By the end of August 1935, Franklin Roosevelt was wrapping up a remarkable stretch of legislative victories, a follow-up chapter to his initial response to the Great Depression that historians would one day call the Second New Deal. Its centerpiece was the Social Security Act, which finally delivered on the president’s promises to create a national system of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance for workers, laying the foundation for what would become the modern American welfare state.
It was also, in some ways, just an act of catch-up with the rest of the industrialized world. Germany had first adopted pensions for the elderly way back in 1889. Great Britain introduced its national unemployment insurance scheme in 1911, and many of its neighbors in Europe had already followed suit. Looking at the president’s achievements that summer, the progressive Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White judged that they were “long past due” and observed that they amounted to “a belated attempt to bring the American people up to the modern standards of English-speaking countries and in Europe in the matter of social responsibility” for the needy.
White’s line came to mind this week while I was reading the details of President Joe Biden’s new, roughly $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, his new stab at modernizing the country’s shabby, outdated welfare state.
The proposal is largely aimed at helping parents while broadening the scope of public education. It aims to finally guarantee paid family and medical leave, cap the outrageous cost of child care for middle-income families, make prekindergarten universally available for 3 and 4 year olds, and make community colleges tuition-free. It would also lengthen the life of two major but temporary pieces of Biden’s coronavirus relief bill: The expansion of Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies would be made permanent, while the supersized Child Tax Credit, which has the potential to cut youth poverty in half, would be extended until 2025 (and the new eligibility rules that allow America’s poorest families to claim it would become permanent).
This is, without question, an ambitious and far-reaching to-do list. But the goals are also humble, in the sense that the plan is really just designed to turn the United States into a normal country for mothers and fathers by providing benefits that much of the developed world already takes for granted.
We are, after all, the only wealthy country that doesn’t ensure paid leave for new moms. Child care? It’s already heavily subsidized in places like Japan, France, Korea, Germany, Australia, and the Nordics, but here the cost often rivals college tuition. We trail most of our peers in pre-K enrollment, likely because—according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—they often spend a lot more public money on it. While the idea of just giving money to poor families, in the form of a child allowance, may seem novel here, countries like Canada started doing it a while ago. In fact, if you add up our total expenditures on cash benefits, tax breaks, and services for families as a share of the economy, we’re third to last among countries tracked by OECD, just ahead of Mexico and Turkey.
And as for health care, do I even need to get started?
Our antiquarian family policies don’t just make life more difficult and expensive for parents and their children. They are also, in all likelihood, acting as a drag on the economy by keeping women out of the workplace. The United States used to have one of the highest rates of female employment among developed nations, but we began to fall behind in the late 1990s and early 2000s as other countries promoted policies like paid leave, child care, and flexible scheduling that made it easier for women to work, while our government stood mostly pat. In 2019, the employment rate for American women between the ages of 25 and 54 was 73.7 percent, below the average for Europe or the G7. Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, and others all topped 80 percent. On this score, we’ve fallen badly behind the times.
To be clear, there is some debate among economists about just how much pro-family policies like subsidized child care ultimately help women stay in the workforce—the mainstream view is that they have a significant impact, though some studies suggest they have little to none at all. But there’s no reason Americans shouldn’t be able to enjoy a semblance of the support that other governments provide their parents and kids, even if the end result is partly just better quality of life. We should be allowed to have the same nice things as Australians and Canadians.
Not that Biden’s proposals would entirely bring us up to date with the rest of the industrialized world. Consider paid leave. The president is proposing just 12 weeks of paid parental, family, and sick leave by—I kid you not—“year 10 of the program.” Among our peer nations, it’s common for mothers to have six months or much longer to bond with their child. But then again, the original New Deal was only really meant to be a beginning as well. As the historian William Leuchtenburg recounts, Roosevelt was well-aware that the U.S. had essentially built a starter welfare state and only started the process of economic modernization. “In five years, I think we have caught up twenty years,” he told the New York Times Magazine in 1938. “If liberal government continues over another ten years, we ought to be contemporary somewhere in the late 1940s.” If Biden is successful, maybe we’ll almost catch up again.
Update, April 28, 2021: This post has been updated to clarify that Biden’s bill would cap the cost of child care for low- and middle-income families, not all families.