Middle Class Entitlements

“Entitlement programs” (to use the ugly phrase) will be an issue in the 2008 election. The ultimate Democratic candidate is likely to put forward a universal health care plan, and we can expect to hear more about President Bush’s recent veto of health care for children. The state and future of other social programs, such as social security, should be on the agenda as well, although perhaps only Senator Obama will be willing to talk about them.

As an article in the Economist pointed out last month, the conversation about health care centers around universality of coverage, not around cost. (The Economist proposed that Senator John McCain was at least asking “the right question” in focusing on cost instead.) Coverage is incredibly important, and the number of uninsured Americans is disgraceful and growing. Most of the uninsured are, of course, poor. Yet the challenge for Democrats in the coming election may be to ensure that universal health care is talked about in ways that also illustrate the benefits for the many middle class Americans who are uninsured, underinsured, or paying too much for their insurance.

Most of we post-Boomer generations came to political consciousness in the Reagan era or later. We have no personal memory of a time when Great Society-style social programs were widely discussed with hope and energy. (Remember: Bill Clinton instituted workfare.) Those of us that grew up not in poverty also have very little personal experience with the benefits that various social programs confer. Even among those of us that consider ourselves "progressive," what we know tends to be abstract, at the level of principle, and faded out from the years of public conversation in which bureaucratic sclerosis and cynicism about public action have almost become starting assumptions. One of the main things that many of us no longer know at a personal level, therefore, is how social programs can change norms and social structures in positive and profound ways. Leaving aside interesting proposals to reform the public sector, even old-style social benefits can have profound effects.

I am currently the beneficiary of one of the most generous social programs in North America: I recently embarked on a paid maternity leave from my job. For the last five years, Canada has provided for 50 weeks of government-funded “employment insurance” for new parents. The sums are not great – they amount to about $1400 per month at the most – but many employers top those benefits up for a period of time. In my case, my employer tops my wages up to 95% of my regular salary for 27 weeks. My husband’s employer will top him up to 75% for the balance of those 50 weeks. (These are generous employer top-ups, more generous than most.) Most importantly, we can split the year off between us.

The effect of the new parental leave benefits on social norms in Canada has been profound. My impression is that mothers who take a year off work to be with their new children are less likely than before to be perceived as not being committed to their careers. In fact, mothers who eschew the benefits and return to work early may even feel compelled at times to justify that choice. (Of course there are exceptions within certain employment subcultures, including those at many private law firms.) In addition, an increasing number of fathers/partners are taking some part of the year off as parental leave while these mothers return to work. It is no longer surprising to see men toting babies to neighborhood playgyms in the middle of the week, though they are still in the minority. At a societal level, the leave benefits have provided powerful public affirmation for men who choose to be with their children at this early stage, and it has reinforced expectations that fathers be involved parents to their children. At the personal level, the more equal distribution of primary caregiving in that first year can strengthen the bonds between infant and both parents, and can have a rebalancing and unifying effect on the family as a whole. I am lucky that I haven’t had to imagine having a spouse who doesn’t know how to change a diaper, or what our children like to eat.

Without this personal experience of a generous parental leave policy, I would not appreciate firsthand, from personal experience, the enormous and positive changes to social norms and individual lives that such an entitlement program can provide. As middle class Americans go to the polls next November, they should also be reminded that “entitlement programs” like universal health care coverage can still, even in our post-idealistic age, be forces for profound and positive social change.

posted by Cristie Ford