Opinion | Why Are We Worrying About Women’s Work?

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It’s also unclear to me why these work-nonwork calculations are imagined to be zero-sum.

In comparably developed countries worldwide, it isn’t uncommon for women with young children to reduce their work hours, take on part-time jobs or step out of the labor force for a short period and return when their children are in school, thanks to their countries’ generous welfare programs. In Sweden, for instance, nearly half of mothers of toddlers worked part time as of 2015 — which makes a great deal of sense to me as a full-time writer and mother of two pre-school-age children.

And isn’t that the final stage of liberation — not only having a range of choices when it comes to work inside and outside the home, but also having the actual, material capability to choose the options that fit best for you?

We can argue about the fairness of women’s child care burden in two-parent families, but social engineering is unlikely to change that or diminish America’s disgraceful child poverty rate. And many, many more children live with only their mothers than only their fathers. Yet policies that could help millions of single women care for their families are treated with skepticism out of concern they may be too helpful, lighten the yoke too much.

Yet the burden — sought and cherished, wholly necessary, sometimes desperately desired — is heavy. Children need, and their need is so pure: They brook no delay, they tolerate no compromise. Answering those needs requires all sorts of skills and efforts. It’s likely true that policies tailored to make it harder for mothers to meet their children’s needs could persuade women to contort themselves into the workplace — social engineering by way of child privation, not unlike the Trump administration’s bet that parents would stop trying to cross the border if they lost their children in the process. Policy in that style isn’t emancipatory for women or any other person; it is profoundly inhumane.

All this is somewhat beside the point. The benefit is for children, and children live in family units, so of course the benefit is distributed to adult caregivers — but its effect should be judged on whether it lifts children out of poverty. And the evidence on that front is encouraging. A paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research this month found that similar child benefit programs in Canada not only reduced child poverty; they had little measurable effect on women’s labor force participation.

Who’s to say we can’t have it all?

Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.

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