Tuesday, August 31, 2004
We hear a lot in the media about the legal viability of certain family structures, but significantly less about the practical viability of family structures, traditional or otherwise. Yale law prof Anne Alstott has made available sample chapters of her book, No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents. It certainly should be of interest to those concerned with facilitating a concept of parenting based on single-minded devotion and care. Here's the abstract (link courtesy of Larry Solum's Legal Theory blog):
America's public policies have not kept pace with our rising standards for child-rearing. Child-rearing was once an economic bargain for parents who received a little worker and a retirement policy with each child. But thanks to technological and social change, parenthood has become a uniquely costly pursuit: we expect parents to protect their children's developmental chances, even at the expense of their own opportunities. Today, parenthood requires a decades-long restructuring of one's economic and personal life. Society expects parents to provide the continuity of care that is critical for children's development. Put succinctly, we tell parents Do Not Exit, and the great majority of parents - especially mothers - comply.
But the economic costs of this No Exit obligation are enormous, and borne primarily by mothers. In every income class, mothers work less, earn less, and achieve less (in economic terms) than childless women and than men. Mothers interrupt their working lives at high rates, and as a consequence, they enter middle- and old-age with less financial independence.
The libertarian reply is, essentially, So what? Mothers know - or ought to know - what they are getting into, and they should plan for the economic burdens of parenthood by saving, marrying, or remaining childless if need be. On this view, it is unfair to ask the childless to subsidize their peers who choose parenthood.
This book aims to demonstrate that the libertarian assertion of equality between parents and nonparents is superficial, because it overlooks the child in the picture. Once we recognize the social importance of parents' No Exit duty, we can begin to understand society's special obligation to parents.
The book also proposes a set of public policies that would offer practical assistance to modern families. Caretaker resource accounts would provide parents with $5,000 per year, to be used for child care, parents' own education, or retirement savings. For the average family, this program would mark a major new commitment of resources that could improve parents' own economic fortunes. At the same time, the program would permit parental choice, leaving it up to individuals to decide whether to stay in the workforce or take time out or in part-time work. Moreover, the initiative would direct resources to individuals, avoiding the partiality and potential side-effects of some family-friendly workplace initiatives.
Another set of policies, termed life-planning insurance, would enrich the resources offered to parents of special needs children - a group for whom the No Exit obligation is especially costly. Today, public policy underwrites special education and health care for children with disabilities - but largely ignores the economic plight of their parents, who often find their own working lives permanently disrupted.