Conservatives, Government, and Families: Why Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann Should Stop Deriding Government Support for Breastfeeding (and Families Generally)
Unless you were spending too much time in the blogosphere in the last few weeks, you might have missed the brouhaha created by conservative favorites’ Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann over Michelle Obama’s remarks about breastfeeding. The First Lady’s comments came as part of her Let’s Move initiative, which seeks to reduce childhood obesity rates. Obama stated, “What we’re learning now is that early intervention is key. Kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese.” To increase breastfeeding, she suggested measures that included educating all women about the benefits of early food choices for children, including breast milk.
In response to the First Lady’s remarks, Sarah Palin cracked, “It’s no wonder Michelle Obama is telling everybody you need to breastfeed your babies . . . the price of milk is so high!” This followed comments by Rep. Michele Bachmann that the First Lady’s breast feeding promotion campaign represents a “hard left” position in which “government is the answer to everything.” Bachmann called the breastfeeding campaign “social engineering” and, while she was at it, took a jab at the IRS’s recent decision that breast pumps were tax deductible: “I’ve given birth to five babies and I breastfed every single one,” Bachmann said. “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump. . . . That’s the new definition of a nanny state.” (The IRS determined that breast pumps were a deductible medical expense because of the health benefits of breastfeeding, a determination that was unrelated to the Let’s Move Initiative.) Sandy Rios, a Fox News contributor, joined in, criticizing the requirement in the newly-passed health care law that employers must give working mothers (unpaid) time and a place to nurse orpump their breast milk. (UPDATE: See the clip of Rios opposing mandates on employers here, particularly at 4 minutes 15 seconds and on. And see here, at 3:40, for an earlier clip of Palin reacting to the Let’s Move Initiative by saying that it demonstrates “government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us.” And this link, in which Palin, presenting cookies to a Pennsylvania school last month states, “Who should be deciding what I eat? Should it be government or parents. It should be parents.”)
It’s easy to dismiss this skirmish as just another kerfuffle blown out of proportion in the echo chambers of Fox News and the blogosphere. But pay attention to what these conservatives’ comments say about the state’s role, and you’ll see there’s an important issue at stake. The view that now dominates the hard right construes government support for families – even when it comes to activities like breastfeeding whose benefits are undisputed – as undermining families’ autonomy. Conservatives takes this view even when government action would actually increase families’ choices: the measure requiring employers to provide breaks for breastfeeding lets employees choose whether to breastfeed or not, without penalty of losing their jobs. And even relatively gentle
measures like education regarding the benefits of exercise, or tax breaks for activities like breastfeeding because of its health benefits, are constructed as interfering with families’ rights. (This is, of course, a far cry from conservatives’ position on whether compulsory education of women who seek abortions about what their fetus looks like is an infringement on their rights, but that’s another story. . . .)
There are a number of other problems with the conservative view, as well. Perhaps the biggest has to do with the way that it constructs the relationship between families, government, and market forces. In these conservatives’ view, government is supposed to stay out of the way when it comes to how market forces affect families – that’s the way things are supposed to work. If a mother can’t afford a breast pump, or her employer won’t let her breastfeed, so be it. If the only information she gets about breastfeeding comes from advertisements selling infant formula or from “welcome parent” bags containing formula sponsored by companies that sell formula, ditto.
During the last several decades, in large part as a result of the neoliberal ideology that underlies this view, U.S. public policy has significantly retreated from buffering the market’s effects on families. Welfare reform was the most obvious example of this retreat, in which subsidies for mothers’ caretaking were removed unless they got paid jobs.
The result is that U.S. families are far more subjected to market forces than they were before, which puts significant stress on families. To take just one example, as found by Suzanne Bianchi and her colleagues, American parents in dual-earner families work roughly ten hours a day seven days a week when their paid and unpaid work was taken into account. That’s because American parents work significantly longer in paid jobs than parents in any other developed country, in large part because other countries have developed a network of protections for families from the market (paid parental leaves, a reduction in the hours of the standard work week, paid vacations for all workers) that we haven’t in the United States. Conservatives of yore, who recognized the importance of families and other civil associations to the health of society, would certainly have been horrified by the toll that these forces take on families today, even if the commentators on Fox cheer these forces on.
In addition, the conservative view that government action inherently undermines families is wrong in other ways. It rests on the assumption that families function in some natural way whose proper balance is upset by the state’s interference. The fact of the matter, though, is that the ways in which families function are deeply and inextricably intertwined with government policy. Not only is state action essential to determining what constitutes a family as a legal matter, but state action inevitably affects how families function. For example, laws regulating child labor and education shape the lives of children and influence parents’ control over them. Equal employment legislation for women enabled women to get paid jobs, which, in turn, influenced the availability of childcare within families. Equal employment laws have also probably contributed to the increase in divorce, as women are more likely to have the financial wherewithal to divorce their husbands. The modern administrative state built on this foundation does not and cannot have the neutral, isolated position available to it that would keep it from affecting families that these conservatives call for.
On top of that, the “free-market” forces that conservatives say must be inflicted on families are, of course, not natural, but themselves required extensive state action. Recent work of Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, and David Harvey, shows the extensive government action needed to build “free” markets.
Even more important, the critical tasks families perform, including raising children and caretaking for ill or aged family members, are activities that cannot be wrapped up in seconds or minutes. Instead, they are complex tasks that are part of a process that generally takes place over many years. During those years, families don’t live on islands somewhere by themselves. They live in society, and necessarily interact with a range of societal institutions – most prominently work, but also schools, daycare, health care – that profoundly influence their ability to meet family members’ dependency needs. And how these institutions are set up has a real impact on families. Individual workers aren’t in a great position to influence how employers construct jobs, or the ways other institutions are structured, but government is uniquely positioned to do so.
So if, as these conservatives argue, government shouldn’t be involved in guaranteeing breaks for mothers who choose to breastfeed, the result will be that mothers who work just don’t have the opportunity to breastfeed. Put another way, these conservatives are too quick to see the possibility of tyranny by the state, and blind to the tyranny of market forces.
This straitened view of the role of government is relatively new. Since the Industrial Revolution, the role of the state in tempering the effects of the free market on families to allow them to lead decent lives has been ascendant. The New Deal institutionalized this view of the role of the state. But this view of the role of government is now under attack, and there has been very little resistance to this offensive.
One final thought: this narrow view of the role of the state is not helped much by the recent rhetoric of the First Lady’s own husband. President Obama generally, as in his last State of the Union address, is far more apt to dwell on the role of government in enabling the country to compete in the global economy, therefore cheerleading for the role of government in supporting market forces, than he is to focus on the way that government must curb market forces to allow citizens to lead decent lives and to build the healthy families necessary in a flourishing society. Both liberals and conservatives should recognize that it is the latter course that is the real pro-family position.