What a quaint notion

Leslie Carlson

Swedish_kidsThere's a quote from the Norwegian Minister of Equality—a woman named Laila Davoy—in last Sunday’s Oregonian that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

The quote came at the tail end of an article in last Sunday’s paper, in a story about an Oregon non-profit that is teaching government officials from various countries about the best way to parent healthy kids (they are not teaching anyone in the United States—a sad fact for another post, perhaps).

Here’s what Davoy said:

If you want to have a society that is fair and just, you have to have a society that first has equality and fairness in the home. When men are engaged in domestic chores, and women are engaged fully in the workplace, things run smoothly. When no one feels overburdened, people are happy. It's common sense.

Reading that quote, I became immediately nostalgic for the 1990s. Remember the 90s—when politicians actually made policy to address “work/family conflicts?” When President Clinton signed into law the Family Medical Leave Act? When companies competed with each other to be the most “family-friendly” workplaces, building day care centers, instituting flex-time policies and sometimes, paid parental leave?

When people actually tried to balance families and work in a way that provided them time to be with and take care of their loved ones? What the hell happened?

Last week, Emanuel Hospital announced that they are closing their day care center, leaving dozens of Legacy employees in the lurch at a time when staff shortages in hospitals—especially among nurses—are at critical levels. The 2004 Presidential campaign included no discussion that I can recall of any issues relating to families, child care, or taking care of elderly parents. Even the discussions of health care were not about providing any kind of comprehensive system for the 45 million Americans who live without any health insurance.

I can’t imagine what people would say if an American government official dared try to talk about relieving the burdens of those who need support to care for someone in their family, be it a child, elderly parent or spouse. There would either be laughter at such a quaint concept (“How 1990s is that?”)—or worse, they’d be run out of town as some kind of socialist wanting big government to raise taxes.

But I couldn’t help noticing that at the World Economic Forum in Geneva last fall, four of the top five countries ranked as “most competitive” were in Scandinavia. And while the U.S. ranked second, it was bumped out of first place this year by none other than the business superpower that is Finland.

Funny, don’t these Nordic countries have high taxes? Universal health care? Paid parental leave? And yet it’s still a great place to do business?

Oh well, no time to think about it—gotta drop my 3-month old off at day care and rush right back to my $10 an hour job (no benefits of course).

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    I'm far from a traditionalist, but I think Davoy overgeneralizes. Different situations and relationships work for different people. Is it inconceivable to have a fair and just society with stay at home mothers, or stay at home fathers for that matter? I don't see why it should.

    This country certainly does undervalue childrearing, though. We also allow a disgusting degree of wealth polarization. Just exactly how is a single parent with a minimum wage job [if minimum wage survives], no health coverage, and no family support going to thrive? Winning the lottery might be the only way.

    But let's face it: as a society, America does not care. Just don't do your suffering in public, as it distracts folks from business and pleasure.

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    Tertiarily related, Wal-Mart is closing a store in Canada rather than allow it to unionize.

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    Is it inconceivable to have a fair and just society with stay at home mothers, or stay at home fathers for that matter?

    No, it's not inconceivable in my mind. For example, there are stay at home parents in Sweden, and they partake in the government policies that support families (one of which is a payment to families based on the number of kids in a family).

    However, the government also recognizes that in some families, both parents work, or go to school, or are out looking for work. And therefore, they provide policies like 18 months of paid parental leave (interestingly enough, 75 percent of all new fathers take a portion of this leave) and state supported child care which costs about 3 percent of an average family's income.

  • Rorovitz (unverified)


    Legacy Health Systems has the highest paid CEO of any hospital system in Oregon, and the most profitable hospital in the Portland Area, their building a new hospital in Vancouver and they close a daycare.

    How dare you compare them to Wal-Mart! Oh, wait, that's actually a pretty good comparison. If only they'd ship all the patients to China for surgery.

  • Kent (unverified)


    Don't underestimate the extent to which racism is responsible for the lack of a social welfare net and family-friendly policies such as subsidized daycare.

    Scandanavian societies are quite uniformly caucasian, and people in such societies recognize the poor and beneficiaries of such programs as "us" i.e. their friends and family. For that reason, such social welfare programs have a lot of political support.

    By contrast, here in the US there is a tendency within the upper middle class caucasian group that dominates politics to see the beneficiaries of such programs as "them" i.e. black, Hispanic, immigrant, etc. etc.

