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Markets and the Strangulation of the American Family

November 24th, 2020 | 19 min read

By Gracy Olmstead

Maxine Eichner was a lawyer with a new baby girl. At work, she felt pressured to keep up with the long work hours of her peers, but in her heart, she longed to be home with her baby. One day, her every effort to get home in time for dinner was stymied. She sped home, hoping to at least see her daughter before bedtime—and was stopped by a police officer.

“When I got home, post-ticket, still sobbing, I lifted my then-sleeping child out of her crib and rocked her while she slept,” Eichner writes. “I made the decision to quit practicing law that night.”

Eichner’s fight to balance work commitments with caregiving needs is not unusual in America today. Indeed, as a lawyer (and now professor) near the top of the economic ladder, she admits that she has been far luckier than most Americans. But across all income levels and class backgrounds, U.S. families are struggling to balance the stresses and strains of work with the needs of their children.

This struggle is the focus of two recently published books: Alissa Quart’s Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, which came out in 2018, and Eichner’s The Free-Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream (and How It Can Be Restored), published in January of this year. Both books painstakingly document the plight of U.S. mothers and fathers from many economic backgrounds, career fields, and geographic regions. The picture they paint is bleak, and often maddening: as Eichner puts it, “A range of harsh market forces are undercutting American families today. … Markets, rather than supporting sound family lives, are strangling the life out of them.”

Fixing what’s broken, both authors argue, will require far more than a few tweaks to the tax code. It will demand a complete reevaluation of our economic system and governmental safety net. It will require us to consider who our economy is actually meant to serve—and whether conservatives, in particular, are willing to back their pro-life, pro-family rhetoric with actual economic policy. We have to start asking ourselves what we believe the telos, or “chief end,” of our economy is meant to be.

Both American parents and children have alarmingly high rates of depression and anxiety. Deaths of despair and the opioid crisis are both often tied to familial and economic instability. Two-earner parent households in the U.S. work longer hours than their peers in any other developed country, Eichner reports, with a total paid and unpaid workload of about 135 hours a week or more. Zero percent of mothers and just five percent of fathers say they have time to spare.

Yet despite all this work, a large share of American parents still struggle to put food on the table, to afford safe daycare for their young children, to pay their bills, and to stay on top of debt. They are, as Quart puts it, “running furiously and breathlessly just to find themselves staying in place.”

Why is this true of so many Americans? Both Quart and Eichner assemble a long list. Many U.S. jobs are less stable and permanent than in the past, with highly unpredictable work hours and stagnant wages. The job market itself is uncertain, and any semblance of work-life balance has become increasingly difficult. Yet “middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was twenty years ago,” Quart notes. The costs of education, health care, day care, housing have all “exploded” in recent decades, and Quart cites a Washington Post/Miller Center poll which found that 65 percent of all Americans worry about paying their bills.

Eichner quotes a professor who sums up the situation bluntly but perfectly: “‘It is families that have borne the brunt of these larger changes, and it is families that falter when, as is too often the case, the strain proves too much.’”

Eichner’s research suggests that economic insecurity and anxiety are tied to rising divorce rates amongst married couples. In one astonishing statistic she cites, America’s wedded couples are far less likely to stay together than Sweden’s cohabiting couples are. This instability foments the anxiety experienced by low-income parents, who often lack stable rhythms of life and constantly worry whether they’ll be able to provide for their children. Their children, meanwhile, are often forced to go without the parental nurturing that would help them flourish.

On top of all this, Quart and Eichner are both brutally honest about the unjust treatment parents—particularly parents who are people of color—often receive. Many men and women are penalized for asking for maternity or paternity leave, or for their attempts to set aside time to care for young children. Parents of color with the same work experience and credentials as white parents are less likely to get hired, and are often subject to lower wages. In a chapter titled “Inconceivable,” Quart painstakingly chronicles the harassment, hostility, and stress experienced by pregnant women in the workplace, many of whom try to hide their pregnancy for as long as possible for fear of being penalized.

Why is this? How is it that, in an incredibly wealthy country—one in which most Americans believe strongly that families matter, and ought to be protected and preserved—we seem to be selling families so short?

