Michael Lind is a smart person who writes interesting, considered articles that are often published, as this one was, by Salon.com (Salon.com, 1/16/13). It’s good to publish the work of an adult sometimes; Salon.com should do it more often. The linked-to piece offers nothing surprising or new, but it’s worth a read mostly because of its long perspective. It’s about the uneasy relationship between industrial capitalism and the family, a topic that is now and will be of considerable importance, even if it’s not much discussed.
Because he’s dealing with long stretches of time and large macro-economic concepts, Lind necessarily paints with a broad brush – too broad in some cases. So, for example, he accurately points out that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, children were taken care of at home by both parents. Under Feudalism, a family typically had a small plot of land it could work and a few animals to provide milk and eggs. Dad did most of the heavy work of tilling the soil and likely kept the farm implements in repair. Mom did most of the childcare and cooking, as well as spinning, weaving and sewing. Either or both may have done some artisanry for sale in the market to earn spendable currency. But however individual families arranged their duties, both parents were home and children were cared for by both. Shared parenting was the unquestioned rule.
Along came industrialization that required the concentration of labor in a single place, i.e. where the machinery of production was, so either Mom or Dad had to leave the home and provide that wage labor. Overwhelmingly Dad was that person, and so, about 500 years ago, for the first time in human history, fathers were separated from their children most of the time. Of course conditions in the mines and factories of early industrial capitalism were brutal and the hours long, so fathers’ relationships with their children were reduced to almost nothing.
And it’s here that Lind’s broad brush obscures some important things. Basically, he skips about 500 years (let’s call it 1500 – 2000) during which much of our concept of fathers and fatherhood has been established and ingrained. Put simply, families were faced with an enormous threat to their well-being (how could a single family’s agriculture or cottage-made wares compete with their capitalist counterparts?), so fathers sacrificed not only life and limb, but their connection to their children and wives, to go to work to support and preserve what was left of their families.
For hundreds of years, those sacrifices and the men who made them were respected by women and society generally. But fifty years or so ago, feminism decided that men were bums and their great sacrifices constituted the oppression of women. Just in time for laws and regulations making the workplace a reasonably safe place, feminists demanded equal access to it. And, justifiably, they got it. What’s not justifiable however is that they’ve also managed to turn men’s sacrifices for their families against them. Now, according to the accepted wisdom of the press and family judges everywhere, the fact that a man goes off to work every day to support his wife and child becomes One! Two! Three strikes you’re out! at the old ballgame played in custody court. For reasons I can only guess at, putting a diaper on a baby is considered beneficial to the child, but earning the money to buy the diaper is not. Neither, apparently is putting a roof over the child’s head, food on the table, sending the child to school, paying its doctor bills, etc.
Lind skips all that. So when he gets to his real topic – how a capitalist economy meets its need for childcare – he forgets who’s been doing what and why all these centuries. That turns out to be telling.
Lind’s main point is a valid one.
Ever since a majority of Americans and others in developed nations became dependent on wages for household income, there have been only two options: a breadwinner wage or the socialization of caregiving.That is, families either earn enough so that one of them can stay home and care for the children (or pay someone else to) or they don’t. If they don’t, childcare becomes socialized, i.e. the public pays for it. Either way has economic consequences. If employers must pay a wage that’s sufficient to support a child and an adult care giver, consumers end up footing the bill for that higher wage. If the parent isn’t employed or isn’t a fit parent, government pitches in and taxpayers pick up the tab.
All that is fair enough. And Lind is also correct to say that, as long as we’re dependent on wages paid by an employer, we’ll always be stuck with higher consumer costs or higher taxes or both.
But Lind’s broad brush paints over some important details.
The breadwinner wage system, never universal in the U.S., collapsed in the late 20th century, as a result of multiple forces: the triumph of “unisex feminism” over “maternalist feminism”; the declining bargaining power of unions; the entry of wives into the workforce in return for stagnant or declining male working-class wages; and, not least, class- and race-based resentment against policies that allegedly pay the poor to breed instead of work (the widely popular but unacknowledged motivation behind the abolition of welfare as a federal entitlement under Clinton and the Republican Congress of the 1990s).Hmm. It’s a bit much to claim that “the breadwinner wage system… collapsed.” It didn’t. Sadly, Lind is one who seems to believe that the capitalism that thrived in the United States after World War II was in some way typical. It was anything but. The U.S. economy post WWII had no competitors worldwide; the industrial infrastructure of the world had been destroyed except for ours, which, given massive government spending during the war, had never been more up-to-date. And our workforce, trained by the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard during the war, had never been more hardworking and efficient. The GI Bill educated veterans, while U.S. foreign aid propped up foreign markets for U.S. goods. That lasted a little over a generation. By about 1973, Germany and Japan were well on the way to catching up with us. In short, the post-war U.S. economy was a one-time thing, a convergence of circumstances never seen before and never to be repeated.
That’s what “collapsed in the late 20th century.” But for the great majority of people, we still have “breadwinner wage system.” Yes, women are now many of the breadwinners and it generally takes two instead of one to support a family, but we do precious little when it comes to socializing childcare. Face it, Temporary Aid to Needy Families and the Women, Infants and Children programs offer some valuable assistance, but no one would want to try to live on them, much less raise a child. The median household income in this country is over $50,000 and that’s down about $4,000 from its pre-recession highs. That’s not a lot, but you can raise two or three children (i.e. the average per family) on it without socializing their care.
That of course brings me to the most important thing Lind left out. The need for socialized childcare comes from essentially one source – mothers’ behaviors. One of those behaviors is the decision to bear children without a husband or partner who’ll shoulder half the load of support and childcare. As we know, some 42% of children in the U.S. are born to unmarried women and, of those who are married, almost half will divorce. Thirty-five percent of children have essentially no contact with their father.
The second of those behaviors is the decision to not earn much money. It’s not that their single-mother status prevents them from earning. We know that because single fathers in this country out-earn single mothers by over 50%. The median annual income for single mothers is a little over $23,000; for single fathers it’s over $35,000.
The same holds true for the rest of the population who’s neither a single mother nor single father. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that the median annual income for men working full-time is about $50,000 while that of women working full-time is an astonishing $17,000 lower – $33,000.
To his credit, Lind doesn’t do this overtly, but we often see the suggestion made that the government, already trillions of dollars in debt, should do more subsidizing of childcare. To the extent those arguments have any validity at all – and that’s not much – we should be clear about what that socialization of childcare actually would mean. It would mean a massive transfer of taxpayer dollars to women who don’t support – or support very poorly – the children they choose to have. We’d be far better served to teach women and girls the many values of involving fathers in the lives of their children and encouraging everyone not to produce children until they’re prepared to support them.