    I've read articles about this subject but I can't put my finger on them at the moment.

    I DEFINITELY see this phenomenon here in Central Texas where I currently live. My wife works at a public health clinic in central Waco and her patient population is predominently black and Hispanic. Middle-class whites here tend to see all such programs as primarily benefitting minorities. While they're willing to provide minimal levels of funding to keep these sorts of programs surviving on a thread as people aren't completely heartless, they aren't willing to really fund them at adequate levels.

    I expect the same thing holds true throughout the US.

  • Elliot (unverified)

    Just for the record, the United States, with all its inequality and alleged anti-government, anti-tax Neanderthalism, still ranks higher than Norway on the "most competitive" list.

    More interestingly, an economist with the World Economic Forum notes on the website that the Nordic countries that scored well in the survey - Finland at #1, Sweden #3, Norway at #4, etc. - all "have extremely low levels of corruption" and try to promote "a legal environment in which there is widespread respect for contracts and the rule of law." Of course, among the most fundamental pillars of respect for rule of law is respect for property rights, a concept at which most on the American Left (particular here in Oregon) scoff and attempt to undermine at every opportunity. That’s why Measure 37 was so necessary, and won so handily among working Oregonians (and was so opposed among Leisure Class Liberals).

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    Ah yes,

    Scandinavia......the bastion of libertarian idealism.

  • Anthony (unverified)

    Here's a really quaint notion: take responsibility for raising your own children.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Kent's comment on racism, I'm afraid, is accurate.

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    Scandanavian societies are quite uniformly caucasian, and people in such societies recognize the poor and beneficiaries of such programs as "us" i.e. their friends and family.

    Kent's also right that social programs that are universal (Social Security) are always much more supported those that are directed towards lower income citizens (Medicaid).

  • LynnS (unverified)

    Anthony, most folks are trying very hard to do just that--to be responsible. I'm lucky; I'm a work/stay-at-home mom in a stable marriage. We're living paycheck to paycheck but we're surviving. But when you're a single parent, you're expected to make your own way and you have no decent affordable child care, just what can you do? How much more responsible can you be? All of your choices are bad choices. And very few single parents are ignorant slutty girls knocking themselves up for the (fictional) welfare money; people find themselves single parents for many different reasons, not all of which are easily predictable.

    This is why the abortion rate has soared under Bush; young women finding themselves pregnant are telling researchers they don't have the resources to raise the child even though they might want to.

  • gus (unverified)

    Don't forget public K-12 as a universal entitlement that is well supported by its affluent codependents. The gap between lukewarm support for Head Start and enthusiastic support for public K-12 is more a matter of economic class than it is of race

  • Jud (unverified)

    Anthony, How do you propose a single mother take responsibility for raising her own children? For example, when a father leaves a mother with two children who can't be left alone at home, how does she take responsibility for raising them? I'd love to hear your non-quaint solution to this problem.

  • Anthony (unverified)


    If “most folks are trying very hard… to be responsible” why are there so many “single parents” (abandoned mothers might be a better phrase) in the first place? Really “trying,” is only a euphemism for “failing.”

    The problem is, as you say, that the women cannot respond to the needs of their children. How does this happen? In your narrative women are simply “finding themselves pregnant,” as if wind-borne spores caused their pregnancy.

    Let me be clear that I agree that it’s unreasonable to expect mothers to be able to support their children alone. I place at least as much blame on the fathers of the children, but I don’t see why we should blithely accept the reproductive irresponsibility of the mothers either. Given what our society is like today, it is harder to blame both irresponsible women and men – they’re not doing other than they’re encouraged in many ways to do. Obviously we can’t return to another time, even if that were desirable. But we ought to move in the direction of encouraging responsible behavior, especially when that behavior is so consequential.

    It’s all too predictable that any call to responsibility results in implied charges of heartlessness, couched in a twisted, sentimental moralizing. Thus it’s nasty old Bush’s fault that irresponsible women choose to kill their offspring in greater numbers! This is the morality of enablement. Taking this position one can enjoy the pleasure of striking a pose of tolerance and concern, but enabling irresponsibility is the cause of incalculable suffering on the part of the children of derelict parents.

    Why we are so willing to be lax about personal responsibility, even at such a cost? One factor is resolute denial about that cost.