Quart and Eichner tackle this question in different yet complementary ways. For Quart, to understand the plight of the parental worker, one must take into account the brutal autonomy and ruthless logic of our economic system. We have centered the norms of the workforce around the assumption that most workers are untethered and autonomous—and employers and politicians often get irked and annoyed when they realize that most workers, in fact, are neither of these things. Dealing with parents-as-workers requires us to deal with embodied humans: humans who age, who have babies, who need a place to breast pump, or who require more than a week of unpaid maternity leave in order to heal from the strain of childbirth.

“As President Donald Trump once commented, pregnancy is ‘certainly an inconvenience for business,’” Quart writes. “However loathsome, he was articulating the cruel common sense of capitalism: why should employees take any kind of leave for any reason at all, least of all for reproduction? But by this logic, what about those of us who do reproduce?”

All of us humans, regardless of our relationships or parental status, are embodied and indebted. We have people we care for, physical needs that must be addressed. But single or parentless humans are far better able to hide or dismiss these needs, whereas parents (especially mothers of babies) cannot. Thus, in a society which desires to promote autonomous, career-centric individuals and ever-growing profit margins, parents are indeed inconvenient and unprofitable.

“If some of us are to survive as workers, we have to deny, on some level, the existence of our bodies—bodies that age and give birth,” Quart writes.

But the way we treat pregnant and nursing women, Quart argues, is also “a symptom of how little American businesses and legislators care about care.” Our society has fostered a “caregiver penalty” which harms and disadvantages those tasked with the hard, thankless, often unpaid work of caring for small (or elderly) humans. This stems in part, she suggests, from “an intolerance for human weakness, and thus for those who serve humanity.” But it’s also true that workers with caregiving responsibilities are often less efficient, less likely to work nonstop or at odd hours, and more likely to need health care benefits, paid time off, and a proper work-life balance.

Many American parents are thus forced to hand off or severely curb their care responsibilities in order to stay employed. In the battle between adequate economic provision and parental nurturing, most parents must sacrifice nurturing (though most say that this is their priority, and the thing they most wish they were doing). In The Free-Market Family, Eichner tells the story of a single mother forced to go back to work a mere week after giving birth, crying with longing for her baby as she seeks to make it through the day. Quart writes of parents who have to put their babies and toddlers in overnight daycares as they work crazy shifts that are often automatically assigned to them.

We often assume that American parents have a myriad of choices. This is the argument for free-market policy: that it should offer parents the choice, flexibility, and quality they would not receive through a state-run, tax-driven system.

But Eichner and Quart both argue that, due to the ruthless efficiency, severe inequality, and hyper competitiveness of our system, parents have less choice, little to no stability, and are most often forced to accept whatever options are cheapest. There’s little freedom reflected in the lives of the families Eichner interviews. Rather than being constrained or controlled by big government, their bosses (and the whims of the market) dictate and control their lives. Americans, given our history, are very good at pinpointing and fighting government tyranny—but we can perhaps be blind to the corporate tyranny many vulnerable workers experience.

This lack of choice in America is most damning and revealing when we look at our welfare state and its impact on the poor—especially single mothers. Most low-income American parents never get the choice to stay home with their children. Their bodily needs are not respected, and the needs of their children are pushed to the wayside time and time again. Conservatives, in particular, tend to see the poor as “lazy,” and tie all sorts of work requirements to welfare benefits and SNAP programs in our efforts to make sure that recipients are, in fact, “worthy” of our care.

Reading both these books, I saw time and time again the ways in which American policy punishes the most financially unstable mothers and their children, suggesting that the ability to nurture and raise a child should be available “for me, but not for thee.” This is a horrible degradation of human worth and dignity. Through our policies and cultural expectations, we purposefully separate the poorest mothers from their children, and often pressure them to put their children in high-risk environments. All out of our own utilitarian designation of human worth, tied to work productivity rather than the intrinsic dignity and the imago Dei inherent in every human life.

Yet “the proper goal of economic policy,” according to Eichner’s thinking, “should be enabling Americans to live good lives consistent with our values, not enabling free markets regardless of the consequences.” All too often, she writes, we “treat markets as if they are the economy. That’s because we wrongly view the ultimate goal of the economy as an ever-increasing GDP. As the economist Kate Raworth has observed, though, those who equate economic success with rising GDP don’t ask hard enough questions about the purposes the economy should serve.”

