“There is no economic incentive for a parent to devote full-time care to his or her own children at home,” complained a former student whom I hadn’t seen for 15 years. He was in my office seeking help with a job search. His résumé looked good: honors graduate of Loyola College in Maryland, doctorate from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. Listed along with work experience in education, politics and the practice of law was this unusual entry: “Homemaker.” He had devoted several years of full-time attention to two children while his wife practiced law. “We’re expecting again and she’s going to stay home with the kids, so I’m back in the job market.”
He came to me because there was a particular niche he thought he could fill in higher education, and I was at that time a university president. Without my assistance, he returned to a faculty position he had held before, and all has been going well ever since.
This couple made a commitment to each other that one of them would remain at home full time with their children until the youngest child reached a certain teenage year. Homemaking and breadwinning were interchangeable roles for them. “Not to sound chauvinistic,” he remarked, “she’s a lot better at the child care than I am, but it has worked out well nonetheless.”
His comment about the absence of an economic incentive kept rolling around in the back of my mind. Eventually it generated a public policy idea, or better, an idea in search of a public policy. The nation should have a paid homemaking program along the following lines.
When a couple made the commitment to having one parent remain at home full time with the kids, that family unit would earn a “social credit,” one per child for each year when either parent was a full-time homemaker. When the youngest child reached the age of, say, 17, the accumulated credits could be redeemed at a predetermined exchange rate for units of higher education for the children or for graduate or professional education for a parent who may have foregone advanced study to stay at home. If there were no interest or need for postsecondary education, the accumulated credits could be converted to enhanced Civil Service status for a parent who chose federal employment as the avenue for his or her to return to work.
This would be a federal initiative. It would borrow from the success of the G.I. Bill of Rights after World War II and could be justified on exactly the same grounds—namely, as a transfer payment to compensate citizens for time spent out of the workforce but in service to the nation. Military service is just one form of national service. Strengthening families and children by dedicated homemaking is surely an equally valuable form of national service.
The social credit idea bars no parent, male or female, from opting for paid employment or professional activity outside the home. It does not even discourage outside work. It simply provides an incentive to parents who might prefer homemaking and child care to labor-market activity. It also meets the need of those parents who bring home a second paycheck just “to put the kids through college.” Under this plan, those parents could stay at home, accumulate the credits and eventually redeem them in tuition payments.
Legislators might want to set some family income levels above which a family unit would not be eligible. Fair enough. If they want, legislators could also require that the credits, once exchanged, be treated as taxable income. But if the benefit were tax-free, as I think it should be, the beneficiary would not get a tax penalty for choosing higher-priced independent over state-supported higher education. The G.I. Bill paid the freight for private as well as public higher education.
Limits would have to be put on “worksteading”—at-home paid employment—which could get out of hand and diminish if not destroy the social value of parental presence to children. But this does not mean that the stay-at-home parent must be confined to quarters all day. School plays and athletic events would attract more spectators under this plan. Stay-at-home parents could be volunteer helpers at the schools their children attend, and the schools would presumably be better off. After-school museum traffic might increase along with “shared learning” and “creative leisure” activities that put parent and child in harness to pursue new discoveries together. The credits would, of course, be nontransferable outside the family.
I have road-tested this idea in policy discussions. The strongest negative reaction chided me for trying to “bribe” people into child care, “to shoehorn women back into the kitchen and nursery.” But a mother of two disabled sons cheered me on: “The need for social reform to strengthen the family is so great that one would imagine that America as a nation and as a culture would welcome the idea. It is indeed puzzling how an issue that is so fundamental—and so simply obvious—could have been overlooked for so long.”
Here is how a public affairs director in a federal agency responded to the idea: “As a career woman who has been on both sides of the fence (I stayed home until the children were 10 and 14 and then joined the work force 10 years ago), I think your plan has merit. It seems to me that I have been extremely lucky. I was able to start a career later in life because of extremely hard work and fortunate circumstances. Not everyone is so positioned. I would not have wanted someone else ‘raising’ my children and giving them different views on morality and philosophy from my own. All parents wants to pass on their basic beliefs to their children, and it is impossible for young women today to do that if they see their children for one or two hectic hours a day.”
Is this an elitist idea? Not really. Less well-educated people are no less concerned about child development; they are just less able, for economic reasons, to consider full-time homemaking as a real option. When a parent simply cannot afford to participate, there is a strong argument for more private and public scholarship aid to students from low-income families.
If this paid-homemaking option were available, it would be just that, an option, not an enforced condition on parents at any income level. People would be free to take it or leave it as their values, circumstances and preferences direct.
We have no such option in the United States, because we have no national family policy. The social credit idea addresses a policy vacuum and, as such, surely deserves some discussion and debate. It also matches up well with a national commitment to family values.
Perhaps this idea could become a “faith-based initiative” that would correct a condition that permits full-time care for a “priceless” child by that child’s natural parent to go economically unrewarded. We can afford, as a nation, to correct that omission. We cannot afford to let more families fall apart because of enforced parental absence, nor can we afford to let more children become mistakenly convinced that they are not worth caring for.