  • Jesse (unverified)

    I agree we've lost sight of personal repsonsibility. But it's certainly not surprising. I think it's safe to argue that our society doesn't promote responsibility, but entitlement. You can point to the individual, you can also point to corporations. They are as litigious as the "self-serving" folks who sue them. They seek tax breaks and loopholes greater than the earned income credit could ever amount to.

    Responsbility, personal or social, requires more than a self-serving interest. Entitlement, personal or social, doesn't. Responsibility is what teaches us to save for the future--ours and our childrens. Responsibility is what teaches us to respect those around us as we do ourselves.

    I believe this lesson is lost to much of America. That poor people have been given the least instruction in such responsibility isn't surprising given the familial, educational and social situations that often surround them. But we decide that we need to berate mothers for getting knocked up and not having the sense not to do it in the first place. Forget your neighborhood surrounded by such cases, forget the lack of care you've been shown, forget that no one taught or showed you what responsibility is--you ought to know it.

    I think you can see this in our financial responsibility as well. The economy is driven by consumer spending (2/3 I think). So it's no surprise that I see little from any party encouraging America to stop buying so much (The average household owes $12K in credit card debt) and to focus on saving, waste reduction and, yes, efficiency.

    This consumer economy is in clear odds with ideals that "favor" the sort of personal responsibility that would curb spending and focus on saving and investment. The sort of responsibility that would lead to greater wealth growth and standard of living in the long run for many lower income folks. The sort of responsibility that depends on an idea of self-worth different than the self-entitlement our consumer spending economy drives.

    To paraphrase someone, capitalism doesn't seek to create more capitalists, only to create greater capital for the capitalists that already exist. This is easily accomplished with a consumer economy because consumption can be increased with credit/debt mechanisms, inflation and rising costs of living (rent, health, tuition, child care). There are more subtle ways like advertising, marketing and messaging that drive spending as well, teaching us that responsibility can be staved off by gratification.

    I think encouraging responsible behavior is a lofty goal that we should all hold ourselves and this nation to. To say a lack of responsible behavior is the cause of so many ills is short-sighted because it doesn't take into account all the forces engaged in making sure responsibility takes a back seat to entitlement.

  • Anthony (unverified)


    I think we agree, despite your saying, "To say a lack of responsible behavior is the cause off so many ills is short-sighted..."

    As I said, given the social environment we live in today, it's harder to blame people for irresponsibility of this sort. If you want to talk about other areas where irresponsibility wreaks havoc, power to you. But why throw up your hands in despair regarding a particular issue because you can't boil the ocean?

    At the same time, I welcome the expansion of the conversation. You make some great points and perhaps also suggest some ground where people on both left and right could make common cause.

    Consumer culture is great in as much as it caters to the needs and desires of the end-user. It is morally hazardous, however, because it encourages self-indulgence.

    We've talked here about "single parents," but your post reminds me of the case of a couple I know who recently became parents. Both work in a technical field, both have professional credentials. The husband insists that the wife continue working, resulting in their infant daughter having to go to day care.

    I can't imagine how such a decision could be taken except under duress, but I know that the husband insists that the wife work because he wants to continue living the kind of life he led before he became a father. This means taking multiple skiing and other sports-related trips with his buddies, just as he took in the past. He is motivated partly by the joy of sport and the cameraderie, and partly -- I'm confident -- by the objective of maintaining an appearance of having a certain economic status. Neither of these motivations are worth shipping his baby daughter off to be cared for by strangers.

    No doubt many people with lesser resources make decisions with similarly skewed priorities.

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    Anthony, I'd like to go back to your original point about people taking responsibility for raising their own children.

    Conservatives like to argue that the most sacred responsibility in life is raising your children. As you pointed out, without a parent at home, children are cared for by strangers - and who knows what can happen then.

    But then, in the very next breath, many conservatives want to eliminate (and have eliminated) the very programs that used to make it possible for mothers to stay home and care for their children.

    Once upon a time, we had a welfare program in this country called AFDC. Aid to Families with Dependent Children. It was designed to provide cash support to poor families so that moms could care for their children and not work.

    Then, in the mid-1990s, it became fashionable to insist that moms should instead work. They should, as they said then, transition from welfare to work. And the AFDC was redesigned, and renamed. Now, it's TANF: Temporary Aid for Needy Families.

    Now, it's government policy that the most sacred thing one can do is work. Not care for one's children.

    Meanwhile, conservatives everywhere complain about the breaking apart of society, that mothers aren't home with their kids, and are letting their kids be raised by strangers, etc. etc. etc.