To Eichner, it’s obvious that families ought to be served by our economic and political systems. In a decidedly conservative tone, she notes that the family is the backbone of our society, and the institution which most often undergirds all other institutions. Nothing (in our American culture, at least) compares to the intact two-parent family in terms of providing a stable, healthy environment for children.

“Undermine families, and the rest of society topples down right along with them,” she writes. “Damage families, and you also undermine the American Dream as it was originally understood…”

The central thesis of Eichner’s book, then, is that free-market policy is the crux of American families’ problems, and must be replaced. She believes that pro-family government programs—such as mandatory paid parental leave, a basic child allowance, heavily subsidized daycare and prekindergarten, and a strong safety net—would help families flourish once more, and uses Finland’s pro-family policies as her primary positive example (although other countries are also referenced and considered throughout her book).

The painful catch-22 experienced by today’s parents—being forced to choose between putting food on the table, and caring for their children—stems from the fact that, at certain times of life, our care responsibilities or needs are disproportionately large, making it difficult to also meet financial needs at the same time. This is why, one might argue, we provide Social Security and Medicare to the elderly: they have disproportionately large care needs, coupled with a decreased ability to make financial contributions to society. Because we want to emphasize their dignity and worth, we use state funds to ease the tensions inherent in their condition.

But the same could be argued of children: as Matt Bruenig puts it in the introduction to his proposed Family Fun Pack program, “Like the elderly or the disabled, children… create enormous financial strain that only the welfare state or other non-market distributive mechanisms can offset.”

Parents of young children are expected to meet high caretaking and high income needs—but as Eichner points out, these responsibilities “work at cross purposes in most families with young kids…. To provide financial support for their families, [most parents] compromise on the caretaking their kids receive—returning to work earlier than they’d like, sacrificing high-quality daycare and prekindergarten, and being less attentive to their children when the family is at home because they’re so fried by their busy lives.”

Many American parents compromise on this catch-22 by having one parent stay at home full-time (this is what I do, in fact). But this is only possible in two-parent households, and it is only possible if that second parent is making enough to provide for the entire family—a situation that can, in and of itself, be stressful and straining. Finland’s pro-family policies, on the other hand, ease these burdens by allowing state subsidized health care and child care to step in and fill the gap.

Arguing for Scandinavian-style health care and child care policies is anathema to most conservatives. The point of our system, many would argue, is to keep the government out of the family, to empower individual choice via private consumption, to minimize taxation, and to motivate employers and workers to act virtuously on their own, without the government acting as “traffic cop,” as Eichner puts it.

And it is, indeed, important to note that both Eichner and Quart are at risk of emphasizing governmental action and changes in economic policy to the exclusion of many other important factors that could or should be considered. Both touch in their books on the role that conspicuous consumption and class comparison have had in straining Americans’ finances: we are not always or only victims of our economic circumstances. Expectations of what a solidly middle-class existence should look like have changed drastically over the last several decades, and Americans are spending more (and buying bigger homes) in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” Quart notes that at least a few of her success stories don’t just involve parents seeking out better, higher-paying jobs—they also involve parents moving to cheaper neighborhoods and cutting down on expenses. Comparison can have a deeply toxic impact on parents’ sense of wellbeing, even leading to severe health problems down the road. This is indeed a part of American culture which is toxic, dangerous, and tied as much to virtue and a retraining of the will as it is to systemic reform.

Beyond the perils of our consumer culture, there are evils in our corporate culture here which the government is not solely responsible for fighting (not because it cannot or should not, but because we as consumers could also be holding U.S. companies to account). Quart argues in her book for a universal child allowance, better-subsidized daycare, universal public pre-K, and even a universal basic income in order to better address familial instability and anxiety. But she also acknowledges that such massive changes could be hard to achieve. And so she argues that we ought to begin exerting moral pressure on companies as soon as possible, through—as one example—“ratings of ‘corporate culture compliance’” that would applaud the best companies and “shame the worst” in regards to their treatment of employees.

