The coming presidential election represents a choice, says Mitt Romney: a choice between evil European-style socialism and good old American can-do capitalism. As a new mother in France, I’m here to argue that he’s wrong. Neither candidate represents actual European-style socialism. And it’s a damned shame they don’t. The women of America would have a much better shot at having it all if they did.
Thanks to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s excellent article in the Atlantic, everyone’s talking once again about the continuing difficulties American mothers face juggling work and family. I just took my 10-month-old daughter on her first trip to the United States, and while we were there, I heard a lot from friends and family—most of whom also have young children—about what I’m referring to as The Child Care Question: Can a double-income couple make enough money to pay for full-time child care? Or would it be, bizarrely, a wise economic move for one of them to quit his or her job and become a stay-at-home parent?
But since my husband and I moved to France two years ago, this child care question isn’t one that we’ve had to think about. Why? Because of three very progressive child care policies instituted by the French government. In brief, the French government provides: 1) inexpensive municipal day care, 2) tax breaks for families employing in-home child care workers, and 3) universal free preschool beginning at age 3. Together, these make quality child care so affordable—even in expensive Paris—that we’re actually considering extending my husband’s work contract and staying in France until our daughter is school-age just to take advantage of them. While I don’t see the United States turning into France anytime soon (certainly not with Paul Ryan’s budget), these ideas merit serious discussion. Even instituting one of them would revolutionize the lives of middle-class U.S. families.
Though many of these policies were put in place to combat France’s falling birthrate, they have had the added benefit of getting mothers back into the workforce. After a period of paying women to stay home with their children, the French government realized that many women wanted to return to work but needed child care solutions to make this possible. This is where the government has focused its efforts, and to mostly positive results. Over 80 percent of French women work, as opposed to just under 60 percent in the United States. Though employment declines in both countries for women as they have children, in France it’s still over 80 percent for women with one child and impressively over 50 percent for women with three or more children.
Women who work full time often enroll their children in government-run day care called a crèche, which will take children beginning at 3 months old. Most crèches are open the length of the workday, from 7:30 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. The hourly rate is on a sliding scale based on income level, from a high of 4.20 euros an hour to 0.26 euros an hour for the poorest families. Because the crèches are overseen by the government, they adhere to high government standards: At least 50 percent of crèche workers are required to have a specialized diploma in early child care and education, and a pediatrician and a child psychologist are on staff or on call at each crèche.
Crèches do get oversubscribed, and some families may not want to put their children in full-time care. To add more flexibility, in 2004 the French government instituted a system of tax breaks that would aid families in hiring a nanny of their choice, either an assistante maternelle, who is licensed and overseen by the government, or a regular child care worker. As long as the nanny is legally allowed to work in France and the family declares and pays her benefits, the state helps out with a monthly rebate based on family income level. These rebates often amount to about one-third the total cost of care.
Finally, France has an excellent universal preschool system, the ecole maternelle, where children are guaranteed a place from age 3 to 6. It runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. four days a week, and many maternelles offer a day care service after the school day ends. Here, kids learn all the important “soft skills” preschool provides as well as, in the final year, reading, writing, and basic math—preparing them for entry into the French primary school system. Maternelle is not mandatory—children aren’t legally required to attend school in France until age 6, much like the United States—but because they are high quality and essentially free, more than 95 percent of eligible French children are enrolled.