As the mother of three children, Maxine Eichner, Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, has personal experience in facing the challenges that American families face in juggling work and parenting.
That knowledge has inspired not only Eichner’s focus on family law but her most recent book, The Free-Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream (and How It Can Be Restored.) (Oxford University Press, 2020). In it, Eichner writes that American families are at a breaking point because of policy makers’ misguided belief that the free market alone best supports families.
“I have long been interested in the way we in the U.S. think about the relationship between government and families,” says Eichner. “But I really started thinking about the impact of our free market system on families in 2008, when the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement occurred amid growing levels of economic inequality and insecurity.”
Eichner’s book is rich with data and individual stories illustrating that American families are in jeopardy today, with more unstable families than any other wealthy democracy. “Society rises or falls based on the well-being of our families,” says Eichner. “Yet in the United States, when we think about rights, we think about liberty and equality but don’t think about the texture of our lives and how important relationships are within those lives.”
Eichner, who earned her PhD in political theory from UNC in 2006, says her book aims to expand the American conversation about the role of government in supporting family wellbeing, social bonds, and the importance of nurturing and caretaking.
She believes that addressing these challenges isn’t the hard part. “There are commonsense and proven family policies that most other wealthy democracies now have: a monthly child benefit check; up to a year of paid parental leave for a new baby; universal high-quality preschool; laws that help parents limit their work hours; and, regulations that limit the economic insecurity and inequality that are undermining family stability,” she says.
“We need a society in which children and families flourish.”-Maxine Eichner
Eichner wants political leaders and community members to recognize that the difficulties U.S. families are having are not an inevitable product of market forces, globalization or industrialization. “This is a political failure on the part of our policy makers who haven’t created policies that would help families thrive,” she says.
Interviews with families throughout the country put a human face on these issues. “One example I found particularly moving is the story of a poor mother in Charlotte who had her first child while in high school,” says Eichner. She notes that in many other wealthy countries, the mom would have been able to raise her child above the poverty line, as well as to have free high-quality daycare and pre-K.
“Instead, she raised her son in deep poverty, in situations that were chaotic and in which he suffered abuse,” says Eichner. “She was only able to intermittently provide him with high-quality daycare and only after her son was put into foster care during a period of time in which they were homeless despite her best efforts and willingness to work.” Eichner says that the child suffered significant trauma.
“When I interviewed the mom, her son had just been sentenced, before he turned 21, to nine years for armed robbery,” she says. “We can’t know how he would have turned out in another country but his chances to lead a more productive life would have been far greater in any other developed country because of the support his family would have received.”
Eichner, who notes that family policies impact people at all ends of the economic spectrum, cites a young lawyer in Durham who was able to take only a couple of months of leave after the birth of her child.
“She spiraled down into such severe post-partum depression (PPD) that her husband realized his wife wasn’t making sense and needed to be institutionalized,” says Eichner. “It’s not that people in other countries don’t suffer PPD. The problem is that in the U.S. system, PPD is made significantly worse by the absence of social supports and the expectation that mothers will go back to work shortly after giving birth.”
In her book, Eichner advocates what she calls “pro-family policies” adopted by other wealthy countries where the government actively seeks to ensure families get what they need to raise their children, including high minimum wage laws and public programs such as high-quality daycare.
“The term ‘American Dream’ used to stand for the idea that everyone could develop to their fullest stature and lead a rich, thriving life,” says Eichner. “For this to happen, we need a society in which children and families flourish.” Eichner’s book provides the blueprint to achieve this.
— Michele Lynn