The child-stipend idea has its origins in early British feminism and in the pro-natal, labor-market goals of postwar European countries. And some welfare-state analysts are quick to point out that many welfare states have been slow to adjust their policies to the drastic changes in demographics and labor-market participation that have occurred in the last two generations. The welfare state, after all, was generally created for, and paid for by, male breadwinners. Explicitly and implicitly, it was designed to keep women in the home, and it typically ignored those working-class and poor mothers who had to double as family caretakers and laborers—at discriminatingly low wages.
According to Thomas P. Boje and Anders Ejrnæs, only a few countries, like Norway and Denmark, have a “weak breadwinner” model, in which assistance is designed for dual-earners, with greater workplace flexibility and more gender-neutral benefits, so that domestic responsibilities are shared and female work encouraged. And in some countries, like France and Belgium, mothers have a choice between the allowance, which enables them to stay at home with children, and day care, which enables them to pursue careers. Some countries in southern Europe and the former communist bloc still fail to recognize female equality and children’s needs in the dual-earner world that postindustrial global capitalism has made—providing little or no day care, paid leave, flextime, or allowances. But Jongmin Yang reports that over the last 15 years or so, many postindustrial nations have begun enhancing their old child-stipend programs and pursuing other creative strategies to meet this new social risk.
The United States, on the other hand, has been the least responsive—even while (and partly because) it has the second-highest rate of single motherhood in the developed world and the highest rate of single-mother poverty. America, Moynihan pointed out in the early days of the War on Poverty, had the ignominious distinction of having more children in poverty than any other wealthy democratic nation. Since the late 1970s, the average rate has remained at 20 percent. For black children, it is 40 percent. Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries all have rates below 10 percent, more often well below. Most other European nations and Australia have rates around 15 percent. The price of child poverty has not been cheap. In 2008, a team of scholars estimated the cost at $500 billion per year in terms of crime, health, lower productivity, and other factors. That’s nearly 4 percent of GDP a year.
Moynihan wanted to help white, male breadwinners in the working and lower middle class—and to keep the marriages of the black working poor intact. But he also knew a child stipend would be enormously helpful to black women, who had greater levels of single motherhood and poverty than other groups. However patriarchal, it would have been a great relief for many, who never had the white, middle-class luxury of choosing between being a stay-at-home mom and having a career. It would be a relief still. A progressive version of the family allowance need not, and ought not, be male-centered. But any version of the program would go a long way toward helping America’s poor. In 2011, Steven Pressman estimated that a $4,000 family allowance, distributed to the parents of 40 million American children, would reduce child poverty to the level of other developed nations and save the United States $250 billion a year. Surely this is a more intelligent and decent use of tax dollars than, say, the $80 billion we spend on prisons every year (which Coates aptly describes as a kind of perverse “social-service program—providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people”)?