Four Weaknesses in Senator Gillibrand’s ‘Family Bill of Rights’

New Congress, Washington, USA - 03 Jan 2019

From family to a Family Bill of Rights (people.com).

Presidential candidate and New York senator, Kirsten Gillibrand (D) recently announced a Family Bill of Rights, a 21st-century list of rights related to pregnancy and raising a young family.

In a field as crowded as the Democrats’ 2020 primary, there’s a logic to Sen. Gillibrand—whose brand is feminism and families—trying to stand out by offering such policy proposals. The five-point plan, which has yet to be fleshed out beyond an essay on Medium, raises many big questions, but the biggest may be, given how long families have been around, why haven’t we seen something like this from either party, but especially socially conservative Republicans, before?

Gillibrand summarizes her plan as such:

1. Right to a safe and healthy pregnancy. 2. Right to have or adopt and bring home a child, regardless of parents’ income or sexual orientation. 3. Right to a safe and affordable nursery. 4. Right to care for your loved ones, including your child in its infancy. 5. Right to affordable childcare and early education.

These planks aren’t completely new; they build on proposals that have already been introduced in Congress, including by Sen. Gillibrand herself. What’s new is offering them as an economic policy package.

As someone who writes about family policy, I’m pleased to see public discussion of these issues. However, Sen. Gillibrand clearly approaches them with feminism and economics in mind, while I prioritize culture and community, along with the public purse. So, as the socially conservative mother of four young children, Gillibrand and I reach different conclusions, even as we recognize some of the same problems. (Of course, I’m not her target audience, which is presumably Millennials who will vote in next year’s Democratic primary.)

Still, her proposal is worth consideration by a broader audience, especially if this policy discussion gains traction among Democrats, and it looks like it is. Having a policy position on fixing child care has already become de rigeur for 2020 Democrats, following on discussions of paid parental leave, which even Senate Republicans have begun taking up.

Based on the limited details Sen. Gillibrand offered in her essay (the campaign press secretary did not respond to a request for additional details), I see several potential problems. First, her solutions all arch toward bigger, more activist government. Having spent six years working for the federal government, I’m inherently skeptical of the government’s ability to fix large, complex social problems and worry about the unintended consequences of massive new government programs. I doubt that the senator’s financial transaction tax will raise $777 billion without raising taxes for most Americans and that such an amount will prove sufficient because federal spending is never efficient. I also question how she will professionalize day care. Would that mean the creation of a new army of bureaucrats who would undoubtedly care less about my children than I do?

Second, Sen. Gillibrand seemingly assumes that all mothers want to work full-time after taking a brief paid maternity leave and need government support to do so. That doesn’t describe me, nor many other women. As a survey sponsored by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution found, “Among married mothers with children ages 0 to 3 at home, only 17% prefer to work full time, and 34% consider staying at home as their ideal situation.” For that reason, a truly comprehensive family policy solution must address the needs of women who prefer to work part time or be at home full time with their young children.

Third, in spite of insisting that these family matters are not “women’s issues”—I agree—Sen. Gillibrand never directly addresses fathers; they’re generally mentioned only by implication. Especially in discussing inequality, it’s important to acknowledge and address our widespread father absence as a factor in divergent social and economic outcomes.

Fourth, her proposals are all described as “rights.” No responsibilities are mentioned, which is odd considering that parenting involves endless responsibility. Beyond that, everything is written from the vantage point of choice and adult preferences. There is no apparent recognition of children’s needs.

Consider the proposal encouraging adoption, including adopting the over 120,000 children waiting for forever families in the foster system. That in itself is a worthy idea. Even more noble, though, would be championing Rabbi Susan Silverman’s philosophy:

The paradigm of adoption has been that it’s a way for adults to become parents. It is urgent that we turn that paradigm on its head and see adoption as a way for children to get permanent, loving families.

In other words, if we put children at the center of this discussion, the notion that “having or adopting a child should be a fundamental right if a parent wants one ” sounds seriously off-key. Vulnerable children should be matched with loving, responsible parents who have their best interests at heart, and society could be enriched by more such adults considering adoption.

For these reasons, the existing proposal is lacking. I appreciate Sen. Gillibrand’s recognition that society must tackle these family-related problems, including maternal mortality and matching foster children with forever families. However, I’m skeptical about how much her Bill of Rights would help individual families, and I am troubled by the absence of a clear public policy goal. Given that, I’m not convinced that her five-point plan is worth its presumably sky-high cost.

Hopefully, Gillibrand and her team will address these limitations as they round out her platform. Of course, what would make this discussion even more interesting is if other candidates, both progressive and conservative, offered their own variations on these ideas over the next year. There’s still much to debate.

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