Wanda Lavender lives in Milwaukee. She’s 39, with six children and one grandchild. She used to be a day care teacher and proud of the work. But after a decade, she was still making $9 an hour. She was a single mother by then, and the money wasn’t enough. So she began working at Popeyes, too. She did both jobs for a time, putting in more than 60 hours a week.
“It took a toll on my health,” she told me. “I have rheumatoid arthritis and sciatica. It degrades your body. It messes with your mental status. You never get to see your kids. You’re always working.”
Here’s the question: Were those years in which Lavender worked night and day barely seeing her children, feeling her body break under the labor, a success of American public policy or a failure?
There’s long been a strain of conservative thinking that sees Lavender’s long hours as a success. In 2005, President George W. Bush listened to a woman tell him that she worked three jobs. “Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he replied with a smile. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”
Bush’s comment was an extreme expression of a common — and bipartisan — sentiment: Work is good, more of it is better and policy should be a conveyor belt from the moral torpor of idleness to the dignity of wage labor. You could do that by making work pay more, as with the earned-income tax credit, which subsidizes earnings from low-wage jobs. But you could also do that by making the choice not to work, or to work less, more punishing — as with the 1996 welfare reforms, or the various proposals for Medicaid and SNAP work requirements, which would tie income, health insurance and even food to work status.
Now, with both President Biden and Senator Mitt Romney proposing ambitious plans for cash grants to parents, irrespective of the parent’s work status, some conservatives are warning that these plans would lead to sloth and single parenthood. It is here that you see how the veneration of work, at any and all costs, has come to dominate conservative policy thinking: Even higher rates of child poverty are a price worth paying for more working mothers. Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio quickly dismissed Romney’s plan as “welfare assistance,” warning that “an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work.”
One way of considering this argument is technocratic: Will a child allowance actually reduce the number of parents who work? Similar policies in other countries have shown small, mixed effects on parental labor. Some parents, particularly when they’re the second earner, leave the work force to parent full time. Others use the extra money to buy child care, or a used car, and work more. Canada, for instance, has a more generous child allowance than anything Romney or Biden have proposed, and a higher proportion of women in the work force. The effect of child allowances on whether parents work is small, but their effects on child poverty are large — estimates suggest the Romney proposal would cut child poverty by a third, and the Biden plan by half.
But I want to consider the deeper question here: Even if a child allowance would lead some parents to drop out of the formal work force, would that be a bad thing? Forcing parents into low-wage, often exploitative, jobs by threatening them and their children with poverty may be counted as a success by some policymakers, but it’s a sign of a society that doesn’t value the most essential forms of labor. The problem lurks in the very language we use. If I left my job as a New York Times columnist to care, full time, for my 2-year-old son, I’d be described as leaving the labor force. But as much as I adore my child, there is absolutely no doubt I’d be working harder. I’d have fewer days off, a more demanding boss and worse pay.
“One of the bigger symbolic purposes of the child allowance is to say the work a parent does is valid — it’s valid as work,” Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, said. “I do think it’s a market failure in capitalist economies that there isn’t a parenting wage.”
I spent some time on the phone this week with Scott Winship, resident scholar and director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, to try to understand the conservative objections more fully. First, Winship said, he just doesn’t believe it’s the government’s role to subsidize parenting. “A lot of people think it’s just become too expensive to raise kids and therefore we need to subsidize parenthood,” he told me. “I just disagree with that.”
Second, Winship’s policy views, like those of many other conservatives, were forged in the fires of welfare reform. “It’s just unambiguously the case that welfare reform led to an increase in work and a decline in poverty,” he said. That’s actually not unambiguous — there’s a strong argument that welfare reform led to more poverty during the Great Recession and particularly to more deep poverty — but let’s grant the argument for a moment.
Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Princeton who has studied welfare reform extensively, told me that most of the single mothers who went to work after reform had children under age three. “We don’t know that that’s good,” she said.
Even if you applaud that result, most experts I spoke to, including Edin, thought the pre-1996 welfare programs were a poor comparison for a child allowance. They were often structured in ways that directly discouraged work: A dollar in earnings would mean a dollar less in benefits. “I interviewed nearly 400 people, multiple times, across the country, for six years about their budgets,” Edin told me. “The reason people stayed on welfare is they couldn’t afford to go to work.” The various child allowance plans are designed to be work-neutral — a dollar in earnings doesn’t degrade benefits until families begin making hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you work more hours, you simply make more money.
