A New Deal, this time for everyone

By Binyamin Appelbaum

The New Deal was mostly for men. The great public works projects that endure in public memory employed men. Labor protections enacted between 1934 and 1939 excluded domestic workers, restaurant workers, retail clerks and others in jobs with large female workforces. New safety nets for the unemployed, for the disabled and for older Americans were similarly tailored for men, who were supposed to provide for everyone else.

Equally telling are the kinds of help the government did not provide. Unlike other industrial nations that unfurled safety nets in the same decades, America’s new laws did not require employers to offer paid family leave or paid sick leave. There was no attempt to provide or subsidize child care. At the time, relatively few mothers worked outside the home, and policymakers did not think they should. One irony in the efforts of later generations to force welfare recipients to find jobs is that the program, launched as part of the New Deal, was intended to make it possible for single mothers to stay home.

’Tis the season for comparing the new administration’s plans to the New Deal, but in one important respect, President Joe Biden is seeking to chart a different course.

To paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda, Biden is proposing to include women in the sequel.

A big chunk of the money in the administration’s twin spending bills, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, is aimed at helping people better balance paid work and family obligations. The Biden administration has emphasized that child care subsidies will benefit children and that senior care subsidies will benefit seniors. It has emphasized that freeing caregivers to take paying jobs will benefit the economy. In other words, it has described these policies in terms of their benefits to others. What has not been emphasized sufficiently is the benefit to women, who bear most of the responsibility for providing care.

Taken together, the administration’s plans would give millions of women a real choice between staying at home and holding paying jobs outside the home.

Contrary to conservative braying, this is the opposite of paternalism.

Biden’s plan “completes the unfinished business of the New Deal,” said Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell who traced the gender fault lines in the construction and implementation of the New Deal in her 1998 book, “Dividing Citizens.”

The Biden plan includes $225 billion to subsidize child care. Families making up to 150% of a state’s median income would pay no more than 7% of their income for child care. The government would pay the difference.

Importantly, the administration also is seeking to improve compensation for the overwhelmingly female and heavily minority workforce that provides care for other people’s children. The exclusion of care workers from New Deal protections helped to hold down wages for care work; in effect, the federal policy subsidized those services for wealthier families at the expense of the workers. The Biden administration is proposing to help both the workers and their customers — a welcome shift in policy.

The plan also would reduce the burden of child care by expanding the availability of public prekindergarten programs. Proponents tend to tout the proven benefits of getting children into the classroom at an earlier age. Doing so helps parents, too.

The Biden administration previously introduced a bookend plan to subsidize care for older Americans. Reinforcing both of those plans are subsidies for temporary leave from paid employment to care for a new child or an ailing relative or to recover from illness.

The necessity of these programs, which has been particularly obvious during the pandemic, may prompt some to wonder what has taken so long. One answer is that the New Deal taught Americans what to expect, and what not to expect, from government. Another answer is that social conservatives have long fought to preserve a particular version of family life — one that has never been as common in reality as in the popular imagination.

During World War II, the government needed women to work outside the home, so it created a national day care program. When the war ended, some female workers fought for continued aid, but the federal government shut down the program under pressure from conservative groups like the powerful National Catholic Welfare Conference. Mike Konczal writes in his 2019 book, “Freedom From the Market,” that when the city of Cleveland agreed to continue funding the day care centers, a local judge barred the plan, ruling that it amounted to “an expenditure of public funds for a private purpose.”

In the following decades, the government gradually began to provide support for women considered unable to stay home, but many Americans continued to resist a broader federal subsidy that would allow women to decide for themselves whether they wanted to stay at home with children. In 1971, Congress voted to provide funding for a national system of day care centers. President Richard Nixon, at the urging of advisers, including Pat Buchanan, vetoed the legislation as a threat to “the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.”

Other peer nations have demonstrated the benefits of the policies the United States is now considering. Female labor force participation has increased in the rest of the developed world in recent decades even as it has declined in the United States; research points to the effect of flexible work rules, paid time off and family care subsidies.

Over the past decade, a growing number of states are demonstrating that what works everywhere else works in the United States, too. Connecticut became the first state to require employers to offer paid sick leave in 2011. Thirteen other states and Washington, D.C., have followed. Nine states and the District of Columbia offer paid family leave. A similar number of states offer prekindergarten to all children, while others have expanded funding.

Biden, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, has framed the current moment as a test of America’s intertwined commitments to capitalism and democratic government. As in the 1930s, the nation’s democratic foundation must be strengthened for capitalism to thrive. This time around, we need a set of rules that allow men and women to participate.

In the late 19th century, British workers campaigning for a 40-hour workweek circulated a three-panel illustration of a worker at the loom, asleep and reading a newspaper in a rowboat. The slogan read, “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.”

Heather Boushey, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, described the drawing in the opening pages of her 2016 book, “Finding Time.” She wrote that the drawing was incomplete. The labor movement of that era had ignored the need for a fourth panel, showing the work that happens at home. It’s time for the fourth panel.

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