    Now, Anthony, I know you don't speak for all conservatives (or perhaps, any of them) but since you raised the question, I'll ask you directly.

    What's more sacred? Raising kids or going to work? And if raising kids is more important, would you support going back to the old welfare system - which supported moms staying at home?

    Or is "staying at home with the kids" supposed to be good enough only for middle-class kids - and the poor people just gotta work?

    As George W. Bush said the other day to a woman working three jobs to make ends meet... "Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. "

    Yeah, like she wants to work three jobs.

  • Anthony (unverified)

    The short answer to your question is that people ought to be responsible for themselves and their children. I see nothing “sacred” about working or not working, but a responsible person considers his or her means before deciding when to have children and how many to have.

    I do think it’s good policy to provide people with temporary help, as when the breadwinner may become unemployed. I also think that policy ought to provide incentives for parents to care for their children in the best way possible. Thus I think tax credits for dependent children are a good idea. Perhaps further help might be made available under certain circumstances. As with the AFDC or TANF.

    In short, I think that policy should help families remain intact, while at the same time encouraging economic independence. The main difference in the legislation change you cite (the move to TANF) seems to be making help provided temporary. That doesn’t seem bad. If you think that statistics could be used to argue that it works against the principles I affirm. I’d be happy to hear more.

    Having made these remarks, let me say that your post seems to mix up intact families and single mothers. Perhaps you could clarify, if it seems worthwhile.

    My view is that while it is certainly more desirable for children to be raised by their mothers (if not their fathers too), I think it is bad policy to guarantee someone a living just for having a child. That no doubt seems harsh to many, but insisting on responsibility is better for children overall. Giving young women the incentive to have children out of wedlock results in more children living in poverty and other conditions which tend to have a baleful influence on the course of their lives.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Anthony's position is classic "strong father" outlook, while Kari's is "nurturing family" according to George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant". Lakoff suggests these frames are stronger than rational considerations, suggesting that conversation among those with different frames is meaningless and useless.

    Ever wonder why we seem to talk in circles on some issues?

  • Anthony (unverified)

    If my faith in Kari is justified, I don't think he'll see it quite the way you do, Tom.

    Whatever the value of Lakoff's concept of "frames," I hope what I advocate would appeal to either end of the continuum he postulates, and any shade in between. The divide here isn't between "strong father" and "nurturing family" styles, it's between responsible fathers and deadbeat scoundrels.

    What "nurturing family" person prefers high rates of poverty, violence, crime, underachievement, etc., etc.?

    You might as well argue that dour "strong father" types would force an emetic on a child who had swallowed poison but a "nurturing family" people would spare the child that unpleasantness.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Anyone with the nurturing family frame would recognize that US government programs have never gaurunteed someone a living just for having a child, but rather, guaranteed the child a living, preferably with her parent. That was, of course, before welfare "reform." Now, we just let the little rascals starve after a while.

    Now, the idea of offering support to a caregiver rearing her child is an intriguing one. It might fly in Sweden, eh? There are probably too many Black mothers in the US for it to work here, though.

  • (Show?)

    Anthony... You're doing an admirable job of walking that tightrope - being pro-mom-at-home while remaining pro-work-and-independence.

    Certainly, I agree: people should think of their means before having kids. Yes, yes. Of course, the real world is not often quite so tidy.

    People do lose jobs. Spouses do get divorced. People do become addicted to substances. All sort of bad things happen to all sorts of good people.

    The key concern is this: Shall we 'punish' the child for the sins of the parent? Or does the right-wing concern for life end in the delivery room?

    Again, my question: It's a not-exactly-rare situation - a single parent, no accumulated wealth, one or more kids, no external sources of non-work income. Which would you prefer? For that parent to work and leave the kids in the hands of strangers (or worse, home alone) ... OR, the parent is "paid" by the "government" to care for those kids and ensure their well-being.

    Talking about temporary and permanent benefits is irrelevant. After all, temporary aid just means that you prefer option #2 for a little while, but then prefer option #1.

    I'm just asking - what's preferable? It's a simple question, really, and one that conservatives always seem to have a hard time answering.

    State your preference, and I'll state mine.

  • Jesse (unverified)

    I think one must also ask whether the single parent is able to provide more for their child working after child-care expenses are factored out than if they were on TANF. (Some countries provide for this during the first months of child birth for all families, if I'm not mistaken.)

    And, then, is that parent given access to the resources to make them a better parent? Are their children given access to the resources to make them a better student?