When I brought this up, Winship dismissed it. The problem with welfare, he said, was that the existence of the cash payments meant single mothers “could afford not to work,” and the child allowance proposals would offer them the same option. I worry about the pain and the awful choices hiding inside the words “could afford.” Poor parents cannot afford to leave paid work and live lives that anyone in the Washington policy debate — left, right or center — would consider comfortable.
And yet, the supposed comforts of social insurance are a recurrent conservative trope. “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives,” Paul Ryan said in 2012. I have napped in hammocks, and I have spoken to people trying to survive on food stamps. The experiences did not seem similar.
The arid language of economics can, in cases like these, obscure what’s actually being said. Romney’s proposal would mean $1,050 a month for a single mother with three children under six. That’s $12,600 a year. It’s a help, but at less than half of the poverty line, it’s far from enough. What would lead a parent to leave his or her job for so paltry a check? It is often a disabled or troubled child, a sick family member, mental or physical health issues, a tyrannical boss, a hellish commute. You need a damn good reason to leave paid labor if the thin system of social insurance in the United States is all that’s waiting on the other side. What makes policymakers in Washington so sure they are right that these parents would be better off staying in their job, and leaving the crises at home to fester?
When I talked to Jamila Michener, co-director of Cornell’s Center for Health Equity, about this, she argued that we do trust parents to make those decisions. We just don’t trust poor parents to make them. She told me the story of coming to Cornell with a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old, and finding out that her mother had stage 3 pancreatic cancer. Michener was vying for tenure at that point, so her husband took five years off to care for their children and her mother.
“Whenever I tell people about that, they say, ‘He’s amazing! What a great partner,’” Michener said. “In the context of a family not living in poverty, to make the decision to stay home for a bit to care for an ill family member is considered virtuous. But for a woman living in poverty to take some time off to care for a family member is vice.” That experience has become a touchstone for Michener in the classroom. She always asks her students why they praise her husband for staying home, but whenever the syllabus turns to welfare or food stamps, they worry social insurance will lead poor mothers to stop working.
Race thrums through this conversation. Whose work ethic is trusted, and whose is not, has always been racialized in this country. “We venerate work for the marginalized — we require it, demand it, for those on the economic margins and for people of color,” Michener told me. “For most of American history, white women weren’t expected to work, they were discouraged from working. It just shows you the flexibility of our assumptions about work as a necessary part of social and political life.”
My own view is that work should be available, accessible and well-paid. It should be available, in the sense that there should be jobs to be had — that can be encouraged through monetary policy and even direct jobs programs. It should be accessible, meaning that parents have access to affordable child care, transportation and housing options so that they can work, if they want to. And it should pay decently, through a mix of minimum wage laws, strengthened unions and stronger wage subsidies.
If you are truly worried about labor force participation, there’s a vast menu of generous policies that could directly lift it, and we should use them. In Washington, D.C., universal pre-K increased the labor force participation of mothers by about 10 percentage points, a truly huge effect. But if we were a society in which all those polices had been passed, and parents decided it’s best to spend their working hours doing the difficult and important job of caring for three young children and an ailing elder, that choice is worth honoring.
There is no evidence that spending long hours as a day care worker for someone else’s child or a health aide for someone else’s parent is somehow a better choice than caring for your own family. It can look that way in the statistics, if we consign poor families to poverty when a parent feels she needs to stay home. But that is society simply measuring the outcome of its own cruelty and calling the result economics.
“People on the right always say, what about the dignity of work?” Michener told me, “and my answer is: What about the dignity of dignity? The ability to be of sound body and mind and do the things most human beings want to do: spend time with your family. Have some time for leisure. Of course there can be dignity in work, and we should create the circumstances to make that possible, but there’s no natural dignity in work. We’ve needed labor movements because work can be harmful and oppressive unless we organize to make sure it has dignity. There are a lot of other factors and ways we need to intervene if we want work and dignity to be words we can use in the same sentence. And the way we do our social policy in this country, we have no right to use those words in the same sentence.”
These days, Lavender told me, she works full time at Popeyes. They promised her a promotion if she left her day care job, so now she makes $12 an hour, working 40 to 60 hours a week. I asked her how something like the Romney plan might change her life. “That means the opportunity to return to school, to open my own business. It could mean buying a house so I don’t need to catch the bus to work.”
I’d met Lavender because she’s organizing for a $15 minimum wage, and she said the experience had been transformative. She was considering running for alderwoman in Milwaukee so she could keep fighting for workers like herself. I wondered, as she said that, where she’d find the time. But that, too, is the kind of choice a child allowance could enable — it would give her breathing room to run for office so that in the future policy would be made by people like her, who trusted people like her.
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