"In 1979, an estimated 115 companies and hospitals provided clothing for their employees' children. By 1981 the number had jumped to 600. According to The Conference Board, there were, in 1985, 2,500 employers providing some form of clothing assistance.…
"While the growth of employer involvement has been dramatic, there are still more than 6 million employers who have not responded.…Employers cannot meet the need for children's clothing alone. In fact, no one sector can infuse the dollars into the system that will secure enough high-quality clothing that parents can afford.…A stronger federal and state commitment to adequate delivery of clothing for the children of working parents would strengthen the field. Children's clothing is clearly an area ripe for public/private partnership."
It's hard to imagine people really talking this way about kids' shirts and overalls, isn't it? But talk this way they do, dead serious and in increasing quantity, about day care. The above passages are taken almost word for word, substituting "children's clothing" for "day care," from a fairly typical discussion by Dana Friedman in a recent anthology on the new "in" topic in social policy circles, family and work. The usual conclusion is that nothing short of government subsidies for day care will solve the grave problems of working parents.
Now don't get me wrong. There are problems. I know from first-hand experience. In fact, I'm a single mom, about whom the hand-wringers become especially wrought up. There's no denying that making satisfactory day-care arrangements can be extremely trying. The younger the child, the more trying—and some 40 percent of mothers with children under one year old are now working.
But almost all the factors that seem to make day care a special case requiring government help are also factors in other purchases that go along with having kids…such as clothing.
• Is clothing necessary? Of course.
• Does it cost a lot? Ask any parent.
• Does shopping for the best deal take a lot of time? You bet.
• Would workers be more productive if they weren't worrying about how or where to buy Johnny his next pair of jeans? Sure.
• Would parents welcome somebody else picking up the tab for part of the expense? It goes without saying.
Of course, compared to clothing, the quality of day care is no doubt far more important to the overall well-being of the child. Granted. But has anything else to which government has turned its hand ever fared better than in the marketplace? Consider the closest analogue to day care—schooling. Need we say more?
More affordable? Yes, on the surface. Some people, probably a lot of people, would pay less for day care under a government subsidized system. But if experience is to be trusted, the aggregate cost would be higher; it would simply be distributed differently. That is, the tax bills of middle-income people would go up.
Ironically, one of the favorite arguments for government assistance is that families' real incomes are declining; while once the poor tended to be old, now more and more are children. What is never mentioned is that the major reason for the declining real incomes of working families is the bigger and bigger tax bite out of their paychecks—because of the very program that has ensured senior citizens' relative well-being.
Another argument, cited with great regularity, is that the United States is one of the few industrialized countries that doesn't have a national day-care system. So? Every lemming marches off to sea, too. What is particularly deceptive about this canard is the implication, stated explicitly by many feminists, that European countries such as Sweden and France have instituted day care, legislated maternity leaves, and so on in response to feminist demands. In fact, these are simply the natural extension of longstanding socialist policies that have never really caught on in the United States.
Here in the land of the free, we have a different way of solving social problems. And what's so jarring about the current advocacy is that today's very real changes are almost totally ignored. Thus, within two weeks of each other, the left liberal Nation published feminist Katha Pollitt blaming the dearth of husbands for women over 30 on the U.S. failure to provide day care and mandate maternity leaves, and Business Week published a report noting that more and more companies are helping with day care, improving maternity and paternity leaves, changing promotion policies to accommodate interrupted careers, experimenting with flextime, and so on—all the things the social-policy advocates want government to legislate.
These changes are admittedly slow. But they are happening, and political "solutions" would likely take just as long. What makes the bogus argument for government provision of children's clothing so absurd is that there is already a well-developed market. Well, what is happening before our very eyes is the early, predictably disjointed development of a day-care market.
Never let it be said, however, that there isn't something government could do. Deregulate. Deregulate. Deregulate. A 1985 Cato Institute study detailed the state and local regulations that act as a barrier to enlarging the supply of day care. Although typical health, safety, and quality regulations are well intentioned, they prove to have little effect but do raise the cost of day-care services, drive some underground, and keep others from ever getting off the ground.
With friends like that, who needs enemies? We do better to let day care go the way of Osh-Kosh and Buster Brown.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Feminist Fantasies About Big Brother".