“Companies that do not want to be baddies [have to build] family needs into their business models,” Quart suggests. Companies would be applauded for “babies at work” programs, offering excellent paid parental leave programs, and the like.

Our entire economic system is built on cultural expectations: companies understand what they can and cannot get away with without being stigmatized. More regulation and policing by the government can indeed alter what we view as acceptable in the work environment (as most companies today would be shocked to consider the child labor practices viewed as normal in the early 20th century). But there may also be an important role we as consumers, and even as members of institutions, play in determining this culture and its expectations.

All that said, both authors—Eichner, in particular—build a compelling case for government intervention on behalf of the family. While the principles of fiscal conservatism often prompt American conservatives toward libertarianism in regards to economics and social policy, it makes sense that a government in pursuit of the common good, supportive of the sanctity and dignity of human life, would be pro-family in its policies.

In addition, it’s worth pointing out that conservative arguments for fiscal responsibility have little to do with how much we actually spend as a country, and more to do with where we believe we ought to be spending our dollars. Bruenig has already estimated that creating free child care and pre-k programs in the United States would cost 0.5 percent to 0.9 percent of GDP annually, “depending on precisely how it is designed and modeling assumptions”—whereas in contrast, we already spend 3.4 percent of GDP on our military.

“If we cut the military budget to fund the program, it would still be, by far, the largest military budget in the world and well above the 2 percent NATO target,” he notes.

Eichner rightly points out that a “free-market” system isn’t really free in the sense we imagine it to be (unregulated, open, with equal competition between all involved). The government has already—and indeed, always—chosen “sides” in its cultivation of our economic system. It is neither a passive nor a detached player. We already lived in a rigged system—but it’s rigged in an anti- rather than a pro-family fashion.

“[I]n the past fifty years, government has shifted laws deliberately to make families more beholden to the market,” Eichner writes. “… Policymakers have also passed corporate laws that favor shareholders over employees, and tax laws that favor the rich over the poor. So equating free-market policy with true freedom or even the absence of regulation is nonsense.”

Neither would establishing “free” programs for families—especially economically insecure mothers and their children—be unprecedented in our history. In one fascinating chapter of her book, Eichner writes of the “mothers’ pensions” which Americans established in the early 1900s:

“These pensions provided cash benefits to widows with children, and potentially to other mothers without husbands at home. Significantly, the pensions were considered to be honorable subsidies that supported the valuable labor rendered by mothers. In the words of one pension activist, ‘We cannot afford to let a mother… be classed as a pauper, a dependent. She must be given value received by her nation, and stand as one honored…. If our public mind is maternal, loving and generous, wanting to save and develop all, our Government will express this sentiment.’”

Forty-six states passed these pension laws between 1911 and the early 1930s. The payments were called “pensions,” Eichner notes, “precisely to recognize both the dignity of the care work that mothers performed and the public responsibility for supporting this work.”

Practically speaking, there’s one policy discussed in both books that I think would be achievable in American politics and policy in the near future, if we were able to make the implications of its implementation more clear. Eichner notes that we are one of two countries in the world not to provide any paid maternity leave (the other is Papua New Guinea)—yet eight in ten Americans already believe women should receive paid maternity leave.

Eichner documents the exact benefits to maternal and infant wellbeing created through a generous paid maternity leave program: the ways it cultivates infant health, decreases the likelihood of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and the ways it helps mothers to heal and avoid postpartum depression (a debilitating condition which can lead to other health problems down the road).

Maternity leave is a policy which touches on the basic dignity of human life, our embodied needs for nurture and rest, and the worth of strong familial bonds. It is, by its very nature, “pro-life”: many women turn to abortion in the United States out of financial fears and stresses, worried they will be unable to provide for the unborn life within them. It is worth noting that Finland’s abortion rate is almost half what ours is, and represents the lowest abortion rate in the Nordic region; it seems that the pro-family policies that Eichner argues for could empower parents—regardless of income or life circumstances—to more freely choose life.

