October 28, 2007

Dependents, Parents and Benefits

by PG

Writing about INS v. Nguyen several years ago, I remarked, "A great joy and burden of maturity consists in using one's own powers to care for another who is weaker, whether the person receiving the care is an ill senior citizen or a healthy infant." Partly due to the modern Western assumption that a family consists only of parents and children (albeit now updated to include single, step, adoptive and gay parents), the word "dependent" to most Americans is synonymous with child, or perhaps child + spouse. Many of the benefits seen as favoring only parents, however, are in fact open to other workers who take care of another person.

The choice to take such care is a sensible one to encourage through tax breaks and other incentives; the more people who receive their care from family, the fewer people who become a burden on the state. Admittedly, raising one's own biological children doesn't fit precisely with this rationale, because those children probably wouldn't exist in the first place unless one decided to have them. So perhaps the state legitimately could reserve benefits only for people not caring for the offspring they had created themselves. In any case, the benefits afforded to caretakers -- the tax credits, the time off from work to take the dependents to the doctor, etc. -- are in the interests of society as a whole. In Slate, William Saletan clumsily summarizes the caregiver vs. non-caregiver argument, but as usual, sees it simply as parent vs. non-parent:

Employee benefits are shifting as marriage and parenthood decline. Data: 1) 42 percent of U.S. adults are now unmarried. 2) In 35 years, the proportion of unmarried women who marry each year has declined by half. 4) In 40 years, the proportion of households that have kids under 18 has declined from almost half to less than a third, and soon it'll fall to a fourth. Single/childless complaints: 1) Parents get more freedom to leave work than we do. 2) The work they leave undone gets dumped on us. 3) They get paid better. 4) Company benefits are designed for them, not us. Result: As the balance of power shifts away from parents and married couples, companies are rethinking the distribution of hours, salaries, and benefits. (Related: Most American women no longer live with a husband, and married couples are no longer a majority of U.S. households.) Single perspective: We want "equal respect for nonwork life." Parents' perspective: Our nonwork life is more important than yours. Human Nature's view: Now that I'm a parent, I see that the parents are right.
This opposition of "single" and "parent" nonwork life is silly. Single people can and often do act as caretakers, whether on a longterm basis (as for a parent or sibling) or on a consistent, recurrent basis (as a volunteer for strangers) and whatever assistance they need to perform this caretaking should be given equally to them as to people whose caretaking is defined by the parental role. Neither group's "nonwork life," in the sense of things they do that mostly benefit themselves (going to the movies with or without kids, taking a vacation with or without kids), deserves special consideration.

That said, not expecting people to do the same amount of work in order to receive the same pay is quite odd. I can't believe that a law firm associate who is a parent and didn't manage to bill the same number of hours as an associate with no family responsibilities would earn the same amount of money or receive the same opportunities for promotion as the latter, and other fields should take the same attitude. Parents shouldn't be assumed to be slackers, but neither should they get paid for work they didn't do. Our society and workplaces can be supportive of caring for dependents without paying people to do it instead of their market work. If you want to be paid to take care of people, become a foster parent or a home health nurse; don't expect your employer to compensate you for time you spent on your home responsibilities instead of your office duties.

October 28, 2007 07:34 PM | TrackBack
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