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No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents

June 03, 2004 // 12:00am

"Motherhood is a costly proposition," Anne Alstott said at a discussion of her new book, No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents, organized by the Division of United States Studies. "Mothers work less, achieve less, and retire with less savings than non-moms in all classes, in all sectors, for all groups." This sacrificial element of motherhood, which Alstott described as cutting across all classes, is what the policy proposal behind No Exit seeks to address.

The "care work" of raising children is gendered, falling primarily on mothers. Society assumes that parents will nurture their children and provide continuity of care for at least 18 years. That obligates parents not to exit from their children's lives, and roughly 70% of parents do stay with their children for the long term; 94-95% of America's children spend no more than one month at a time away from their mother. Prof. Alstott contended that this limitation on the autonomy of parents—particularly mothers—deserves compensation by society. As there is no substitute for good parenting and no alternative mechanism by which children might be raised and acculturated, parents should be rewarded for the crucial service they provide not only to their children but to the society at large.

Alstott therefore proposes the establishment of Caretaker Resource Accounts, into which the federal government would deposit $5,000 per year for every primary parent (or primary performer of parental functions) of a child under 13. The accounts could be drawn upon only for childcare, the parent's education (to reinforce and update skills or train for workforce reintegration after an extended absence from the paid workforce), or retirement savings. The accounts, which are not child-centered but parent-centered, would not be designed to offset the significant day-to-day costs of child rearing or to supplement incomes directly. By focusing on the difference between people who are parents and those who are not, the accounts would help compensate parents for the wages and skill-building opportunities they miss in dedicating a portion of their working years to the work of raising their children. Alstott noted that the independence and autonomy the accounts would provide to parents is in keeping with the liberal values of American society, with their emphasis on the important of being the author of one's life. The accounts would acknowledge that while the "no exit" obligation runs from parent to child, it runs as well from society to the parent.

Robin West praised Alstott for affirming the idea that the best way to fix the problem is through legislative rather than judicial channels—something that litigating attorneys do not always understand. She commended Alstott for avoiding the pitfall of advocating yet another law mandating workplace flexibility, noting that such plans rarely if ever produce the desired effect. As long as family-oriented workers are seen as less than ideal because of their divided loyalties to family and career, she argued, no workplace policies can ever liberate working parents. Parents can begin to be repaid for their work on behalf of society only through compensation and retraining; that is, Alstott's idea implicitly chastises society for foisting unfair labor practices on parents. "Viewed as labor," she commented, "there is nothing quite like parenting." She also stressed the importance of describing care and caring as public values, suggesting that might have implications beyond these Caretaker Resource Accounts.

West also cited three significant ways in which the rights rhetoric Alstott invokes to justify this form of social compensation is harmonious with the traditional understanding of rights in American discourse. First, rights are typically invoked to bar others from taking action that would limit an individual's ability to act as society has deemed right; in this case, to protect the right of parents to care for their children unequivocally. Second, rights typically protect against a lingering effect of inequality; in this case, the historical underpayment and underemployment of American mothers. Finally, rights are typically invoked where levers for change are otherwise insufficient, which is the case in the area of mothers' economic well-being.

Joan Williams also praised Alstott's work, reemphasizing the importance of legislation as a long-term solution to social problems despite the short-term allure of litigation solutions. The proposal would build human capital in women who have been marginalized as caretakers although, she warned, while social subsidies and social redistribution are important, they alone will not result in gender equality. She criticized the current conception of a worker as based only on men's work cycles. The United States is "one of the best countries in the world for a woman who chooses to follow the traditional pattern of a man but it is one of the worst in which to be a mother. Most women don't get near the glass ceiling because they're stopped by the maternal wall," she commented, suggesting that until American society ceases to regard housewives as low on the competence scale and comes to appreciate the work of caregivers, there will be no hope of getting equal respect for part time or flexible-schedule workers.

Williams pointed to the importance of recent court cases holding that a "similarly situated" man need not be found in order to prove discrimination against or unequal treatment of a mother. This is particularly important, she argued, because nearly 75% of women currently work in traditionally female jobs where it is often difficult to find men to serve as contrast cases. She suggested that courts have been reluctant to effect large-scale solutions because there has been so much disagreement even among women over whether and how mothers should remain in or rejoin the workforce. Enacting a program such as Alstott's would clarify social priorities.

West and Williams agreed that the discussion about how to help women keep up in the world of paid work need not become a recapitulation of the sameness/difference debates that have characterized modern feminism, but rather could create a coalition of women of all classes in service of a redefinition of the responsibilities of work. All three panelists spoke of the value of conceiving of working life as a whole, making part time work viable by instituting pro-rated benefits and pay equity, thus allowing all of society in general and mothers in particular the flexibility with which to construct their lives.

Drafted by Ann Chernicoff

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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