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What is the “Free Market Family” and How Can We End It?


Maxine Eichner is the Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This post is part of a symposium on Maxine Eichner’s book, The Free Market Family.

The US has long been an outlier when it comes to how it expects families to provide the conditions, cash, and services their members need to thrive. Other wealthy democracies treat government as an integral partner in ensuring that families can provide what their members need: they guarantee paid parental leave so that parents can stay home with a new child, regular child-benefit checks to subsidize costs of raising children, and universal early childcare to ensure that kids get high-quality care. The United States provides none of these as a matter of course (although the pandemic recently caused it to take the extraordinary step of temporarily authorizing child-benefit checks), instead requiring families to meet these needs through private resources. And while most other wealthy countries have passed laws limiting weekly work hours and mandating paid caretaking and vacation leave to ensure that workers have adequate family and personal time, the United States expects workers to privately negotiate both. To top it off, governments in many other countries regulate the market with an eye to limiting the inequality and insecurity that can undermine families’ wellbeing, while the US takes a laissez faire approach to these issues. 

Advocates of the US approach claim that it supports US families better by increasing GDP and wage growth, thereby allowing families the market power to obtain the goods, resources, and conditions they need to do their best. What the government does for families in other countries, these advocates insist, can be done as well by families privately here, and with a better standard of living to boot. Until now, there’s been little detailed consideration of the truth of these claims. The Free-Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream, fills this void. It shows how the US’s market-centric approach has dramatically undermined the wellbeing of families. (To be clear, the book defines the term “family” expansively to include those long-term relationships that foster well-being and in which caretaking occurs. This definition includes same-sex couples; unmarried cohabiting couples with or without children; single-parents and their children; adults with aging parents; and adult siblings.) And, because of the vital role that family relationships play in both children and adults’ lives, it shows how this approach has undermined the wellbeing of Americans themselves.

Low-income and particularly poor families have it worst of all under “free-market family policy.” Uncertain job prospects and low wages mean that many adults won’t ever form the stable partnerships they seek, and that parents can’t give children the material support and quality caretaking children they need to do their best. But the disadvantages don’t stop with low-income families. Middle-class families, burdened with mortgage payments, student loans, and out-of-pocket health care costs, can afford to put food on the table but not the cost of high-quality daycare and prekindergarten. And while families headed by professionals have it much easier than those on lower rungs of the economic ladder, the long hours demanded by their jobs in our competitive, insecure economy, combined with the many hours they put in intensively parenting their children, still make life a grinding slog. 

Free-Market Family argues that many of these disadvantages are products of the steep rise in economic inequality and insecurity in the last half century, spawned by the US’s relatively unregulated market system. Individuals’ responses to these forces can be likened to that of children competing in a game of “king of the hill” on a giant dirt pile.  In decades past, that dirt pile was a lot broader and a lot lower. Because of that, more of those playing made it to the top, but getting there didn’t put them nearly as high. Today, this heightened insecurity and inequality have made the pile far taller than it used to be (since adults who achieve success are much wealthier than they used to be), but also far narrower (since fewer adults attain such success).The result is that many more Americans wind up at the bottom of the pile and can’t provide their families with the resources they need to thrive. Just as a game of king of the hill would be much harder fought in these circumstances, so adults today are competing much more fiercely than they used to because they don’t want their families to wind up at the bottom of the hill. This means they are spending more hours at paid work, and have little time and energy left to enjoy their lives. The same is true for their children, who spend so many hours preparing to compete in our brutal economy when they reach adulthood that they too are stressed and overwhelmed. The result is that all families lose when they play by today’s rules. It’s just that families at the bottom lose far more than families at the top.

The result of five decades of free-market family policy is that market forces have crushed Americans’ ability to have thriving family lives, as well as to raise strong, solid kids. While our GDP has increased three times over, the well-being of our families—the top item on Americans’ list of priorities—has gone far downhill.  One of the many tolls this system takes is on the happiness of Americans. A recent study comparing the “happiness gap” between parents and nonparents (meaning how much happier nonparents are than parents in a particular country) in 22 countries found that the US gap was by far the largest of all the countries considered. The key difference between countries with smaller or nonexistent gaps and countries with large happiness gaps like the US was the presence of public policies supporting families, which improved parents’ happiness without reducing that of nonparents. Given that more than eight in ten Americans will become parents during their lives, the drain on happiness that accompanies US parenting will eventually drag most Americans down with it.

What drives free-market family policy, the book argues, is a fundamentally wrongheaded view about the economy and the ends it should serve. US policymakers equate the economy with markets alone, and then treat rising GDP as the sum total of economic success. But the economic system, properly conceived, is, simply yet more broadly, the system for getting people the resources they need to flourish—material, caretaking, educational, and leisure—individually and collectively. The success of that system depends on human flourishing, not increased GDP.  And human flourishing depends on healthy families. While markets certainly have an important place in the economic system, many things that people need to flourish, like the nurturing that parents provide, aren’t distributed through markets. And some things that can be distributed through markets, like high-quality daycare, aren’t affordable for many families. These shortfalls in markets reveal the importance of government.

Government could help put our nation’s great wealth and the force of its public policy to make life easier for American families. It can, first, put in place public programs that funnel some of our nation’s great wealth to families at the times they need it most, particularly when they have young kids or other periods of intensive caretaking responsibililties. Government can also, though market regulation, reshape the size and shape of the dirt pile—meaning reduce the insecurity and inequality families face in our economic system. Furthermore, the state can enact laws that change the rules of economic competition in order to make life easier on families. For example, it can set reasonable limits on the hours employees can be required to work. Government actions like these would help all Americans lead saner, more satisfying family lives that would better support their wellbeing.  We already know which policies effectively support families in a market economy—version of these policies have been in place for decades in many countries. What we need is the political will to install such policies here in the United States.