The purpose of the Campaign for Inclusive Family Policies is to establish this basic principle in public policymaking: Family policy should be inclusive—the ways in which families meet their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities should not determine their eligibility for support and services.
There is a serious disconnect between U.S. families and family policy. For decades, policymakers have been pushed to focus on “working families” with the result that many family policies help some families while discriminating against millions of others. The often ill-defined term “working families” is used most commonly to describe families with employed parents who utilize child care services while they are at work. But millions of families do not fit that model—instead they use diverse and dynamic strategies to meet their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities. It is time for policymakers to support and respect parents’ decisions. They should begin by adopting the principle of inclusion: the ways in which families meet their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities should not determine their eligibility for support and services.
This is not a campaign against “working families”—it is a campaign for helping the greatest possible number of families, regardless of how they manage their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities. In short, it is a call for inclusion.
Parents make complex decisions about employment and caring for their children. They weigh their children’s needs, their own values and desires, as well as economic and career considerations. Families are diverse, their work/life solutions are diverse, and their choices are dynamic. Many families modify their employment and caregiving practices over the years as the needs of their family members change. Today’s “working family” might in two years be a family with an at-home mother or father, and ten years from now it might fit the “working family” category once more.
Policies made with a narrow focus on “working families” discriminate against a significant percentage of families, including—contrary to popular belief—many lower income families. Commenting on the findings of his recent research on low-income families (earning less than $38,000 for a family of four), Gregory Acs of The Urban Institute says: “The need for child care is very important for families that have no other options. But what you most often see is the dad going out to work and the mom staying at home.” Families who do not fit the “working families” label cross the spectrum of economic status, cultural and political outlooks, religious beliefs, race and ethnicity and include:
- Families with one full-time earner and one at-home parent;
- Families in which two earners work different shifts so that one or the other is available for caregiving, including those who have full-time jobs and “tag-team” by working different shifts, those with one full-time earner and one part-time earner, and those with two part-time earners;
- Families who share caregiving among members of their extended family or trade caregiving with friends in a cooperative arrangement (strategies used by some single parent families as well as by two parent families);
- Families in which children are being raised by retired grandparents.
These families are not simply “lucky” nor are they statistical rarities. They are no less deserving of support than are families whose income earning/caregiving choices fit the “working family” model.
Child care policy is a prime example of biased policy. Currently, families who use child care services are eligible for several types of government assistance. Many families who pay for child care are eligible for the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit or a Dependent Care Assistance Plan, enabling them to set aside pre-tax earnings for child care expenses. Many moderate and lower-income families qualify to receive federal and/or state child care subsidies. But families who do not use child care services—even those with very low incomes—are not eligible for any assistance.
A few states have tried to help lower income families who want to have a parent at home by establishing At-Home Infant Care programs, providing a monthly stipend in lieu of a subsidy for child care. However, states are unable to use federal funds to support these programs, public awareness of such programs is low, and very few families receive assistance.
All quality care for children must be supported—including care provided by parents who cut back or forgo paid employment. The ways in which parents meet their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities should not determine their eligibility for support and services.
Special interest lobbyists are a serious obstacle to inclusive family policies. Funding for advocacy on behalf of “working families” comes from a variety of sources including labor unions, for-profit child care businesses, and corporations—all of which have economic interests in keeping parents on the job. This has made for a very lopsided debate. Although there are a few grassroots organizations advocating for the families left out when “working families” are the focus of policy making, they operate with severe financial limitations. They are no match to the financial resources of major corporations on staffing, lobbying and public relations expenditures.
There is no doubt that family policies need attention. In April 2007, tax expert C. Eugene Steuerle, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, warned that children’s share of the federal budget has fallen significantly in the past 50 years and is projected to decline dramatically in the next ten years. Additionally, Steuerle and his colleagues at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center point out that families “face a bewildering and often conflicting array of tax programs and eligibility rules.” By establishing the principle of inclusion legislators would take a major step toward crafting straightforward, fair and flexible policies.
Highly respected scholars have proposed the adoption of family policies that respect parents’ choices about caregiving. One type of policy, designed to give families of infants support, is called by various names: child benefit, child allowance or early childhood benefit. It is a monthly payment made directly to the child’s parents. Some tax experts recommend increasing the value of the Child Tax Credit and making it permanent and pegged to inflation. James C. Capretta points out that such a credit is not directed to child care or education, leaving decisions to parents, “who are in the best position to know what is most needed in their household.”
Federal, state and local policymakers should adopt the principle of inclusion, recognize and disregard the lobbying efforts of special interest groups, and focus on serious policy proposals put forth by our nation’s highly-respected nonpartisan think tanks. While U.S. parents are taking diverse and dynamic action to nurture their children, policymakers must respond with respect and support by enacting inclusive family policies.
Catherine H. Myers Executive Director Family and Home Network
Board of Directors, Family and Home Network
Please note: Although many family policy debates—and this article—focus on families with children, those who care for sick, elderly and/or disabled people also need policies that adhere to the principle of inclusion.
Originally published in September, 2006.