Guest Post: Equality and Justice for All Families

Blog Post
July 12, 2013

Editor's note: This guest post was authored by Catherine Myers, the volunteer executive director of the national grassroots nonprofit Family and Home Network, founded in 1984.

Americans are passionate about equality and justice, and we should apply those principles to family policy discussions. We need to transform the prevailing frame—the focus on “working families”—to one that embraces all families with inclusive family policies.

The lens of equality and justice would illuminate the disparity between the value of parents’ roles in raising healthy children and the level of economic support provided to parents. Inclusive family policies would support parents equally regardless of how they choose to meet their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities. Policymakers striving for equality and justice would rely on robust research that shows how to improve the well-being of parents and their children by lifting families out of poverty and by implementing best practices in maternity care as well as in child and parent development.

Many current family policies violate principles of equality and justice—for example, child care policies discriminate by giving economic support to caregiving when it is done by a paid provider but not when it is done by a parent. The one-size-fits-all “solution” of child care services fails to support the great variation in families’ situations and preferences. A few examples: 

  • Baby ‘A’ is cared for by his mother while his father works a day shift; in the evening, father cares for him while mother works—the parents prefer to care for their child themselves. 
  • Baby ‘B’ is in child care even though her parents would prefer to have her mother care for her; this lower-income family receives a child care subsidy but would receive no financial help if a parent provided care.
  • Before Baby ‘C’ was born his parents reserved a spot for him in an excellent child care center; after his birth his mother felt a strong desire to care for him herself most of the time and her husband agreed with this change of plans—she is an at-home mother.
  • Baby ‘D’ is cared for by her grandmother, who also cares for several other grandchildren; in exchange the parents of the children help the grandmother with home maintenance and there is an expectation that if needed, the grandmother will receive assistance from family members as she ages.
  • Baby ‘E’ is cared for by a child care provider in center-based care; his parents prefer to stay in the full-time workforce; the federal Child Care Tax Credit covers a portion of the cost of their child care.

In the examples above, some of the adults caring for babies are paid; others are not. Government policies offer child care subsidies to some families and tax credits to other families. Parents who do not pay for child care but incur the cost of lost income due to time spent caregiving are ineligible for subsidies or tax credits. Principles of equal pay for equal work are ignored when it comes to paid and unpaid caregiving.

Questions about how we raise children in the U.S. are significant and complicated. A simple description of caregiving activities does not reveal the most important factor in promoting healthy development—the quality of the relationship between adult and child. Is there warm, engaging two-way communication through eye contact, body language, and sounds? Do the adult and baby have enough time together to build and maintain an ongoing, close relationship? Emotional development is the foundation for learning. A child’s intellect, health and character are built in ordinary moments, day by day.

Most parents act intuitively to nurture their children. And they know that relationships and time together are critically important, not only for infants and young children but for older children and adolescents too. Listen to what parents are saying: among mothers who are currently working, 52% would prefer to be home with their children; among fathers, almost half would prefer to be home with their children (according to The Pew Research Center, reporting on current attitudes of parents with children younger than 18). Pew also found that among all mothers, only 32% would prefer to work full-time; 47% prefer part-time work and 20% prefer not to be employed. Yet 51% work full-time, only 19% of mothers are working part-time, and 29% do not work at all.

While many of America’s parents want to spend more time with their children, they know that spending less time in the paid workforce has financial consequences. Parents weigh the value of financial assets against other things they value—these might be called well-being assets, and most can be achieved only by the expenditure of time. As philosopher Jean Kazez writes, the parent grows with the child and parenting changes as the child changes; each parent faces the challenge of wrestling with his/her unique puzzle over work-family conflict and the meaning of a “good life” (and repeating the task periodically). Research data shows that many families periodically reconsider and adjust their income-earning and caregiving practices, and that many low-income families have one parent at home. 

The fact that most parents prefer part-time employment and some prefer to be at home full time is rarely acknowledged in family policy discussions. Inclusive policy options respect parents’ choices. Greg J. Duncan and Katherine Magnuson describe some such policies in One Percent for the Kids: New Policies, Brighter Futures for America’s Children. These policies (generally called child benefit, child allowance or early childhood benefit) trust parents to decide how to allocate their time and money; they promote flexibility and accommodate change as families’ needs shift over time. Policies like these are used by other nations, including France and Finland

Michael Lind summed up years of work by NAF scholars in the recently-published paper “The Next Social Contract.” He writes: “the most solvent, efficient, and equitable social contract is one based on a few simple, universal programs of social insurance.” Pointing to core American values, Lind calls for policies that confer “equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

In recent decades, most family policy discussions have focused on support for parents in the paid workforce and children in child care. Families with an at-home parent are ignored, as are employed parents who want to spend more time with their children. Advocacy for working families is closely associated with advocacy for women in the paid workforce and it has substantial support from academia, foundations and corporations. Advocates representing “other” families have little financial or institutional support. Family policy discussions must be transformed to include the voices of all families.

Adopting an inclusive approach to craft family policies aligns with the recommendations of NAF scholars. Individuals, families, communities and our nation have an essential interest in healthy human development. Inclusive family policies will increase the well-being of America’s parents and children—with greater equality and justice.