There are many things to cheer regarding the Build Back Better Act’s transformational $400 billion investment in early care and education. The act would deliver meaningful relief to millions of families by establishing universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, capping child care costs for working- and middle-class families at 7 percent of household income, and raising the wages of a workforce dominated by women of color that is currently paid, on average, $12/hour.
But the Build Back Better Act also has the potential, if passed, to represent something else: a political victory over a regressive family ideology that has long been deployed to block public investments that would benefit the vast majority of families. Over the past few months of debate over what would stay in the bill, conservatives have tried mightily to resurrect the tired “family values” rhetoric they’ve relied on for decades. This time around, they claimed that the act’s child care provisions would privilege families with two earners over so-called “traditional” families with stay-at-home mothers. Republican Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance went further, tweeting that child care constituted a “war against normal people.”
Such concerns may seem woefully out of touch in an era when a significant portion of the population has likely never even heard of Leave it to Beaver. Today, 26 percent of children live with a single parent, typically a mother. And new research estimates that about 70 percent of US moms, whether married or single, will serve as the primary financial providers for at least one year before their children turn 18.
But there’s a reason conservatives are up in arms about this historic investment in child care. Although two-parent nuclear families will not be harmed by the legislation (indeed, many would stand to benefit from it), more affordable and accessible child care will reduce the penalties that have long been leveled against families headed by single mothers. Despite conservative rhetoric blaming single mothers for their decision-making, sociologist David Brady and colleagues have documented that it is an interlocking set of policy decisions that make “families headed by single mothers in the United States 14.3 percent more likely to be poor than other families.” And such penalties have been essential to conservatives’ long-held illusion of a “traditional” nuclear family—and to the broader political and economic agenda it has enabled.
In the new second season of my Wonder Media Network podcast, White Picket Fence, I interrogate the origins of this nostalgic family form and the way it has been weaponized against public investments in the kind of “care infrastructure” that would benefit us all.
It’s long been known that the disproportionately white breadwinner father/homemaker mother family was a historical aberration (“the least traditional marriage form in all of history,” Stephanie Coontz, director of research and policy at the Council on Contemporary Families, told me on the podcast). Its emergence in the 1950s was a result of a confluence of factors: the postwar economic boom, a “family wage,” and other New Deal supports that gave white working-class men, in particular, a greater share of our nation’s new prosperity, and a nationalist urge to distinguish the American industrialized economy as superior to the Soviet Union by keeping middle-class white women out of the workplace. In fact, one of the necessary steps in the creation of the breadwinner/homemaker nuclear family was dismantling the more than 3,000 government-run child care centers that the United States had spent $78 million building during World War II.
Equally significant is the fact that this shift in family structure occurred at a moment when a new philosophy about the economy was ascendent. The term “neoliberalism” is often used as shorthand for “conservative economics”—the low tax, deregulation orthodoxy that came into vogue in the United States post-1980. But neoliberalism was a “political ideology,” as Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong told me, that “valorized the private—the private sector, private business, and importantly, [what] the private nuclear family can and should do.” Indeed, it was this shared belief in the benefits of privatization that united an unusual collection of 1970s-era bedfellows: economists from elite universities, evangelical pastors, anti-communist John Birchers, and a burgeoning grassroots movement of anti-feminist suburban white women. These disparate forces came together to form a powerful modern-day conservative movement. And the result? The normalization of the white male breadwinner/female homemaker family and the creation of a society that, as Wong said, “externalizes care.”
In 1971, Pat Buchanan, then a speechwriter to President Nixon, recognized the stranglehold that this ideology would soon have on the Republican Party. It was why he urged Nixon to veto the Comprehensive Child Development Act, bipartisan legislation that would have gotten the United States on the path to universal child care. And it was the power of that political ideology that prompted Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to go even further—stoking white fear by equating public support with “undeserving” Black single mothers and using that resentment and racist rhetoric to erode our nation’s social safety net. In the 1980s and ’90s, welfare reform became a top political priority, for Republicans and Democrats alike, while hopes for a national child care system evaporated.
Fifty years and one pandemic later, the failure of those choices has been made abundantly clear. All families suffer from a broken child care marketplace that charges its consumers too much while paying its workers too little. But some families suffer far more than others.
As a result of our nation’s refusal to invest in child care and other supports that are considered de rigueur in most Western industrialized nations (e.g., public health care, paid leave, and child allowances), conservatives have created a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to family structure. Their claims that “children do best with two married parents” may be factually dubious; the most rigorous reviews of existing research have found that the “literature lacks a clear consensus on the existence of a causal effect” and that “any such effect is small.” But by privatizing care, they have succeeded in making family structure, along with race and gender, a prime source of economic inequity. Other factors play a role, of course, including a tax code that privileges white families in which there is a sizable gap in income between primary and secondary earners. But make no mistake: It is a set of policy choices, cloaked in the language of family morality, that leaves single mothers more economically vulnerable in the United States than in much of the rest of the world.
Conservatives have not won the war of ideas when it comes to family structure; Americans today are more accepting of a wide range of family forms than at any point in history. But the structural rewards and penalties conservatives have successfully affixed to various family forms remain far more pernicious factors in the maintenance of the so-called “traditional” nuclear family as a cultural ideal.
The Build Back Better Act would be an important first step in dismantling the family privilege that, alongside race and gender inequity, has been baked into US social and economic policy. It is one of the reasons the legislation remains so hotly contested, and why its passage is so critical. Of all the act’s many benefits, its affirmation of the dignity and value of an expansive range of family forms could be one of its most enduring legacies.