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Opinion | Why Is Raising a Child in the United States So Hard?

Having experienced fascism up close, European countries also looked to the welfare state as a means of safeguarding democracy against authoritarianism. In the United States, by contrast, opposition to the Soviet Union — and to any political program that might be maligned as socialist or communist — made building support for social insurance more difficult.

Where things stand today: Out of 185 countries with available data, the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only ones whose citizens are entitled to no paid parental leave. In Europe, on the other hand, parents have paid leaves of 14 months, on average, and children commonly start public school at age 3. Before that point, governments pay a significant portion of the cost of child care. A child allowance similar to the new child tax credit is also common among America’s peer nations.

The United States has made some changes to its family policies in the past century, as New York magazine’s Eric Levitz points out. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires most employers to provide workers with 12 weeks of job-protected, but unpaid, leave to care for a new child or gravely ill family member. About 40 percent of U.S. workers don’t qualify, however, and only 23 percent of private-sector workers have paid family leave through their employers.

Half of Americans live in places where there is no licensed child care provider or where there are three times as many children as slots. One in three children also doesn’t attend preschool; those who don’t are more likely to be Hispanic or from low-income families.

As The Times columnist Jamelle Bouie explains, the “entitlement” critique that Manchin voiced this month is a running theme in the history of America’s opposition to a larger social safety net. At its root is a centuries-old tendency to sort the population into productive makers and unproductive takers, a binary that formed the basis of “producerism”: the idea that people who made and grew things were most valuable to society.

  • In the 19th century, producerism fueled revolts against corporations, which progressives argued were stealing the fruits of labor.

  • But in the 20th century, producerism was recast by conservatives and neoliberals: The taker was no longer a greedy employer or an enslaver but the government, expropriating its citizens’ hard-earned money through taxes and redistributing it to undeserving welfare cheats, who were often coded as Black.

“Entitlement” logic may be one reason the child tax credit is less popular than its proponents had hoped. When the Biden administration made all but the most well-off families eligible for monthly checks of up to $300 per child this summer, Democrats predicted that the program would be a big hit. But in a recent poll of registered voters, only 36 percent said it should be made permanent.

“The biggest divide may be on the importance of work,” writes Patrick T. Brown, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who helped convene focus groups of working parents to discuss the issue. “The parents we talked to felt a tension between the obvious benefits a monthly benefit could bring but still wanting some kind of work requirement. Work made a family deserving of government support; without it, family benefits were seen as welfare.”

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