All Families Are Equal But Some are More Equal than Others

Elleanor Chin FacebookTwitter

Looks like a headline for a Pride Month column? Nope, I'm dialing it back to topics that should be less current: who “deserves” to have children. Apparently we didn't get past it as a nation when the Supreme Court ruled against compulsory sterilization in 1942 (Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S 535). According to Elizabeth Hovde's column in the Oregonian yesterday, we shouldn't be providing paid maternity leave because the current proposal for funding it through a Social Security type mechanism would “fund maternity leave on the backs of other hardworking parents and people who planned when to have kids and afford them without government help.”

Apparently we should not join just about every other industrialized economy in providing paid time to recuperate from childbirth and care for infants because some people deserve to have kids and others do not. Those who do allegedly can afford to have them without government help because they engaged in prudent planning. Everyone else just has to figure it out. Is it alarmist to analogize this to eugenic sterilization? Perhaps, but since it is one of only two substantive arguments, spread across about 4 sentences in the 760 word article, I want to consider the implications of the policy position. The bulk of the article is devoted to generic snide comments about President Obama, who has not endorsed the specific funding proposal.

Hovde's second argument against paid maternity leave is it “might make useful family planning happen even less”. Hovde does not define “useful family planning”. Does she mean poor families would suddenly start having more kids because of the generosity of having some percentage of their low wage jobs paid out to one parent for twelve weeks? After which the parent would return to a job that may or may not offer sick days to care for the child for the rest of its dependent years, may or may not pay enough to cover daycare costs, and quite possibly does not pay enough to keep the family out of poverty. Clearly people are willing to raise children in all of the above circumstances, so a spike in the birthrate from a paid parental benefit is pretty unlikely.

Millions of American children have been born without a paid parental leave policy and will continue to be. The outcome of doing nothing, as Hovde would prefer, would be to continue leaving families economically vulnerable for procreating. Our status quo is: well educated, well compensated classes (a rapidly diminishing percentage of the U.S. population) have children, take a parental or sick leave with benefits (or use up the six, twelve or more weeks of income that they are presumed to have saved up). Others take 12 weeks if they qualify for FMLA, use paid sick leave if they have it (many people do not even have unpaid sick leave), use disability if they have it (many do not) and vacation (if they have it) and the rest of the time they are just on their own: no income comes in. Or you lose your job. A woman recuperating from a C-section (a surgery with potential for severe complications) or any other major birth complication simply loses wages (or that job) until she can go back to work. If the infant is born prematurely or with other challenges, anyone taking care of the infant simply loses wages.

This state of affairs affects those most vulnerable: low wage workers, temporary workers, single parents. However, Hovde says such folk don't deserve a benefit “funded on the backs” of those who “planned” their children and can do it without government help. Hovde may also be assuming everyone who has a child actually plans to do it exactly when they would find it most economically convenient (no surprise third babies because the birth control failed). She also suggests people with employer provided benefits (or the means to take time off work without severe adverse financial consequences) are raising children without governmental help. This discounts tax preferences for employee benefit plans, tax credits or anything else. (The annual tax benefit for having a child is small compared to the cost of raising one, but may be comparable to a one time per child salary replacement).

So this leaves the argument that some people - specifically poor people- just should not be having kids. If they do, as a society we should not be validating or subsidizing it. Hovde casts this as just one of those tough choices that responsible people have to make, but given the numerous things that we do choose to subsidize and endorse as a society, that argument is not persuasive.

Up until now, we have largely chosen to let poor children and their parents flounder, all talk of “pro-family” aside. Unless one is born into a family in which one parent makes enough for the other parent to stay home, we apparently don't care whether a woman has to choose between paying her rent and going back to work with a newborn. That is not identical to systematically eliminating the physical ability of poor women, women of color and other people deemed unworthy of reproducing to actually give birth, which we have a history of doing. But how much better is deliberate indifference to the welfare of children, newborn and ever after, whose births are deemed “less worthy”?

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