Debates over family policy are centering on the idea that households should be “paid” for raising children. The latest salvo comes from the New York Times, which celebrates Mother’s Day with an essay by Kim Brooks entitled, “Forget Pancakes. Pay Mothers.” Gladden Pappin applauded it on Twitter as “such an important essay” and chided “pro-family conservatives” for failing to promote it: “Talk is cheap; supporting American families is dear.” To the contrary, Brooks’s essay exposes the radically individualist and statist logic of “pay” for non-market labor, which should be anathema to anyone who is “pro-family” at all.
Fairly typical of the genre, Brooks begins with the revelation that homemaking and child-rearing is work. The subtitle describes this as “one lesson from the pandemic” and the author finds herself “thinking about all the women I’d taken for granted.” They had been doing for her “the work we don’t call work when women do it.”
The implication is that non-market labor goes unpaid only because of the author’s obliviousness, which she assumes must be universal, and that if “we” gave the matter some thought we would realize this is work and thus deserves pay. But of course, most people are fully aware that this is work. Many have experience doing it themselves and would never take for granted others who do it. The work goes unpaid for a much better reason.
The Family Is the Economic Unit
Labor performed within the home on behalf of the family is unpaid because the family is both its producer and consumer. A couple of thought experiments are clarifying. Suppose we grant the premise that child-rearing is work and that by definition work should be paid. The next question would be: paid by whom? Presumably, by the child’s parents. So if Ms. Brooks wishes to charge Ms. Brooks for Ms. Brooks’s work, she is welcome to do so. But she will find the credits and debits in her account cancel out. This becomes even more obvious if we switch to a less politically fraught topic than childcare—say, the growing of crops. We understand intuitively that a hard-working farmer who feeds his family with his harvest cannot complain his work has gone “unpaid.” If he wishes to be paid by others, he needs to do work for them.
The demand for compensation is in fact a demand to impose a radical view of the family in which the relationship between parents and children is arms-length and economic; the adults act for themselves and benefit only when they personally and immediately benefit. Effort invested in children is a debit in the elder column and a credit in the younger one. (Though ponder, even in this construct, when and to whom do the children repay that credit, if not by reinvesting it in their own children?)
Conceptually, if the question “why must I care for this child?” is answered not from mutual obligation within the family (“because he is your child”) but rather from transaction with the State (“you needn’t; this is a negotiation with the State”), then by implication it is the State that has the default responsibility and, with it, the default control. Lest one think “negotiation” is a crass overstatement, here is Brooks’s suggestion: “women have to say, collectively, ‘From now on, they have to pay us, because as women we do not guarantee anything any longer.’” This model of the family, free of “guarantees,” echoes the recent controversy over Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s assault on home-schooling and the comment made by William and Marry professor James Dwyer, co-organizer of a planned Harvard conference on the issue, that “the reason parent-child relationships exist is that the state confers legal parenthood.”
The demand to compensate unpaid mothers also fails by locating the injury with the stay-at-home parent. Consider the case of a parent hard at work in the labor market. Say he makes a good living and is able to provide comfortably for his family. The injustice! It is he who has gone to work every day and earned a paycheck, yet what share of that paycheck does he personally consume? Instead he is expected to share the income with his spouse, buy food for his children, and pay the rent or mortgage on a house sufficient to shelter them all. Are all the hours he spent at work generating income used by other members of the family therefore “unpaid” to him? Does he deserve recompense from the State?
Obviously, we do not understand market labor in that way, nor should we. But the middle ground in which the wage earner is of course expected to share his wage whereas the non-market homemaker is being exploited is sustainable only as a political fiction; there is no economic or moral logic to it. Trying to analyze the home as a dormitory for independent economic actors, each of whom may or may not do socially valuable work meriting compensation by the State, is a dead-end, both practically and philosophically.
Don’t Pay the Parent, Subsidize the Family
A different argument could be advanced for providing support to families, while preserving the family as the relevant economic unit and rejecting the idea that even the hardest work on behalf of the household deserves external “compensation.” Families who raise children are creating social value so, especially in the context of declining and sub-replacement fertility rates, a good economic and social case exists for subsidizing that activity. This is presumably the sense in which Pappin was endorsing the argument.
But we should be clear that this is not the sense in which Brooks primarily advances it and, especially on questions so foundational as the obligations of families and their relationship to the state, the rationale matters a great deal. Brooks does say, “If raising these future citizens isn’t socially necessary labor, I’m not sure what is.” But her very next sentence returns to the complaint that “women do this work for free,” going so far as to lament there is no 401(k). She refers to “wages for housework” and equates her expectation of payment to that of the garbage collector, grocery store worker, and hedge fund manager. These ideas and their commoditization of relationships are toxic and anyone caring about the future of the family should reject them.
A properly stated case for subsidizing families qua families is indeed one that pro-family conservatives should consider seriously—while attending to the risks, including the inevitable pull toward the kind of atomizing logic from which Brooks begins. But here we must also acknowledge, which Brooks does not, that we already do a lot of this—not only through tax policy that dramatically reduces income tax liability for most households with children, but also through our education system. All households pay the taxes that fund our public schools regardless of whether they have children, from which we then spend upwards of $20,000 annually for a family that has two kids in school.
Maybe that’s not enough – particularly given the economic pressures facing households and the fertility crisis facing the developed world. In that case, let’s talk about what else would help. Maybe further financial assistance to families is the solution, or maybe changes in other policies and social norms would be more useful. Regardless, while Brooks is surely correct that “everybody also likes to be compensated for the contributions they make to the world,” she is wrong to believe the world owes her anything.