The United States is a hard place to raise children these days. Most parents, no matter what social and economic status they hold, discover just how difficult almost as soon as the woman’s pregnancy is confirmed. Because medical coverage in the United States is mostly privatized and its quality is often based on one’s income, the risks to mother and child can begin at that point. However, it is once the child is born that the real struggle begins. I am not just talking about the classic issues of raising children—behavioral issues, childhood illnesses and so on. In a modern nation like the United States, there are numerous other elements of childrearing that involve spending money: child care, education, transportation and the aforementioned medical expenses to name a few.
Most other modern nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, provide monetary and other forms of assistance to parents and families with children. This assistance includes plentiful and inexpensive childcare, extended paid family leave for new parents, medical coverage completely paid for by tax monies and even a stipend to help cover expenses like diapers and so on. In the United States, however, parents are expected (forced) to pay the bulk of these costs themselves. Furthermore, family leave for new parents is up to the employer and is usually much shorter than even the minimum number of weeks in other western nations. It is also not necessarily paid leave. Childcare is usually in short supply and often quite expensive. As for a stipend to cover expenses, forget it. According to the people who run this land, such a thing is not only communist, it’s downright unamerican.
According to author Maxine Eichner’s new book The Free Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream (and How It Can Be Restored) this was not always the case. Instead, it was an intentional move by so-called free market politicians and policy makers that gained steam in the late 1970s and became standard practice during the right-wing reign of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Like so many other policy reversals that took place in the 1980s, the motivation behind these changes was the crisis US capitalism was experiencing at the time. Instead of maintaining a social system based on the idea of sharing some of the nation’s wealth with all its citizens, the ruling elites did the opposite. They began stripping away social services, privatizing some and restricting others to fewer and fewer people in need. The rest were eliminated. This process continued under the Democratic president Bill Clinton and has not really been reversed in the years that followed.
This cutting back of social services and support of families in the United States was a choice by the wealthiest members of the polity and their representatives in the government. As Eichner proves through her data and her narrative, the response to the economic situation since the 1970s did not have to be one that harmed families. Indeed, as noted above, most European nations in similar situations continued to maintain—and in some instances enhanced—their programs designed to encourage families and children. These programs include health care for all, extended paid family leave for both parents of newborn children, free college education, and even monthly stipends for families with young children. The Free Market Family not only enumerates these various programs and how they work in different countries, it also discusses their societal benefits. Those benefits stretch well beyond the economics of a healthy and educated populace.
In contrast, the author discusses the current situation in the United States. Without universal health care and paid family leave, most parents are forced to go back to work much earlier than is healthy for their infants just to keep a roof over their heads. This is the case for the majority of families. The only exceptions are the families of the one percent. In other words, most US residents will find it difficult to stay home for a year after their child is born in the United States. Furthermore, they will also find it difficult to pay for quality childcare when they do have to return to work. As Eichner points out repeatedly, this child abuse is an intentional policy conceived and carried out by politicians and bureaucrats whose love of the profits their free market brings them supersedes the most basic of human endeavors—the continuation of the species via the nurturing of children.
After decades of this policy, the results of this neglect are all around us. Opioid addiction across class and racial lines, poorly educated adults in all walks of life, alarming rates of suicide among young people, dozens of children killed in school shootings and dozens more killed on the streets of the nation’s cities and towns. In essence, an overall spiritual and emotional breakdown of the society. These are classic symptoms of childhood neglect. Right-wing sociologists like Charles Murray (The Bell Curve, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980) and politicians like Patrick Moynihan blame these behaviors on pathologies based on race and genetics. Eichner takes on their arguments and goes deeper, describing how these individuals not only got it wrong, but have intentionally ignored the economics driving the policies that helped foment these behaviors.
The Free Market Family is not just a critique of family policies in the United States. After pointing out that an economy is more than the market—it includes the government and other sectors of society as well—the text discusses some policy changes that would help resolve the issues she discusses. This list of policies should be adopted by every political candidate running in every election until they are adopted. Indeed, they should be a litmus test that any voter who cares about the children in their lives should use at the ballot box.
Since becoming a parent and now a grandparent, I continue to base my political activities—from voting to street actions and protests—on what is best for the children in my family, the United States and the world. It is an unfortunate truth that the older I get, the number of people in power who do the same continues to shrink. Instead, as Ms. Eichner makes abundantly clear in this important and timely text, government policy in DC and several states has moved beyond neglect and into intentional abuse.