The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We say we love kids and families. Our policies prove the opposite.

A set of 6-year-old twin brothers color pictures at their Minneapolis home on March 8, the first day of a teachers' strike in Minneapolis. (Megan Spurlin/AP)
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Our society claims to love children, admire parents and revere the family. But our public policies send the opposite message.

A June 2021 UNICEF report on where rich countries stand on child care found that the United States ranked 40th.

Yes, you read that right.

Unlike every other well-off democracy, the United States has “never adapted to the needs of families in today’s labor market and economy,” said Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy. “We’ve never responded to so many women with young children being in the workforce.”

It’s hard to think of work more important to a society’s long-term well-being and prosperity than raising children. Yet the market economy values work outside the home that produces goods, services and profits far more than the work of parenting. While parenting’s value is, well, infinite, it goes largely unmeasured in our gross domestic product.

This is why a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on child care and preschool deserves more attention than it will probably get.

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Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the committee, is a leading congressional champion of child care because of what she hears from her constituents and from her own experience.

“When I got to the U.S. Senate,” she told me in an email exchange, “I was the only mom with young kids at home. So I know what a source of stress it is to need to go to work and feel your children are taken care of — and I also know this is a problem for parents everywhere.”

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It’s a particular problem for families with modest incomes. “Parents are paying as much as a mortgage or car payments — or college tuition — each month for child care,” Murray said, “while child-care workers are making less than they could earn at Target.” The UNICEF study found the United States near the top among nations in child-care costs relative to the average wage.

Child care is often cast as a “women’s issue,” which it is, since our society continues to place the largest parenting responsibilities on women. But it should also be seen as a family issue and an economic issue.

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No one can claim to be “pro-family” without being willing to deal with the stresses the modern economy places on family life. In Europe, effective child-care policies have been championed not only by Social Democrats, in keeping with their long history of egalitarianism, but also by Christian Democrats and other moderately conservative parties concerned with strengthening the family.

Adjusting the work-family balance is also good politics, as research by Kimberly J. Morgan, a political scientist at George Washington University, has shown.

It was a coalition of the social democratic Labor Party and the Christian Democrats, Morgan writes, that instituted “the first major shift in Dutch work-family policy” in 1989, while in Germany, former chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats “grabbed the limelight in tackling the country’s inadequate work-family policy regime,” on her own and during her party’s recent coalitions with Social Democrats.

Republicans who talk a lot about the family — and would like Americans to see their party once again as operating on the responsible center-right — might consider learning from their European counterparts.

Economic interest is at stake as well, since future prosperity depends on a growing labor force. “Businesses need workers,” Murray told me, “but we’re seeing parents opt to stay home, moms especially often, because they can’t find or afford quality child care.” Despite recent job gains, women are still down a net 1.4 million jobs since February 2020, the National Women’s Law Center reported this month.

Our country needs a sensible family policy. That’s why child care, universal pre-K, family leave and an expanded child tax credit were central components of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. But our debate last year about his proposal rarely got to the merits. It focused instead on the overall size of the plan, what package might get 60 votes in the Senate, and how the resulting legislative train wreck would affect Biden’s poll ratings and the November elections.

This week’s Senate hearing should be part of a larger effort to pull us out of the mire of abstractions and political punditry. There is still time before this Congress closes its books to do something significant for parents and kids, even if it’s not all that Biden wanted. Is it too much to ask politicians of various ideological orientations to align their glowing tributes to family life with the world in which families actually live — and struggle?

And have we entirely forgotten the gratitude we expressed during the pandemic’s worst moments for “essential workers”? They’re the people in our labor force who face some of the toughest work-family challenges.

Repeat it a few times: “We’re Number 40!”