November 18, 2022

The Rhetoric of Choice Obscures Our Social Obligations to Parents

The concept of "choice" is one that has significant effect on many core issues US politics and economics, whether it's abortion, education, or childcare. As Claire Cain Miller pointed out recently in a piece for the New York Times's Upshot, choice appeals to deeply rooted American values, such as individualism and liberty. But the rhetoric of "choice" obscures structural obligations and inequalities that narrow, limit, and in many cases preclude Americans' ability to make positive choices.

Miller's article deals specifically with parenting and how it collides with other obligations people face. In the '80s, a greater number of middle class women entered the workforce in response to economic and social changes in the US. These changes included slowing manufacturing sectors, a significant uptick in college education, and changing concepts of family structure. Miller notes  that these changes raised questions about how to deal with the increased conflict between social reproduction, i.e. raising a family, and the economic obligations of paying the bills in a more precarious and expensive world. Specifically, the question was who should foot the bill or take responsibility for social reproduction as more women were pressed into the workforce, government or the individual?

In the US, the answer was resounding: the individual. And this has had significant consequences for working parents since. By placing the responsibility on the individual, almost always the mother, parents have been in a bind for decades and any "choices" available reside in an astonishingly thin sliver of options constrained by structural inequalities. No strong federal parental leave laws on the books leaves no "choice" at all for a new mother or parents. Without universal preschool or childcare options, they can leave work and hope a single income is enough to get by until kindergarten; hardly an option for single mothers. Moreover, studies have shown that leaving the workforce to perform childcare is a leading explanation for the gender wage gap. 

What would a real choice mean in this context. Actually, it would mean not having to choose between being a parent and working. Instead it would mean ensuring that parents could take paid parental leave and be assured that when they returned to the workforce they would not be penalized for it. It would mean appropriately compensating childcare workers. It would mean providing parents with real workplace protections and requiring parental access to care facilities at work. 

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