The National Catholic Review

“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.

William J. Byron, S.J., is past president of the University of Scranton and The Catholic University of America. He taught in the business school at Georgetown University before becoming pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C.

Comments

Rea Martin | 5/23/2003 - 4:56pm
This strikes me (and a good number of my friends) as a worthy cause to help with. The value of an at-home and emotionally available parent is grossly underestimated in today's society. I live in an area dense with stay-at-home parents, all of whom have given up impressive careers in favor of full-time parenthood. Even without the education credits, there's a huge payoff for all of us having raised children who are emotionally vested in us. Implementing your idea can only strengthen the future of our country.

Rea Martin | 5/23/2003 - 4:56pm
This strikes me (and a good number of my friends) as a worthy cause to help with. The value of an at-home and emotionally available parent is grossly underestimated in today's society. I live in an area dense with stay-at-home parents, all of whom have given up impressive careers in favor of full-time parenthood. Even without the education credits, there's a huge payoff for all of us having raised children who are emotionally vested in us. Implementing your idea can only strengthen the future of our country.

Bob Shields | 2/7/2007 - 9:56am
I certainly agree that William Byron, S.J., is on to something with his idea of building up “social credit” for a stay-at-home parent (4/28). In addition, there are many who would also agree with me that as tax credits are extended for child care for working parents, tax credits also should be extended to stay-at-home parents. This would bear some similarity to what some European countries call a mother’s wage. However, besides social credits and tax credits, there is yet another dimension that needs to be added in order to provide fairness, encouragement and recognition of the parent who remains at home to raise children. As an example let me cite the case of my own wife.

My wife and I are both teachers. In 1966 when our first child was born, we were both earning about the same wage. She stayed home to be with our daughter, and because we had four children in five years, she stayed at home for the next 16 years to raise the four of them. We lived happily, frugally and simply, and our reward today is four grand and loving adults in their 30’s, all of whom were able to graduate from Catholic universities and then obtain advanced degrees. Neither of us has any regrets for those 16 years she was able to be with our children. Now both my wife and I are receiving Social Security pensions. But hers is only half of mine and will remain so for the rest of her life, or until I die. Why? Because in the current Social Security pension formula she was given “zero credit” for each of those 16 years without income. As far as the Social Security system is concerned, she did nothing for 16 years.

Thus, a dimension I would add to Father Byron’s concept of “social credit” and the suggestion for tax credits is that the Social Security formula be reworked so that the parent who remains home to raise children be given some form of credit for those years. Zero credit in the Social Security system for all of those years a parent spends raising children is both unjust and insulting to the effort put forth by that parent.

Rosemary Reiss | 2/7/2007 - 9:17am
William J. Byron, S.J., (4/28) is on to a major injustice being done to parenting parents, a problem society has swept under the rug. Children are the future. Tending them well is a contribution to our nation. Yet subsidized child care is actually a disincentive for parents to raise and nurture their own children. It bribes women (and men) into leaving their children in someone else’s care, someone (or some group) who would not be expected to love that child as much as a parent or to put that child first in their lives, someone who may even be less qualified for parenting. If a parent takes a job caring for other people’s children, he or she gets pay and benefits. If she or he takes any other job and pays someone else for child care, he or she gets income, a child care subsidy and a tax deduction. If she or he chooses full-time parenting of their own children, which, if all else remained equal, one would rather do, these financially challenged people will be totally ignored, undercompensated and put down by peers because they don’t “work”!

Is there any case to be made that it is in society’s interest for preschool children to be raised by a willing and ready parent? If so, how can “being-there” parenting be encouraged? Father Byron’s idea of social credits for higher education makes sense. And how about at least giving a parenting parent the same tax credits that would accrue from paying someone to do child care and related tasks all day. It would still be far less than actually subsidizing or paying an employee to do the job, as current child care programs do. Is it fair to reward the families having two wage-earners with double income plus both child care and tax benefits, while families with one full-time parent go without help of any sort? In today’s economic climate, parenting one’s own children has become a luxury only the well-to-do can afford. How many families can get by on one income and still save for the children’s education?

Jennifer Keehn | 2/7/2007 - 9:12am
Thank you to William J. Byron, S.J., for his article “Children of Great Price” (4/28). I encourage him to market his idea aggressively.

I am a 28-year-old career woman, soon to be married, who has taught in the public schools for the past five years. Though I have enjoyed my career thus far, I look forward to embarking on the new adventure of full-time homemaker and mother in the near future. I refuse to be discouraged in this pursuit, though public sentiment toward a stay-at-home mom as a “real” profession is at best patronizing and at worst disrespectful. Women have lost as much as they have gained in the struggle for equal rights. We have lost a societal regard for motherhood and wifehood, and our families suffer. How many times have I been at a social function with married male colleagues (whose wives were at home with the children) and heard the question, “So, what does your wife do?” Though no malice is intended in this query, it is indicative of a negative societal mindset toward full-time homemakers.

I have fond memories of my own stay-at-home mother, who finally had to seek employment outside the home from financial necessity when I was a teenager. As the oldest of six children, I see a great psychological split in the family between the three oldest children, who had the benefit of a mother at home, and the three younger children who did not. I believe Father Byron’s idea of a “social credit” would encourage more women to pursue motherhood and full-time homemaking with pride and initiative. Most important, it would help change public perception and elevate the family unit—both desperately needed in our country today.

Kathleen Brown | 2/5/2007 - 9:29am
William J. Byron, S.J., has taken on a difficult, contentious and important topic in his article, “Children of Great Price” (4/28). The ideas he offers are intriguing. I worked for 10 years as an economist before leaving to be at home with my two boys. Not only were there no economic incentives for doing so; there were, in fact, strong economic and social disincentives. We are a church that preaches social justice and the importance of the family, and Father Byron offers practical suggestions for practicing what we preach. Thank you, Father Byron—from an economist, minister and mother—for addressing this important issue!