The U.S. Leaves Parents On Their Own for a Reason

America’s lack of family support rests on a false assumption: that providing help discourages parents from taking responsibility for their children.

A baby's cup with coins inside
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

On so many measures of family hardship, young children and their parents in the U.S. suffer more than their counterparts in other high-income nations. Babies are more likely to die and children are more likely to grow up in poverty. The U.S. is the only rich country in the world without national paid family leave. And while other wealthy countries spend an average of $14,000 each year per child on early-childhood care, the U.S. spends a miserly $500. Underlying each of these bleak truths appears to be the same, misguided belief: that government support for parents is at odds with parents being responsible for their kids.

Once you start looking for it, this idea is everywhere. It has been used to argue that open strollers should not be accommodated on New York City bus ramps (“Just stop being lazy; just fold the damn stroller!” admonished one person at a transit-authority meeting in March); to justify the lifting of mask mandates before a vaccine for the youngest children was available (parents should protect small children, said a D.C. health official); to explain why the government should not make child care affordable (“I’ve never really felt it was society’s responsibility to take care of other people’s children,” mused Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin).

This purported dichotomy between public support for kids and responsible parenting is an utterly false one: Helping parents is not the same as parenting, and support does not replace real-life parents. Stroller-friendly transportation, a space at work to pump milk, and available, high-quality child care all enable families to be more independent, not less.

In most other wealthy countries, paid family leave, subsidized child care, and family cash allowances function not as crutches for specific parents but as early-childhood infrastructure available to all. That translates into fewer hungry kids and fewer frazzled workers. Free child-care programs have dramatically boosted mothers’ workforce participation in countries such as Israel, Chile, and Germany. In Norway, paid parental leave has been linked with improved physical and mental health among mothers and higher rates of high-school graduation and better wages for their children, especially among workers who can’t afford to take unpaid time off.

In the United States, the void of government support has sprouted two parallel but separate worlds of early-childhood parenting where no family wins. In one, middle- and upper-class parents are expected to go it alone. For the former group especially, this can be stressful if not financially untenable. They might take unpaid leave to bond with newborns and heal from childbirth, and they might depend on a sink-or-swim child-care market where landing a spot in a day-care infant room feels like winning the lottery yet can cost more annually than in-state tuition at a public, four-year university.

Then there is the world for low-income families. When certain lawmakers tacitly believe that only irresponsible caregivers require help, American parents who need help are viewed with suspicion. Even during the crucial, vulnerable early years of family life, the limited assistance available to them comes with demands to prioritize paid work over parenting, no matter how erratic the hours or dismal the pay. This does not benefit children, parents, or society at large.

About 50 years ago, we could have charted a different course. Women were flooding the workforce and the country hovered one presidential signature away from green-lighting a plan for a universal, publicly funded national child-care system. But at the eleventh hour, President Richard Nixon reckoned that this would lead to “family weakening.” He vetoed the plan.

Decades later, this argument is still commonly used to deny families support. Some people and politicians might sincerely believe that not helping families is a kind of tough-love motivator for parents. But sexism, classism, and, as the sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts writes in Torn Apart, racism have long played an outsize role in the U.S.’s reluctance to help parents. Our country’s first cash-assistance program for single parents—the so-called mothers’ pensions of the early 1900s—was designed for white widows and abandoned mothers to care for their children. Black and other nonwhite women were almost entirely excluded from the program—their neighborhoods were sometimes avoided by the program’s administrators, or their individual cases were rejected arbitrarily, Roberts writes. Mothers’ pensions gave way, in the 1930s, to the New Deal’s Aid to Dependent Children, which also provided cash grants to poor mothers. Yet Black women continued to frequently be denied the money, often on the grounds that they could work.

In the 1960s, civil-rights activists fought to open welfare to more parents, but this turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, according to Roberts. “As more and more Black families began receiving benefits, the image of welfare recipients began to transmute from the worthy white widow to the immoral unwed Black mother,” she writes. Crucial to this shift was an influential government report linking poverty and struggle in Black urban communities not to redlining, or to underfunded schools and neighborhoods, but to Black single motherhood. This tapped into “a widespread desire to believe that blacks had been done in by their own behavior rather than by white racism,” the historian Patricia O’Toole writes in Money & Morals in America.

This stereotype of the Black single mom cemented a new approach to family assistance. Before the 1960s, cash assistance for mothers had recognized the economic and societal value of child-rearing, sometimes expecting recipients to limit paid work to care for kids. As more nonwhite women accessed these benefits and more white women entered the workforce, mothers receiving funds needed to prove their commitment to eventually becoming independent of government support through means such as marriage and, especially, employment.

Today, public assistance, stringent work requirements, and family policing go hand in hand. Researchers estimate that more than one in three children and more than half of all Black children will be part of an invasive child-protective investigation before age 18. Though only about one in six results in a child-maltreatment finding, parents say that the investigation itself—where child welfare authorities potentially question families’ neighbors and examine kids’ bodies for bruises—can be terrifying and shaming. As the sociologist Kelley Fong has documented, in poor neighborhoods saturated with these investigations, mothers often hide family struggles from doctors, teachers, and other service providers for fear of “catching” a child-welfare case.

In the early months of the pandemic, some lawyers who defend poor parents in family court felt hopeful that this dynamic was finally shifting. Christine Gottlieb, a co-director of the NYU School of Law’s Family Defense Clinic, told me that the country’s approach to families and poverty was moving away from “a punitive one” and toward an “impulse to offer aid.” To help families weather the pandemic, the federal government began distributing no-strings-attached monthly cash transfers in the form of a tax credit to nearly all families. Meanwhile, Congress introduced the Build Back Better bill, which offered the type of early-childhood infrastructure common in other wealthy countries, including affordable child care and paid parental leave. But even though researchers found that the child tax credit’s cash allowance kept millions of children out of poverty and reduced child hunger, lawmakers, after the usual hemming and hawing, allowed it to expire.

Central to the plan’s demise was Senator Joe Manchin, who wanted parents to work to receive the credit. “Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that the people should make some effort?” he asked. Essentially he was repeating a long-standing assumption in American society: that responsible parents don’t need government support, and that government support turns responsible parents irresponsible. It is the same contradictory logic that has shortchanged families for decades.