A New York Times columnist distorts my views — while covertly pushing a socially conservative agenda

A New York Times columnist distorts my views — while covertly pushing a socially conservative agenda

Elizabeth Bruening speaking at the Shorenstein Center in February 2018.

Allie Henske, Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_Bruenig_February_2018.jpg

The provision for a child tax credit in the newly enacted American Rescue Plan Act is arguably the nation's most transformative new welfare policy in decades. Compared to previous government programs for American families, it is downright revolutionary.

It boasts three features that make it significantly different from previous versions of the benefit. First, it is available to all families with children under 18, even if they have no taxable income. Second, unlike traditional welfare, it doesn't discourage work. The vast majority of families will still qualify for the full credit even if their earnings increase (the benefit doesn't phase out until the head of household makes over $112,500 a year). Finally, it will arrive not in an annual lump sum but every month, like a Social Security check. That regularity will make it a godsend to many families.

Sure, the measure has its faults. Ideally, it would be more generous, fully universal and of course, permanent (it expires in a year). But there is no doubt that it will be life-changing for some people. Researchers say the tax credit, together with the other goodies in the covid relief-economic stimulus plan, will cut the child poverty rate by more than half. Single mothers and families of color will disproportionately benefit.

In many ways, the benefit is an implicit rebuke of the shameful welfare reform act of 1996, a disastrous policy which more than doubled the rate of children of single mothers living in deep poverty. By contrast, economist Claudia Sahm has said that the new benefit marks the "most aggressive fight against deep poverty in decades."

Most feminists I know have applauded the new child tax credit. Not only is it supported by mainstream women's groups like NOW and the National Women's Law Center, but those of us who are socialist feminists are also enthusiastic. We like that the benefit redistributes income to poor and working-class families, and that supports women's perennially under-compensated care work. In this, it resembles the child allowances that are common in Scandinavian social democracies and that many socialist feminists, most certainly including me, have long championed.

That explains why I find it annoying that in a recent piece, Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig strongly suggested, without a whit of evidence, that I oppose the benefit.

True, she didn't come right out and say it. But she does cite me, along with several other "liberal women," as someone who has "warned that child benefits would enforce gender inequality." This is misleading. For one thing, I am not a liberal. I'm a socialist. (It's even in my Twitter bio, fer gosh sakes). And even if she didn't know that, by no stretch of the imagination could anyone giving a remotely fair reading of the piece that I wrote, and that she cites, refer to me as a "liberal." In that article, I approvingly cited Marxist scholar Kathi Weeks and argued in favor of a universal basic income and free, universal, publicly provided child care. That sounds pretty socialisty to me!

It is also false to suggest, as Bruenig does, that I don't support child benefits. Bruenig has had a long-standing animus against liberals and feminists, and she seems to have wanted to write a "both sides do it" piece about how both Republicans and Democrats are at heart evil neoliberals who want to snatch bread out of the mouths of infants.

But it's telling how hard it is for her to find liberals and feminists who allegedly oppose the benefit. To drag socialisty me into her argument, Bruenig resorted to digging up a two-year old piece that was about a totally different subject (child care) and in which I explicitly say that her husband Matt Bruenig's policy proposal for an extensive list of child benefits is "excellent," with the exception of one of them that would pay parents to stay home with their children for an extended period of time.

Furthermore, I'm not the only person on the left whose views she mischaracterizes. She cites two people on Twitter as being "hesitant" about the benefit, even though one of them calls the child allowance "great" while the other says that Elizabeth Bruenig misinterpreted her tweet, and that she is "very PRO child allowance." Another person she puts in the "anti" camp is a Politico reporter whose political ideology is unclear. That leaves Bruenig's final example, feminist author Linda Hirshman. Though Hirshman is clearly ambivalent about the benefit, she hasn't come out against it.

Intellectual dishonesty pervades Bruenig's piece. It's not only in her construction of feminist straw women. It's in the way she characterizes the debate over the tax being about "the question of whether women ought to work outside the home." That framing trivializes the matter. No one is arguing that women should stay out of the paid labor force. What's at stake is gender equity at work, in the home, and in society at large.

Feminists are rightly concerned that over the past several decades, women's progress in our society has, by many measures, come to a screeching halt. For the past 20 years, women's labor force participation has been declining or flat. The pandemic has had a devastating, and disproportionate, effect on women's employment. Since the pandemic's beginning, nearly 3 million women have exited the workforce, most of them women of color. In January, female labor force participation hit a 33-year low.

It could take many years for women to make up the economic ground they've lost. These facts are crucial context yet astonishingly, Elizabeth Bruenig ignores them. Is it any wonder that feminists are alarmed and want to ensure that any new work and family policies we adopt don't inadvertently drive more women out of the workplace? (It should be noted that there's little reason to believe that the new child benefit would do this. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that a child allowance would cause most parents to cut their work hours by less than an hour a week).

