Actually, the title of this post should be “Social Security Credits for Mothers …and Other Family Caregivers”. A program that would credit family care would benefit a mother, father or other family member who reduces or cuts back on paid work to look after children, an elderly parent, or ill spouse or other family member. Does the idea sound crazy? We’ve never had such a thing in this country. Our Social Security only rewards paid employment. But most modern nations consider it the civilized thing to do. Public pensions in places as diverse as Canada, Finland, Japan, and France have all incorporated some form of credit for family care into their benefit calculation. Clearly, if we aren’t softening the economic effect of family carework here, it’s because we choose not to, not because we can’t.
Public pension credit systems vary from country to country, and no two are precisely the same. But all the programs acknowledge that bearing and raising children incurs a private cost with a public gain. After all, no economy, no community, no society could prosper without a continual repopulation, and humans don’t grow on trees. We are the result of years of rearing, training, nurturing, educating, and feeding provided by our parents. Women generally provide the bulk of necessary carework, and have done so generation after generation. This is a primary (but by no means the only) reason that women in general, and mothers in particular, have lower lifetime income and face greater likelhood of poverty in later life. So, some societies design credits towards pensions as a way of putting men and women on a closer financial footing in retirement, even if a discrepancy in lifetime paid employment exists. Some policies are designed to boost women’s retirement income, which would otherwise be simply too little for basic expenses. Also, some countries use it as a tool to encourage childbirth and promote a desirable fertility rate, although usually this is a part of a larger program which includes paid family leave, paid vacation, and paid sick time — the rule in much of the modern world, although yet to be realized in the United States. The promise of a relatively minor increase in a future pension benefit is too remote, in itself, to make a sufficient economic inducement towards motherhood in the present.
There are many ways to custom-make a plan for Social Security caregiver credits in this country. One parent could earn credits for a certain time period for each dependent child. Perhaps a more equitable approach would offer each parent individually a certain number, to encourage mothers and fathers to share the care, just as now most parents share income generation. You could earn credits for each full year you devote to carework for children up to a certain age, or have a maximum number of years to claim without regard to the number of children. If you wanted to encourage part-time work, eligibility could rely upon the change in employment income, rather than the absence of employment income. Credits could be large enough to punch up the benefit in retirement, but modest enough not to function as a disincentive to go back to work or work part-time. A year’s credit could be equal to the average national wage, or even the federal minimum wage. The details and objections could certainly be resolved, if in principle there was a common understanding that caring for one’s children (or family who are disabled, or chronically ill, or elderly) was work, served the common good, and exacted a price from the caregiver.
At the moment, that common understanding does not exist. Those who put the needs of dependent family ahead of their own financial security will frequently find themselves economically dependent, reducing their income or surrendering it altogether. They also forego future wages and promotions, and the ability to maximize personal savings, private pensions, or Social Security benefits in later life. Health care insurance is also often a casualty, if it came through a former employer, or was paid for by wages. Lacking a national paid family leave program, paid sick days, alternative workplace policies, and part-time worker protections on par with those for full-time workers, we’ve stacked the deck against mothers and other family caregivers. By failing to acknowledge that caring for family members is productive and essential work, we marginalize, and diminish those who do it, and make them even less capable of caring for themselves. Such a strategy fails at every level. If only paid employment is part of the Social Security equation, then those who do something else, or something in addition to, will never be regarded as of equal status. Family caregivers give more, and get less. And that’s not any kind of security, social or otherwise.