Monday, August 6, 2007

Sharing the burdens

Child Care Tax Credit programs like the one being expanded by Bloomberg and Spitzer in New York City are just one of many examples of how entrenched the mentality of non-cooperation is in our country's political climate. I would absolutely rather have these programs than not have any public support available for Child Care. But like so much of our social service system, they recognize the need for assistance in fulfilling social roles as a deviation from the 'norm' of functional citizenship. This statement typifies the mentality:

"Access to quality childcare in New York City has become cost prohibitive for
far too many families," said Governor Spitzer. "The Child Care Tax Credit will
support struggling low-income families who are currently forced to trade off
child care costs against other important priorities such as the chance to work,
put food on the table and pay health care costs. At the same time, this law
addresses the needs of young children in these families by helping them gain
access to the quality care and early learning needed to succeed. "

What is objectionable in this is mainfestly not that it offers support to poor families. But I do find it troubling that the program only applies to poor families. Difficult decisions in balancing work and home lives affect all families. Certainly, their stakes are much higher for the poorest people in this country. But recognizing that raising the next generation is a crucially important endeavor to be taken up by asociety rather than by isolated units defined by their position in the housing market, we ought to be willing to extend the structures of social report to all caregivers. The status quo stigamtizes social assistance by associating it with a failure to meet responsibilites. That a caregiver has to turn to child care services is supposed to signify an inability to do the work that a responsible family unit could manage on its own. Programs like these show that we may be willing to forgive these breaches of social obligation when there is a good "excuse" - like poverty - but the general expectation is that most people can and should be doing this work on their own.

In Why Social Justice Matters Brian Barry extends a similar argument to disability payments. These allowances are made in recognition of the difficulties faced by people who must take on the challenges of social life despite mental or physical handicaps. That a person with an extraordinarily high income might still be better off in most ways than an "able" person of a lower class is immaterial. People should not be penalized for morally arbitrary qualities, society should support the offsetting of any hindrances to full participation. Any recognition of the relativele privileges of the upper-class disabled person would, in a just society, be recognized through her or his participation in a progressive tax regime, not by ommitting her or him from an important social service. I think the same should be true of child care credits. Having a child may not be morally arbitrary in the same way that being born with or later acquiring a disability is. But having children does hinder autonomy in career-paths, political participation and other time-intesive arenas of human life. And whether they are partnered or not, women invariably end up doing most of the work of childcare. A great and overlooked source of de facto sex discrimination is the expectation that when a family must make sacrifices in personal freedom and lifestyle to do the work of child raising, those sacrifices tend to be asked of women, who have been socialized to accept those burdens. The more socialized child care becomes, the more it would be possible - whether by taxation or other means - to demand that men carry a proportionate amount of child care's burden.

In any event, the credit should recognize the value and difficulty of the work being done not the relative capacity of the person to perform the task. This frame certainly takes amore cooperative tact to family life than most Americans are willing to recognize, and indeed to morality generally by moving towards a system in which the only obligations which we can confer upon others are those which we are willing toadopt mutually. The family has, in many respects, come to be portrayed as a self-sustaining social atom. There are so many romanticized depictions of families struggling through adversity that we tend to expect that a dedicated and loving family can do just that, regardless of the support structures in place. In the end its a fiction as deceptive and politically specious as the "by-the-bootstraps" blustering of social conservatives. Our policies should not be in the business of reinforcing fiction, rather they should be carefully designed to reflect the day to day struggles of people working hard across the country to provide care where it is needed.

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