This is Part 3 of my mini-series on fairness in policymaking for our families. It's taken from my book, The Four Walls of My Freedom. I am a Canadian who has lived in my own country, in the UK and in the United States. With the US Presidential debate this evening, I encourage in a completely non-partisan way (especially because I am Canadian!), a thoughtful discourse on our caregiving and family issues. Here's my take on the ethics behind fair policy.
Ethics and moral philosophy guides us in shaping the financial deal between families and the state. If we agree that it is morally wrong to coerce someone into giving care, as in my own experience or that of the Kelso or McKeague families, then we must accept that families have a state supported exit clause. When families put their hand to their health or social service department and say “I need help” or “I have had enough – I can’t do this anymore”, those civil servants should respond with practical solutions and no defensive, bureaucratic nonsense. Enabling families to contribute their own resources without fear of losing state resources would go some distance to achieving this ideal. Tax initiatives such as income splitting for families where one parent cares full time for someone in need would be helpful. If I had been able to claim half of Jim’s income over the last twenty years, our tax rate would have been much lower. We would have had the extra cash to pay for more care and special equipment. As it was, on paper I could have been sitting home eating bonbons – my contributing role was not reflected in our taxation, so my contributions were not reciprocated in any way, shape or form by the state. Where citizens give care to others, policies must reflect an understanding that those two people – the carer and her charge – are linked in almost every way. The wellbeing of each is completely dependent on the other. Policies that support caregivers are essential to the health of their vulnerable charges, just as policies that support mothers result in healthy children.
Local community centres can play a vital role in supporting carers. Between postings at home in Ottawa, I was an active member of my local community centre, Dovercourt. For a time, I was a board trustee representing the interests of those served by inclusive programmes. Dovercourt is a terrific real life example of how a sports and recreation centre can galvanize a community to embrace all of its citizens. The City of Ottawa partially funds operations of that centre, but participants also pay fees for programmes. The centre’s charitable status pays for free swims for people with disabilities, rehabilitation programming such as the rehab walking club and post-stroke aqua fitness classes. There are classes for all abilities, many for those with long term conditions as well as for those who are recovering from surgery or illness. Charitable funds also pay for specially trained one to one helpers, otherwise volunteers help out. Secondary school students are encouraged to fulfill their voluntary service hours requirement at Dovercourt. John Rapp, Executive Director at Dovercourt once told me that the lounge with its internet café and playstructure is “the living room of the neighbourhood”. Everyone is welcome and after aerobics or aqua class is time for cross generational coffee and conversation. The friendly banter is natural – differing abilities blend in seamlessly. Everyone is friendly with the residents of a local psychiatric group home who often come in for some company. When Nicholas and Natalie were small, I would leave them in the wonderful Kindercare facility, knowing they were safe and happy while I did aerobics in the adjoining gym. Family swims were a regular activity for us, but we took advantage of the disabled swim times if we wanted a quieter experience. These sociable and healthy pursuits made me feel connected to my neighbours. When I didn’t come to class, people noticed and often, prepared meals would be dropped off at my door. All of these special kindnesses gave me a sense of connectedness to my community. It helped to make us all feel “normal”. Dovercourt is a designated emergency shelter, so when the ice storm hit in 1998, many in our neighbourhood slept on cots in the gym. Although we had a hotel room, we used the warm facilities during the day to socialize and allow the children to play with their friends. This neighbourhood “living room” is just one example of interdependence realized and celebrated through public-private co-funding arrangements.
But it’s not only seniors or people with disabilities and their families who benefit from such arrangements. Cristina Odone of the Centre for Policy Studies in London was interested in the aspirations and life goals of women in England. What she found surprised her and offended some. Odone’s research showed that most women derive their greatest satisfaction by nurturing their loved ones. Their careers are seen as an intrusive and rather unpleasant necessity. In “What Women Want…and How They Can Get It” (March, 2009), she wrote “Our work-centred culture is based on a fundamental conundrum: the economy depends on workers, while society depends on carers. Women, in particular, are torn. Only by resolving it will we create the conditions for a society in which adults fulfil their potential as professionals, partners and parents….Can – should – government intervene in such an intimate sphere? The answer is a resounding yes.” Odone’s policy recommendations reflect her findings that women feel torn apart by a desire to care for their families, to have some paid work for life balance and financial security while experiencing the push by governments for them to be in full time paid employment with children in daycare or face paying the penalty costs. If policy makers were to accept my argument for the capability of enabling good mothers as a matter of justice, they might take up some of Odone’s recommendations such as:
- The government should change its childcare strategy. Pumping billions of taxpayers’ money into a child care system that is both unpopular with mothers and has been shown to harm children’s emotional development makes no sense
- Instead, through the tax credit system and childcare vouchers, the Government should enable families to choose their childcare, including parental or close family care.
- The 2007 Pensions Act, which introduces weekly national insurance credits for carers of children and the disabled as of April 2010, is a step in the right direction. The credits will count towards the State Basic and State Second Pensions. But the new proposals will only apply to those people who have 20 qualifying years of National Insurance (UEI) contributions…who reach State Pension age between April 2008 and April 2015. More should be done in this direction.
- The government should reform the tax and benefit system so that they no longer penalise stay-at-home women. Income splitting could redress this. Income splitting regards the household rather than the individual as the basic economic unit. It allows married and cohabiting couples with children to be taxed jointly rather than as individuals.
- It should be easier, not more difficult, for businesses to employ part-time workers. At present only a little over half (66%) of businesses have part-time workers; the volume and complexity of employment regulations are not likely to attract more businesses to take on more employees of any kind. The government should act quickly to cut these regulations and their accompanying paperwork.
- Finally, we need to break the stranglehold that a small coterie of women who work fulltime and buy into the macho way of life, enjoy on our public life. They have, for years, misrepresented real women who reject the masculine value system for one that rates caring above a career, and interdependence above independence.
Odone is talking here about the United Kingdom, but the policy ideas are relevant in any developed nation. She certainly seems unduly harsh to those women who have fought so long and hard for an equal place at the boardroom table, but I agree with her that the celebration of paid employment alongside derision for the work of caring is wrong and actually unhelpful to everyone. We all require care at some time in our lives. Indeed, a new trend to emerge (and this just from my own observations) is that of women beginning a new career path at age fifty-something. Once child rearing is done, healthy and fit mothers jump in to pursuing their dreams of becoming someone other than a mother. Many women find themselves at the top of their career game just as their husbands are on the point of retiring. I agree with Cristina Odone on most of her policy recommendations but I would warn her not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Women do have more opportunities to succeed in business than ever before and we do not want to squander those advancements. But all of society needs to recognize that caring for dependents is not some dirty little secret to be denied or swept under the carpet. My daughter Natalie is at university and she has big plans for success in business AND a happy family – with lots of luxury holidays to boot. She wants it all, and I believe she should have it. Policies that allow women to nurture well with reasonable support followed by a retirement from caring should be available. Of course there will be some men and women who choose all or nothing on both sides of the work/care coin and why not? But where job satisfaction is concerned, Odone has echoed that essential PLAN value – that relationships are the key to a good life.
Coming next: Part 4 - the summing up.