One difficulty in establishing such a policy, going forward, would likely lie in convincing people on the right that we ought to value life with our monetary policy, not just with our rhetoric. It would also require determining the proper means to institute such a program: the left might suggest greater taxation in order to put it together, and I personally think that’s a possibility pro-lifers should be okay with. But as Bruenig points out, we could also probably pay for (or come close to paying for) such a program by reconsidering and refiguring our fiscal spending in other sectors of the economy. There’s plenty of crony capitalism that we could replace with proper spending on behalf of families.

The ultimate casualties of our current system, Eichner argues, are our children. Quart’s book shows the ravaging toll our economy takes on parents and their emotional, mental, and physical health. She is worried about the barriers of entry, difficulties of economic inequality, and unjust work circumstances foisted on parents, women, and caregivers. She considers at great length the stresses and anxieties they bear due to their role as parents. But rarely does she consider the cost of these stresses and anxieties on the children themselves. Even in her chapter on “extreme daycare”—in which children sleep on cots on the floor of their daycare centers overnight, waiting for their parents to pick them up as late as midnight or as early as five in the morning—Quart focuses on how this impacts the parents and daycare workers, not the impact it might have on babies who are mere months old, or the toddlers who act old beyond their years.

Eichner, on the other hand, is most concerned with what this system is doing to our children. She is, by far, the more policy-oriented of the two authors, and her book is overflowing with data, statistics, graphs, and charts. But at the heart of her book, underlying all that data and research, is a deep maternal passion. She is concerned with the toll that parental anxiety, stress, and neglect take on our tiny humans, and she fills her book with data on the impact these things have on children in their early years. She worries over the children whose early experiences with insecurity and financial stress end up fomenting their own struggles with depression and anxiety.

“Early childhood is … not simply a holding period until children reach grade school and are ready to learn, but a crucial developmental stage in and of itself,” she writes. “Children’s environment during this time critically affects whether they’ll establish a sturdy or fragile foundation for development throughout the rest of their lives. If children don’t get what they need to flourish in these first years, this crucial window of opportunity is lost. It’s much harder and more expensive to correct problems later on, if they can be corrected at all.”

Both books filled me with questions concerning the cultural assumptions we’ve encouraged surrounding the human person—and encouraged me to dream about what it might look like to cultivate the opposite. What if CEOs were taught to assume that every worker they employ is responsible for a plethora of human ties and obligations outside of their office, all of which must be preserved and protected? What if we taught companies and employers to think of their average worker as obligated to care for at least one vulnerable person, and in need of space and time to fulfill that caretaking role?

Most Americans have people in their life to whom they owe care—and our society would “function” much better if we could more easily meet those care needs (although functionality should be the least of our concerns in this area). If you are not a parent to an infant, toddler, or school-age child, you might have an aging parent who is dependent on you for support. You might serve as second to someone who is a primary caregiver. (Many elderly Americans work full-time, and still help with their grandchildren, Eichner and Quart write.) Or you might have someone else in your life who is “needy” for care: a friend or family member with mental health issues, or a disabled relative who could benefit from greater attention, comfort, and company.

Assuming that humans are indebted and tied results in a society that values and dignifies those ties. Assuming the autonomous, free individual results in disappointment or disdain when we inevitably find ourselves bumping up against the reality of those ties.

But being truly pro-life means seeing, valuing, and celebrating those ties at every opportunity: because care work is the crucial support and sustenance of human life, the indispensable labor which affords the most vulnerable dignity and wellbeing. Care work keeps infants alive, and sustains and nurtures the elderly until their last breath. To assume human autonomy is to practically undermine care, and therefore to undermine the worth and value of the most vulnerable.

Once again, there are a myriad of complex, important ways that we can re-value care work and caregivers in America. Finnish economic and government policy are by no means the only way we can achieve these things. But Quart and Eichner are both right to point to the complexity of our problem, as well as the ruthless capitalist logic often underlying it. They are right to consider the rigorous response this problem might demand of us. If we truly want to value life, we may have to reconsider many things: the companies we support, the taxes we’re willing to pay, and—more practically and personally—how we are supporting our co-workers, employees, neighbors, and family members. If the family matters to us as Americans, we need to start acting like it.

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Gracy Olmstead

Grace Olmstead writes from her home state of Idaho. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, Christianity Today, and others.