As feminists have long understood, participating in the paid labor force is good for women. A woman earning her own money has more power and autonomy outside and inside the home. Researchers have found that women with their own economic resources have more bargaining power within the family and more control over household decisions. They are also less likely to experience domestic violence. As a society, we should adopt policies that encourage women to enter the paid labor force and improve conditions once they are there. Those policies include, but are not limited to, raising the minimum wage, making it easier to join a union, paid family leave and sick leave, single-payer health care, and universal, publicly provisioned child care.

The child care piece is particularly critical. Our grossly inadequate child care system is a major culprit in women's exit from the labor force. There is strong evidence that public child care is better for gender equity than policies that pay women to stay home to care for children for extended periods. Sweden, Finland, and Norway have programs pushed by right-of-center parties that pay parents to stay home to care for kids under 3 years old. Though in principle the benefit is gender-neutral, researchers have found that in all three countries it has had a negative impact on gender equality. In Finland, the benefit is associated with an increase in the proportion of mothers with children under 3 becoming homemakers and with high long-term unemployment rates among mothers of children from 3 to 6 (i.e., right after the benefit expires). Additionally, it has slowed the development of publicly provisioned child care services there.

Paid family leave is another entitlement which can inadvertently hurt women. There is evidence that while paid family leave policies tend to increase women's employment, extended leaves of nine months or more are associated with reduced female earnings. Aware that some family policies have the potential of reinforcing the traditional division of labor, feminist policymakers have applied various fixes. For example, to encourage more men to take parental leave, Sweden and other countries reserved a portion of the leave for fathers only. But although this significantly increased the proportion of leave days taken by men, it's still not anywhere near a 50-50 split.

I suspect that Elizabeth Bruenig is well aware that some kinds of work and family policies can undermine gender equality. If she isn't, she should be—and that brings me to another level of intellectual dishonesty in her Times piece. Though she's cagey about it, Bruenig is a social conservative. Her deployment in her Times piece of the right-wing cliche "social engineering" is one of the tip-offs, and there are more.

Bruenig is a convert to Catholicism, and in her earlier writings she opposed abortion rights, defended the Catholic Church's sexist policies, like its opposition to birth control and female priests, and she sympathetically reviewed a book that counseled Catholic gays and lesbians to practice celibacy. However, those pieces were published years ago, and today she is far more tight-lipped about her socially conservative beliefs. Surely, that's because Bruenig realizes that if she now were to write openly about, say, abortion, she'd damage her brand and lose her leftist cool-kid cred.

Even so, it's downright bizarre that someone who makes a living as an opinion journalist is so evasive about her core beliefs. Bruenig's child tax credit piece, and her other writings, carry a strong whiff of natalism. This is troubling, because the natalism narrative objectively plays into the hands of creepy white nationalists like Tucker Carlson, and it opens up the unappetizing possibility of an alliance between the right and the socially conservative left in support of a pro-marriage, pro-natalist agenda.

Unlike her Times colleague and fellow Catholic Ross Douthat, Bruenig won't openly cop to natalism as a policy goal. At least with Douthat, you can have an honest debate. But that's not possible with Bruenig. She is deliberately opaque about her underlying agenda. This is the problem with a political ideology like Bruenig's, which is rooted in a personal religious commitment. In debates about public policy, theological arguments are irrelevant because citizens in a secular society aren't united in any one faith. Thus the tendency of religiously motivated pundits like Bruenig to obfuscate.

Nevertheless, for the health of the left, an open and honest airing of our factional differences is essential. Two paths forward confront us. One, a socially conservative left that would expand the welfare state but would support natalism and other policies that leave existing gender and racial hierarchies intact. Two, an intersectional left that is committed to economic redistribution but also embraces a politics that is feminist, anti-racist, and supportive of queers and other minority groups. Those of us on the left must be crystal clear about what we are doing and which future we are fighting for, because the stakes couldn't be higher. That's why it's so maddening that an influential Times writer on the left like Elizabeth Bruenig won't put her cards on the table

The thing about a socially conservative left is that, as Gabriel Winant has pointed out, we tried it. It was called the New Deal. Over the long haul, it was not sustainable. It privileged the patriarchal, hetero-normative family. Access to its benefits were conditioned on race, gender and sexuality. This hierarchical form of social citizenship divided and weakened the working class, making it vulnerable to the globalized capitalism that began gaining strength in the 1960s and 1970s. The normative welfare state championed by Bruenig and others on the left is not a solution. To paraphrase Brecht, we must build not from the good old things but from the bad new ones.

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