COVID-19 and the Perils of Free-Market Parenting: Why It Is Past Time for the United States to Install Government Supports for Families

By Maxine Eichner

U.S. public policy has for decades rested on the expectation that parents will privately provide the cash and conditions their children need. This expectation is exceptional: most other wealthy countries’ public policies support children through a mix of public and private funds. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, radically changed U.S. policy. The severe economic dislocation that resulted led Congress to pass a series of measures that funneled trillions of public dollars to families and parents. Whether these measures should represent a temporary deviation from the nation’s free-market expectations during an unprecedented emergency or the first step in a long-term shift toward routine public funding for children remains an open question.

This Essay makes the urgent case for the United States to join other countries in permanently shifting its approach toward one that combines private support of children with generous public support. It argues that “free-market family policy” failed to adequately support American children long before the pandemic.

Supplementing private funding with a generous stream of public funding is necessary to support the well-being of U.S. children even after the pandemic’s economic effects recede.