January 17, 2005

A Price Tag On Parenting

Okay, perhaps I was too flippant yesterday about David Brooks' op-ed on women forgoing children for the sake of their careers. He's still a tool, but the topic itself is important. So I just leafed through Neil Gilbert's essay, "What Do Women Want?", on which Brooks' piece was based, and it deserves a bit more substantive of a reply.

Gilbert starts by dividing up women over 40 into three basic categories. Traditional women have lots of kids—3 or more—and have had little or no career outside the home (29 percent of all women). Modern women try to balance it out, with one or two kids, a paid job, maybe some time off here and there to raise the little ones (52 percent). Postmodern women skip the kids in the interest of a career (18 percent). Now Gilbert thinks postmodern and traditional women are destined to do what they do: ie. a woman knows from relatively early on whether she wants to devote herself to kids or a career. I don't think that's right at all—an accidental pregnancy can suddenly sideline a career, and financial trouble can suddenly send a woman into the workforce—but whatever. So Gilbert focuses mostly on the middle category, "modern" women, whose life-choices can vary depending on what incentives social policy offers vis-à-vis having kids and working.

Now Gilbert notes that for this middle group, public policy in the U.S. is generally oriented towards "helping mothers work while raising children." Hence subsidized day care, paid maternity leave, etc. (And obviously we're not as generous in this country as, say, Scandinavia is.) But some women, he notes, might prefer to go through motherhood first, and then work later. So, he suggests, we should start offering subsidies to full-time homemakers with children under X age.

That's not a terrible idea, but it still seems like vaguely creepy social engineering to me. Since the government doesn't set prices as efficiently as the free market, it's possible that this sort of thing would overcompensate, and induce more women to stay home than otherwise would. Maybe. In general, using tax subsidies or government spending to influence social behavior can be a good thing, but we only ought to do it when we there's a real market failure that can't be resolved in any other way.

In the case of women and children, I don't think that's true. The main problem seems to be that parenting is vastly under-priced by the labor market. So the proper thing to do is simply to put a price tag on it. Why don't we give every primary caregiver, say, a $5,000 voucher (per year, per child) that can be used either for child care, the parent's own education, or retirement. The idea here is Anne Alstott's, by the way. Under this plan, a mother would be free to choose whether she wants to live a "postmodern" lifestyle (in which case she uses the money for child care), an "inverse sequence" lifestyle (in which case she raises the kid and then uses the money to go back to school), or a "traditional" lifestyle (in which case she is compensated with retirement money for raising a kid.) And note that we could figure out some way to give the voucher to the father—if he was the primary caregiver. No one's ever been able to figure how to make men assume more of the burden of child-rearing. But with the proper financial incentives that could all change.

More fun: Via Andrew Samwick I see that Phillip Longman has suggested something along very different lines—we should encourage people to have children by declaring that child-rearing parents pay less in Social Security taxes. That seems noble enough, though I'm not sure the payroll tax cut would offset the costs of having a child. Someone else could do the math. The real problem, though, is that Longman's policy would certainly encourage more mothers to stay at home (and let's not kid ourselves, they would be mostly mothers), and it doesn't really offer women the freedom to choose their own career path, as a voucher for primary caregivers would.
-- Brad Plumer 3:12 AM || ||