Individualism as an ideology believes that human beings should put themselves first as they are responsible for their fate. It also subscribes to the thought that there is no relationship between an individual and the society and, therefore, the society does not owe individuals any protection or care. In order to rise in society, a person has to work hard as his or her work ethic is what determines their status in the society. This ideology is embedded in the American society, and it has prevented people from viewing children as the responsibility of the whole society but instead views them as the private responsibilities of their parents. The paper argues that individualism has made the current American society refuse to make social policies that provide services to parents, especially middle and low-income earning mothers, and has instead left the choice of child care to be a private affair of the parents. The paper also discusses the way the U.S. has failed in its social policies as compared to those of other leading nations in Europe.
Even though currently Americans are holding dear values deeply entrenched in individualism, history proves that Americans have always succeeded by being interdependent. According to Coontz (1992) “depending on support beyond the family has always been the mile rather than the exception in American history” (69). Ever since the colonial period, families received government support through social and economic policies. During this time, community members depended on each other for mutual assistance by establishing fraternal organizations to assist one another. For example, people would make regular contributions to many different funds for emergencies. However, industrialization changed the mindsets of the society. Its ascendancy led to equating human value with earnings. People became self-reliant, and those who could not compare their worth to economics were termed as ‘dependents’ (Crittenden, 2001). In 1900, the US Census Bureau led by Francis Walker officially erased mothers work from the census. The domestic labor of women raising children no longer had any economic values. The government did not view children as human capital important in growing the country’s future economy.
However, even with the advancement of individualism, economists view human capital provided by children in terms of their education, skills, and entrepreneurial culture as more important in growing the nation’s economy compared to natural and manufactured resources and capital (Crittenden, 2001). Unfortunately, social benefit of raising children is yet to be respected. Socially, children are defined as a private choice. The cost of raising them is privatized. Parents are, therefore, left to pay almost all of the cost of raising their children. When the government pretends that children are private choices then it also apparently pretends that the rewards are personal and not social.
Individualism does not just stop with making families privatize the welfare of their children. It also extends to the labor of middle-class mothers in their workplaces. According to Crittenden (2001), middle-class mothers face a lot of challenges in their employment. It is attributed to the fact that most organizations still follow the norms of the 1950s in American employment where they believe that the ideal worker is someone who is “unencumbered” and can devote all energies to the job without distractions (87). Therefore, mothers who appear distracted or uncommitted by asking for family benefits such as paid leave and flexible work times can be marginalized at the workplace (Stone and Lovejoy 2011). They face the threat of having their earnings penalized and have fewer chances of receiving promotions. The situation of middle-class mothers is further challenged by the issue of unpaid maternity leaves. It further illustrates the extent of individualism in the American society. The United States is among the only three nations in the world, the other two being Surinam and Papua New Guinea, that lack a mandated paid maternity leave. Mothers are forced to use private resources to provide for the period they take a break from work to care for their children during maternity leave. At times, middle-class mothers are forced to abandon their careers to become stay-at-home mothers. These women face challenges. According to Stone and Lovejoy (2011), most mothers leave their jobs because of long hours of work and lack of flexible job schedules. Unfortunately, once the mothers are no longer in the labor market, they are unable to contribute to their social security. Consequently, upon retirement, such mothers lack social security benefits.
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These women are also forced to encounter the mommy tax. It is all income in earnings and benefits that mothers forego because of time spent with their children (Crittenden 2001). Apart from the economic consequences, working middle-class mothers also encounter psychological and social effects of the lack of social policies such as leaves and flexible work hours to protect them at work. According to Schulte (2014), these mothers experience emotional disengagement from their workplaces, always feel tired and experience an increased level of stress. They end up working less and having more sick days.
Individualism manifests even more pronouncedly in poor mothers. The ideology of individualism in relation to social policies does not believe that there are economic factors that can constrain poor working mothers and prevent them from improving their livelihoods. Hays (2003) explains that individualism finds that a person’s economic status is a reflection of his or her work ethic. She believes that America’s national and cultural myths of self-sufficiency and self-reliance dull peoples’ insensitivity to social factors that influence individual life chances. Lawmakers in the country do not make social policies to help poor mothers because they overlook the complexities of life that lead to their state of poverty.
According to individualism, for these poor mothers to prove their work ethic, they need to work and not just rely on handouts. It is clearly elaborated in the 1996 punitive Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program. The initiative provides poor and unemployed mothers with a small monthly stipend. However, as a condition for the aid, the mothers are expected to look for job. The program values work more than the welfare of the mothers and their children. It imposes certain sanctions for those mothers who refuse to work. These women are expected to make forty job contacts within thirty days, report any change, even if trivial, in income, accept given working hours even if they would interfere with child care time, and not to miss any job appointment for any reason whatsoever (Hays, 2003:45). These TANF rules are imposed on poor mothers without any flexibility for accommodating family time and needs.
Unfortunately poor mothers have no option but to work because it is only by working that they become eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit to supplement their earnings when their income is below a certain level. They will also qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides them with food assistance by giving them electronic vouchers that they will use to purchase food. Even with their work, poor mothers barely make enough to enable them to rise out of poverty. The salary is too little, and, unfortunately, poor mothers are made to cover their child care costs even though they lack the ability to have private resources. According to Hays (2003), child care is only offered to poor mothers on paper. The majority of them do not get those subsidies. In a study she conducted, Hays found that in 2013, only 8 percent of TANF recipients received the benefits (90).
Individualism has perpetuated self-reliance and viewing children as private commodities. The public, therefore, has no duty to create social policies to cater for the children who are the country’s future human capital. The middle-class and poor mothers are forced to work extra hard to provide for their children, and in the process of work these mothers miss raising their kids. By the public denying the role of the child as a public good, it has made itself culpable for the loss of the nation’s potential human capital. The American society has to blame itself in case of future economic losses. To avoid these tragic consequences, the United States should adopt the European social policies. In northern Europe, even though most countries subscribe to individualism, they also believe in the child being a public good and the most powerful future human capital. It is for this reason that countries such as France provide paid maternity leave for new mothers and paternity leaves for new fathers for a period of up to thirteen months at 80 percent of their salaries (Hays 2003). These countries also have policies on breastfeeding breaks, paid healthcare services, preschool and afterschool care for children. In France, all children have health insurances and any child who is sixteen years or below and of any nationality can receive free medical care in the nation.
The American society’s ideology of individualism has led to people viewing children as private choices. It is for this reason that parents are left to cover the cost of raising their kids. Unfortunately, the most affected people are the middle-class and poor mothers who are forced to work extra hard to provide for their children. However, because of the lack of social policies, these women end up having no time for raising their children as they are too busy working for long hours. When they decide to quit their jobs, they are subjected to mommy taxes and are, therefore, unable to take care of their children. Without effective social policies that protect children and their parents, the economic future of the U.S. is jeopardized as children make up the most significant potential human capital of the nation. The U.S. can avoid such consequences by adopting the European countries’ social policies on women and childcare such as paid maternity leaves for mothers and pre and post school care for the children.