The “Crushing American Families Plan” (subtle!) “dictates government curriculum for babies,” warned the Republicans of the House Education and Labor Committee. Universal day care is a “class war” favoring elites, declared author and potential Republican Senate hopeful from Ohio J.D. Vance. “Lefty social engineering,” pronounced Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).
The GOP wants to frame the American Families Plan as a cultural attack: the socialist, child-warehousing elites vs. the traditionalist, child-snuggling working class. But if the Republican doomsayers focused on the actual issue behind their invective, they would find out that they have a real argument to make, one that Democrats would do well to take into account. Many parents actually would rather care for their own children than send them to day care. The problem is that most can’t afford it.
Vance cited a recent YouGov/American Compass poll as evidence that Biden’s plan for universal day care was meant to pit the work-obsessed wealthy against the home-loving working class. What the poll actually showed was that most families viewed having a full-time stay-at-home parent as the ideal arrangement for raising young children. It was the most popular option for the lower, working and middle classes, and slipped to second by a small margin among the upper class.
An article by the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan revealed the same preference gaining steam even among the white-collar working parents whom the GOP seeks to tar with its child-abandoner’s brush. After leaning out during the pandemic, they realized they wanted to stay there.
The American Families Plan shows a clear preference for helping parents (mothers especially) enter the workforce rather than stay at home with their families. But for most Americans, even in the professional class, work isn’t the greatest psychological joy in life but a tool to keep the lights on and food on the table.
Many mothers of all classes work instead of staying home because the two-income trap is real and their families could not survive on their spouse’s income, not because they’re aching to be a #GirlBoss. Or they’re working full-time and need to pay for child care because they’re one of the 24 percent of mothers heading a household on their own.
In their attempts to produce an alternative — any alternative — to Biden’s plan, the GOP has actually given the Democrats a chance to rethink the status quo, which is driven less by “workism,” as Vance claims, than wage slavery.
The GOP has spent years warning against the safety net as a cushy, dependence-inducing hammock and demanding work requirements to obtain benefits. Now some, at least, seem willing to give money directly to families to let them choose how to spend it. Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Mike Lee (Utah), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and even Hawley have pitched programs of generous cash benefits for families with children in which the usual maze of tax code and welfare strictures seem conspicuously absent.
Biden and fellow Democrats should take them up on it. The American Families Plan could simply give families money and let them to choose whether to pay for care or allow one or both parents to take time at home. And Democrats should push Republicans to walk their talk and support policies that would make it possible for a family to survive on a single worker’s income, reforms such as a higher minimum wage and a true medical safety net. (Will Republicans shock us all and rise to the occasion? I’m not holding my breath.)
Democrats have become keenly aware of the slippage in women’s workforce participation during the pandemic, and correcting it is one of the imperatives behind the child-care and pre-K provisions in the American Families Plan. But while the push to return to 2019 levels of workplace gender parity is positive in theory, what if our pre-pandemic workplace wasn’t the right ideal? Yes, all women who want to work ought to be able to find affordable and reliable child care that enables them to do so. But forcing the choice to go to work on them rather than letting them use a government subsidy to be able to stay home with their children really would be social engineering.
The White House may be worried about compounding gender inequalities by allowing more women to stay home with kids (and yes, the person who chooses to stay home is likely to be female). But this is where Democrats could really begin to think expansively and question some of their own assumptions. Could stay-at-home parents be offered special supports? Can systems be introduced to share the gendered load? Does gender equity necessitate a 50-50 split in all tasks?
Take the opportunity and run, President Biden, before Republicans realize what they’ve done.