child care any
more than they assure adequate public education or preventive health care.
Nonetheless, moderate Republicans like Roukema and even some sensible social
conservatives are right in insisting that government not try to engineer
just how each parent meets child care needs. Forty percent of the mothers
of preschool children stay at home. Many have made considerable sacrifices
to rear their own children, a choice that should be theirs. In a few instances,
some fathers have made analogous commitments.
A child care initiative responsive to the Social Security model would strive
for greater universality. It would be a child care credit-- or even flat
grant for those with incomes too low to pay taxes-- to parents of all preschool
age children. This child allowance should be at least several times the
current $500 tax credit. Such a grant would allow parents greater flexibility
in deciding just how to manage child care. A program of this sort would
cost more, but its universality would ease some of the tensions between
at home parents and those in the conventional labor market. With a reasonably
generous credit, parents would have more chance to choose among stay at
home care, small parent cooperatives with flexible, part time labor force
work, or day care in larger settings. The last can be established through
various nonprofit or profit corporations and could appropriately be licensed
at the state level.
Bringing the vast majority of our citizens into programs that, like Social
Security, increase security and freedom for those at vulnerable points in
their lives would restore the good name of government. It would also encourage
more sympathy for inequities in the tax code affecting dual income families.
These include the marriage penalty and the regressive Social Security taxation.
It might well be the case that addressing the marriage penalty for dual
income families and providing broader child care credits for at home parents
would leave the relative position of both groups largely unchanged when
measured over the course of a lifetime. Nonetheless, such reforms would
help insure that parents have more money when they need it most.
Ultimately, however, resolving the child care crisis also requires that
we redress one of its major causes, the number of hours most parents work.
U. S. workers now work about 160 hours a year more than they did a quarter
century ago and nearly three hundred hours a year more than in some Western
European nations. Even the best-run day care facilities aren't likely to
serve children as well without periodic parental involvement, and that requires
freeing up more time for parents.
Can we afford to spend more on children and work less at paid jobs? Some
of our working wages go to pay for child care. We are chasing our tails.
Overworked employees worried about care of dependents are also less than
fully productive. Just as basically, many of us would accept slower wage
growth as workplace productivity increases as long as our hour were gradually
reduced. Unfortunately, few of us have that choice, in part because traditional
liberals and labor groups are now so politically weak.
But healing divisions between parents who work full time and those who work
primarily at home will encourage collaboration for political battles to
limit the standard work week and inaugurate humane family leave policies.
Only then will children and the elderly be likely to receive all the care
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor and is the coauthor, with Tom DeLuca,
of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment
(Sage). He invites comments via e mail at: email@example.com.
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