Autonomous motherhood

President Obama is increasingly signaling that universal child-care will be the next big national goal for liberals.  After giving the issue prominent attention in his State of the Union address last month, he has continued talking about it in interviews about his goals for the rest of his presidency.

Obama has proposed significantly boosting the tax credit we provide to families for childcare.  It’s doubtful much gets done on the issue in the next two years.  But these proposals and pronouncements are teeing up childcare to play the role for liberals in 2016 that healthcare played in 2008.

Anticipating this, conservatives have begun staking out their opposition early.  Much of the opposition stems from the idea that by subsidizing working parents, liberals stack the tax code against parents who stay home to provide their own childcare.  The National Review blasted Obama’s plan as an attack on the autonomy of mothers who’d prefer to stay home with their children:

Most mothers, especially of small children, prefer to work part-time or drop out of the labor force for a time. Commercial child care is the least favored option for most parents. The president’s plan encourages families to do what they do not wish to do and penalizes them for refusing.

In place of a targeted tax credit for childcare, the editors of the National Review propose a bigger child tax credit for at least some families: “provid[ing] tax relief to all parents who pay taxes, however they structure their lives, by expanding the tax credit for children. Parents would then be able to spend the extra money on commercial day care, or use it to finance a shift to part-time work for one parent, or save it for future educational expenses — or do whatever they chose with it.”

Note how carefully the National Review limits this proposal to “parents who pay taxes.”  If you’re too poor to have any tax liability, you and your children on your own under this conservative plan.

But more broadly, how serious are conservatives about respecting — and indeed, facilitating — the autonomy of mothers to freely choose how to raise their children?  What about a single mother who would like the same opportunity to “drop out of the labor force for a time” to raise her children while they are young?  To preserve this choice for her would require complete public subsidization of her family’s income — the government would have to pay her a basic adequate income for the work of childrearing.

It’s doubtful that conservatives could stomach this kind of expansion of the public dole.  For one thing, a major consequence of 1990s welfare reform was to toss single moms off of public aid. Twenty years later, conservatives show little hint of longing to re-implement AFDC.

Conservatives would also be deeply wary of this kind of subsidization’s effects on incentives for work and to maintain two-parent households.  Paying single parents enough income to stay home with their children, conservatives would argue, inherently weakens the urgency of both going to work and marrying.

These objections are entirely consistent with conservative policy thinking.  But they also sharply limit the conservative defense of motherly autonomy to married, financially-secure women.  That’s a pretty narrow conception of who merits the right to make an autonomous childrearing choice.

In response to President Obama’s plan to help parents pay for childcare, conservatives want to pay stay-at-home moms, too.  That’s an entirely legitimate position — one that, ideally, produces a resulting compromise of a generous child benefit for all low- and middle-income families.

Still, one must question the depth of conservatives’ willingness to defend motherhood autonomy.  Given their policy commitments, the freedom to choose to stay home turns out to be only freedom for a few.

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