When I recently wrote about Washington state’s landmark paid family leave legislation (only the second in the nation), Crosscut readers’ responses were striking. Two-thirds of comments expressed the same feeling: The legislation is “a token for the irresponsible,” a “confiscation of my tax dollars” for “social parasites.” One reader even called the legislation morally depraved.
Putting aside the extreme language and not terribly coherent arguments (“If you can't take the time to raise a child, why are you having one?”—the point is precisely to enable parents to take time to care for their newborns), I think these comments reveal an important and deeply American strain of thought. The line of thinking goes something like this: Individualism is the ideal state, we shouldn’t be fostering dependency, people are responsible for themselves and their own children, and don’t ask the rest of us for handouts.
This line of thinking has some appeal—I value individualism and independence myself. But independence is an achievement, attained only temporarily in the middle of life by even the luckiest of us. Somehow I just know that these letter writers were men, and men who have forgotten that they got to their enviably independent state only thanks to years of care by their mothers (and probably many others). (And who probably have wives who do their laundry, cook their food, and maybe type their manuscripts.) I’d say the real social parasites are all of us on our unpaid mothers. So if you have a distaste for this kind of social parasitism, consistency requires you to support test tube gestation and the raising of children in dormitories by well-paid professionals. Or you don’t mind the human race ceasing to exist. Or—phew—how about a little paid family leave?
I tend to think people like the letter writers don’t mind dependency—of their wives on them, for example—and it’s in fact the independence social supports like paid family leave foster in women that discomfits them. I’d like to ask the reader who wrote that “I for one am not planning on being a social parasite in my dotage” who he thinks will be paying for his Social Security. In fact, it’s those who are children now (it’s a politically useful myth that we each pay for our own Social Security).
I may mock this kind of thinking, but it has a powerful hold in America, and loosening its grip is crucial and difficult.