They’ve been showing up at school board meetings around the country for the last couple years, initially angry about school closures and, more recently, school mask mandates and “critical race theory.” They devour the right-wing headlines about baby formula shortages. If you have kids — or know people who do, especially white people — you’ve probably already noticed that parents who used to be liberal or apolitical have been turning to the right.
Earlier this year, all this anger seemed likely to cost Democrats the midterms. Now, the far right has angered this demographic, too, with bans on abortion and children’s books — two decent indicators of freedom, especially for people raising kids. A significant share of the population opposes book banning and will punish legislators complicit in it, according to current polling, and the same is true of assaults on abortion rights.
American parents are political dynamite because we are already so stressed. It doesn’t have to be this way.
In Finland, when you have a baby, the government sends diapers, a snowsuit and mittens, bedding, baby clothes, and much more — all in a box that can easily double as a bassinet and comes with a mattress, plus condoms so you don’t accidentally make any more babies while you’re trying to focus on this one (a particularly considerate addition). In Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, every parent receives monthly cash support, regardless of the family’s income. In the United States, parents receive no baby box — and unless they’re very poor, no food, health care, or income support, either. That means that the vast majority of parents are entirely on their own in childcare until their babies reach school age.
In many other countries, mothers are guaranteed maternity leave from work. Several of the formerly communist Eastern European nations are the most generous: Bulgaria, Hungary, and Estonia are the top three, all offering more than a year of leave. The Nordic social democratic countries provide a little less — Norway provides forty-three weeks of paid maternity leave — but still better than most. Even neoliberal Britain and Japan, providing thirty-nine and fifty-two weeks, respectively, beat the United States. Guess how much time off from their jobs mothers are given to care for the newest Americans? Outside of a handful of states, exactly zero weeks and zero days of guaranteed paid leave, the least of any high-income country.
While even the most progressive countries have been slow to provide leave to new fathers, about thirty-five do. Japan is a standout, providing fathers with more than thirty weeks of fully paid leave, while South Korean fathers enjoy more than fifteen. You can probably guess by now how much paternity leave is guaranteed to American fathers: zero.
The picture is equally dismal when parents go back to work, as, for obvious reasons, many must do so almost immediately. Many other countries provide free or subsidized childcare to working parents. Cuba provides two years of free, public preschool. Sweden provides extensive high-quality day care for children too young for school, and after-school programs for older kids, nearly 90 percent of which is paid for by the government. In Denmark, the government pays about three-quarters of the cost. Norway spends almost $30,000 a year per toddler on day care, while the United States spends $500, almost all of that on programs serving the very poor. (New York City was a huge success story in providing free preschool to some children, but our awful mayor, Eric Adams, is refusing to expand the program.) What’s available to the average American parent? The opportunity to deduct about $200 per year of the cost of childcare from her taxes (after she’s already paid for it).
Since so much of life is privatized in the United States, even activities like summer camp or children’s sports are prohibitively expensive. Public school from kindergarten through high school is free, a remarkable miracle that the conservatives and ruling class would love to undo, but the schools are unevenly funded all over the country. Public colleges and universities are mostly underfunded and not free, while private colleges are expensive, so many parents must begin saving for college — or, more commonly, stressing out about how to pay for it — when their kids are quite young.
The message to all parents, then, is clear: if you choose to have a baby, you’re on your own.
Into this landscape of stress, add a long period during the COVID-19 pandemic in which the public school system, the only universal service provided to families, essentially stopped serving many people. During this time, Republicans effectively exploited parents’ anger over school closures and mask mandates in schools and started telling people that public schools are teaching race hatred. It’s not true, but people who were happy with the way the government was treating them would probably not have believed this lie, at least not in such large numbers and with so much passion.
The Democrats rolled out a much more generous and universal child tax credit, which came in the form of monthly payments of up to $300, a balm and lifesaver to so many parents. The expansion of the child tax credit represented the first time in US history that the government has provided a wage for the labor of raising children, a demand made in the 1970s by the left feminist group Wages for Housework. Thanks to Joe Manchin, the conservative coal baron senator from West Virginia, that’s over, and taking the tax credit away has only fueled parents’ anger. In fact, the policy moves votes. In 2021, voters who received the tax credit said they were more likely to vote for the Democrats in the coming elections. Now that the credit has expired, Republicans have a slight edge among those who received it.
Republicans have been avidly exploiting these new dissatisfactions with Democratic governments, and for a while, that seemed to be working for them. They forgot that the typical woman who gets an abortion is already a mother, and that forcing more maternal work upon her might not be the way to win her heart — or her vote. They also forgot that while Koch-fueled “grassroots” groups are indeed stoking conservative moms’ rage over LGBTQ reading matter, the people most likely to notice and object to book banning are also mothers.
That’s good for the Democrats. They’re also lucky that schools are open, baby formula is gradually returning to the shelves, and Republicans have revealed their utter lack of interest in human flourishing.
But this reprieve only gives Democrats a shot at a walk-off win; it hardly guarantees anything. In any case, whatever happens this year, only more social democratic policies can relieve the strain underlying parents’ rage. Though we need a much more radical investment in care, the most obvious immediate solution — given the data and the looming midterm elections — is to bring back the child tax credit.
In May, Democrats debated extending it. At the time, there was much liberal vilification of socialist senator Bernie Sanders for trying to work the credit back into the Inflation Reduction Act, but it’s not too late for the Democrats to come to their senses on this matter. As well, during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government funded public schools more generously. Extending that practice could also help. These two policies wouldn’t transform our society into a socialist one, but they’d make it a little easier for millions of Americans to raise their kids. It’s in everyone’s interest: making our society a better place to raise children would leave our democracy far less vulnerable to right-wing attack.