    Basically, is the simple question really about punishing the kid, or providing the best environment possible (with limited resources) for their success?

  • Anthony (unverified)


    Perhaps the image of tightrope is not inapt, given that what I advocate is a kind of equilibrium that takes serious effort to sustain. It’s much easier not to try, and if nobody’s going to hold you to account, what the heck?

    That’s a major reason the world is much more “untidy” than it otherwise might be. People choose to sweep their front step (as Goethe put it) or not, and that makes a world of difference. That’s primarily what I’m trying to address, and it is something – if I may return the favor – that people on your side of the aisle have a very hard time coming to terms with.

    I think that ultimately you advance a false dichotomy, but to answer your question as best I can, I would prefer that a child be raised by its own mother, if the father is AWOL. Nevertheless, I fear a policy of the government supporting people in this way results in far more misery. If there were a way through government intervention that we could salvage the children in these situations and help prepare them to lead better lives, I’d be in favor it. I’m in favor of providing free prenatal care to those who can’t afford it because of the consequences of its omission.

    Now, you focus on the hard cases where you can best argue the absence of culpability. I’m interested in the mass of people who freely make bad decisions, the consequences of which are suffered by vast numbers of children, and by the rest of society as those children grow into badly socialized adults. The consequences of this are incalculable, not least for the momentum it gives to a vicious cycle of irresponsibility and neglect.

    This is a real problem and not some subjective interpretation by someone with a “strong father” psychology, or whatever dopey deconstructionist rationalization one might come up with. Whether I personally am a “strong father” or “nurturing type” (Tom Civiletti certainly doesn’t have any idea) I can see that the absence of an ethic of responsibility wreaks havoc on humanity and so I ask what we ought to do about it. You elect to take the hoary old cheap shot that “right-wing concern for life end[s] in the delivery room,” but the rhetoric you espouse fosters the problem.

    Thus this conversation is not an opportunity to examine a genuine problem in our society – a problem of enormous proportions – but rather to showcase the supposed heartlessness of the opposition view. How is this done? By ignoring the devastating pathology around us and cherry-picking the hard case: the otherwise decent and responsible person who has fallen on hard times.

    Your own example is a little fuzzy in this regard, but the exculpatory rhetoric is in full flower. Bad things happen to good people. “Hey, someone loses his or her job,” etc. But how you proceed shows the willful denial of the sentimentalist approach.

    Divorce doesn’t just happen: it is chosen. Substance abuse and addiction is not caught like the common cold. Pregnancy in the overwhelming number of cases is the result of the voluntary behavior of both parties to the fact.

    You characterize favoring temporary assistance as an occulted preference for permanent abandonment. But is it not reasonable to expect that many people will need help some of the time, but that otherwise they should take responsibility for themselves? Is permanent unemployment and dependence of the able-bodied a matter of indifference? Is self-respect just one of the possible choices on a menu?

    So I ask you, what do we say, what attitudes do we foster about people who look to their own immediate satisfactions at the expense of their children? What do we say about a society where sexual liberty trumps the care of the young?

    If people really care about the children, if they acknowledge the duties that come with liberties, they will take a cold, hard look at the consequences of elevating personal choice over personal responsibility in reproductive matters. Because people fail to take responsibility for their actions, children are raised without the proper care and guidance they need to grow into well-socialized, independent and productive members of society. Some proportion of children always suffered that fate, but a far greater proportion does now. The reason for the change is all about our attitudes concerning personal responsibility.

    Will you go on contorting yourself to excuse irresponsibility for fear of sounding like a spoilsport, a meanie or -- gasp! -- a Republican? Better to avoid that, whatever the cost, I guess. “Sorry, kids!”

  • Anthony (unverified)

    Tom plays the typical sentimentalist game and throws in the race card for good measure:

    "Now, the idea of offering support to a caregiver rearing her child is an intriguing one. It might fly in Sweden, eh? There are probably too many Black mothers in the US for it to work here, though."

    I can only speculate as to the appeal of wallowing in the feeling that those who disagree with you are not just heartless, but heartless racists. Sanctimonious pleasure upon pleasure.

    As it happens, my interest in this issue was piqued by following what was happening in my native country, where the racial dynamics are quite different. Consider the article linked below. . While I would expect this audience to disagree with parts of it -- and I would hope that some of that criticism would be illuminating -- I nevertheless think that the reality that it touches on is undeniable:



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