When Patty Murray joined the Senate in 1993, one of the first bills she worked on was the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid family leave for people who worked at companies with 50 or more employees.
It was pretty modest, especially compared to the family benefits available in most developed countries, but Murray said passing it was a hard fight. In a floor speech at the time, she described a friend of hers, the mother of a 16-year-old who was dying of leukemia, whose job was threatened because she wanted to take time off to be with her son in his final months. Afterward, Murray told me, another senator approached her and said, “We don’t tell personal stories on the floor of the United States Senate.”
Still, Murray, who has made the fight for family leave and affordable child care central to her career, thought the F.M.L.A. was just a beginning. But in the following 28 years, no other major piece of family legislation has passed. (The biggest was probably the bill Donald Trump signed in 2019 giving paid leave to federal employees.) Among wealthy nations, the United States has remained an outlier in how little help it gives parents.
Now, though, we might be on the cusp of a humane family policy. On Wednesday, Joe Biden unveiled his American Families Plan, which would, among other things, fund paid leave for caregivers, subsidize day care and institute universal preschool. It would extend through 2025 the monthly cash payments that parents will receive under the American Rescue Plan. America might finally become a country where having children doesn’t mean being left to fend for oneself in a pitiless marketplace.
There are several reasons our domestic policy has long been uniquely hostile to parents, but two big ones are racism and religious fundamentalism. Essentially, it’s been politically radioactive for the federal government to support Black women who want to stay home with their kids, and white women who want to work.
The original Aid to Dependent Children program — which would become Aid to Families With Dependent Children — began during the New Deal. It was meant, as the Supreme Court described it in 1975, “to free widowed and divorced mothers from the necessity of working, so that they could remain home to supervise their children.”
Eligibility was determined by states and localities, which found various ways to exclude Black women. With the civil rights revolution in the 1960s, however, more Black mothers were able to receive benefits. As they did, conservatives started demonizing “welfare mothers” as indolent Black women, even though there continued to be more white women than Black women on A.F.D.C.
In “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” Heather McGhee detailed how support for public goods collapsed among white people once Black people had access to them. This very much includes relief for parents and children.
“The fear of lazy Black mothers who would reproduce without working goes really deep in this country,” McGhee told me. It’s hard to imagine how a proposal for automatic cash payments to families could have gone anywhere during decades of moral panic about Black mothers luxuriating on the dole.
But universal day care programs that would help women work didn’t go anywhere either. In 1971, Congress passed a bill that would have created a national network of high-quality, sliding-scale child care centers, akin to those that exist in many European countries. Urged on by Patrick Buchanan, Richard Nixon vetoed it, writing that it would “commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family‐centered approach.”
Ever since, efforts to expand government-supported child care have faced furious opposition from the religious right. As Phyllis Schlafly said in a 2011 interview, babies “don’t like to be treated like they’re in a warehouse. Babies require more care than that and the feminists don’t want to give it to their babies. They’re always demanding taxpayer-financed day care.” It’s best, she said, “to have a mother at home and a father who is providing for them.” (Schlafly herself relied on nannies.)
But Schlafly-style conservatives have less power than they used to. Religious fundamentalists have decisively lost the culture war about women working, and about family values more generally; the party of Donald Trump and Matt Gaetz is in no position to lecture anyone about their domestic arrangements.
At the same time, many on the right, driven partly by concerns about low birthrates, have awoken to the crushing financial burden of parenthood. The public policy debate is thus no longer whether to subsidize child rearing, but how. Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act, for example, would give parents $350 a month for each child under 6, and $250 a month for children between 6 and 17, up to $1,250 per family per month.
The pseudo-populist J.D. Vance might claim, on Twitter, that “‘universal day care’ is class war against normal people,” but he supports other kinds of subsidies. The idea that it’s not the job of government to help parents raise their kids is obsolete.
And so a window of possibility has opened. By weakening America’s already threadbare child care system, Covid made family policy an urgent priority. Among Democrats, there’s a political imperative to help mothers who were pushed out of the work force by school and day care closures to rebuild their careers. With the laissez-faire economic assumptions that dominated America since the Reagan administration discredited, Democrats no longer cower when the right accuses them of fostering big government. As Biden said in his address to Congress on Wednesday, “Trickle-down economics has never worked.”
And — this is important — there are now a lot more women in positions of power. When Murray arrived in the Senate, she said, she was one of the few members talking about issues like child care. Whenever she brought it up, she said, “it was sort of the end of the conversation,” and there would be a “pat on the head, like, ‘Oh, that’s so cute.’”
Now Murray is the chair of the committee that would oversee the legislation Biden is proposing. Backing her up are “other women, on our committee, in the Senate, in the House, who are echoing what I say.” There are also women in the Biden administration who’ve been thinking about family policy for years; the feminist economist Heather Boushey, author of “Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict,” is part of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.
This doesn’t mean that the American Families Plan is going to happen. With little chance of any Republican support, it would have to be passed through the reconciliation process, so its fate likely lies in the hands of Joe Manchin, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat. Still, it’s amazing that it’s suddenly possible that American parenthood could actually become a less financially brutalizing experience.
“Our country has taken a turn, and I believe Covid had a lot to do with it,” said Murray. Families, she said, are acutely aware of the unmanageable stress they’re under, and they’re saying, “I want my country to deal with it.” For the first time in my lifetime, there’s hope that it will.