The United States’ failure to create an infrastructure of care that provides quality and affordable childcare is a matter of national security. This is one of the many compelling points I heard Anne-Marie Slaughter make at a launch event last week for her new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, which builds off her popular Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She argues that investing in our children, especially during the first five years, is a crucial element of our national security.
Investing in children at an early age helps them become more productive, creative citizens, and frees up parents to focus on their careers, which in turn strengthens the United States’ economy and our global competiveness. In a short piece published last year, National Security Babies, Slaughter commented, “If young children do not receive high-quality care from educated professionals who understand how to stimulate and shape brain development, the next generation of Americans will suffer from an ever-widening achievement gap relative to their counterparts in other advanced countries and emerging competitors.” Slaughter notes that for decades, research has demonstrated that “[e]arly childhood care can shape a person’s lifelong capacity for learning, emotional resilience, confidence, and independence.” In a recent interview with Salon Slaughter notes that this is not a women’s issue; it’s a work issue.
Why then are women met with a mix of disappointment and pity when they opt for jobs with more flexible hours—as Slaughter did when she left a high-powered job in the State Department to return to her academic job at Princeton. [Full disclosure: I worked for Slaughter, when she served under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the first woman to direct the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff.] In fact, during Slaughter’s tenure in government, her husband, Princeton political scientist, Andrew Moravcik, was the “lead” parent with their two boys. Slaughter points out that despite all the successes of the women’s rights movement in expanding women’s access to work, we still need a revolution for men to provide them with more options to stay home. Flipping the script on Sheryl Sandberg, in a recent New York Times opinion piece, adapting themes from her new book, Slaughter says it is okay to for both men and women to “lean out” from time to time, by opting for more flexible work hours, or, at a minimum (as not everyone has the luxury of flexibility), by having access to affordable, quality care. After all, everyone at some stage of life ends up providing care, whether to a child, ailing parent, spouse, or other loved one.
The United States Department of Defense (DOD) and our competitors understand the importance of access to affordable quality childcare. For example, DOD offers on-site daycare for their employees and currently provides childcare for 200,000 children. Pentagon officials recognize that by providing daycare, parents can defend our country without worrying about their child’s educational and care needs. Another example is Denmark, which has a culture of flexible-hours and affordable childcare. The government in Denmark subsidizes childcare on a sliding scale, according to income. In Japan, fathers receive 52 weeks of paternity leave, in France men get 28 weeks, they receive 26.4 weeks in the Netherlands, and in Sweden almost 90 percent of men take the 10 weeks of paid paternity leave offered.
To accomplish a shift in the infrastructure of care in the United States, Slaughter advocates pushing for paid paternity leave and encouraging our government and the private sector to embrace flexible work hours, quality childcare, and paid family leave. Relatedly, she notes that as the baby boom generation is aging, we need to invest in more affordable, quality, humane elder care. Her solution for paid family leave involves a combination of government subsidies and tax breaks. At the book launch I attended, Slaughter noted New Jersey’s paid family leave policy, where employees pay for the leave out of their payroll tax. With characteristic flare, Slaughter cites this Chris Christie solution in the way Obamacare advocates note that it was a Republican Governor Mitt Romney, who in Massachusetts pioneered health care reform.
Many of our competitors, including Japan, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, offer paid paternity leave and a better infrastructure of care, which maximizes their competiveness and economic growth. As a matter of national security, it’s time for the United States to step up to the plate.