Social Welfare Is as American as Apple Pie
Mike Konczal’s ‘Freedom From the Market’ resurrects a lost U.S. tradition.
The United States was in a dilemma. The men had gone off to Europe to fight in World War II, but the country needed planes and guns. The ranks of childless women who could work in factories were running thin. As mothers were urged to go to work, however, the question arose: What to do with their children? As a lawmaker at the time warned, “[Y]ou cannot have a contented mother working in a war factory if she is worrying about her children, and you cannot have children running wild in the streets without a bad effect on the coming generation.”
So the government leapt into action, creating a nationwide network of child care centers under the wartime Lanham Act. But as they got underway, there was a crucial fight among government officials and agencies: Should these child care centers be offered only to the neediest cases who would have to prove their eligibility, with the presumption that women should avoid using them if they could? Or should they be available to all?
That’s a dilemma familiar from policy debates today, from COVID-19 relief checks to health care provision. And it’s at the heart of Mike Konczal’s new book, Freedom from the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself from the Grip of the Invisible Hand. In American political discourse, freedom tends to get positioned purely as liberation from government control—or government regulation. But in Konczal’s telling, freedom is also when the public sector steps in to ensure a baseline of security and survival.
The first word of each chapter of the book is the same: Free Land. Free Time. Free Care. Free Health. The word free carries two important meanings: without cost, and with liberty. As Konczal persuasively argues, these two definitions are tied up with each other when it comes to how we design public programs. Providing certain goods free or cheap to all, outside of private markets, also makes us freer.
At first, with the Lanham centers, the demands of being at war won out. There was no eligibility threshold; poor and rich women alike were free to make use of the centers, as were women who didn’t “need” to work. Half of the women who used them in California didn’t have husbands serving in the military. The centers were almost free compared to today’s child care standards, a flat daily fee of 50 cents a day, or less than $10 in today’s dollars. An estimated 600,000 children were served by Lanham Act centers.
Women loved them; 81 percent had a “generally favorable” opinion and 100 percent said their children enjoyed the care. So much so that when the war was coming to a close and the government moved to shut the centers down, thousands of mothers mobilized. In Cleveland, a group of 150 held a sit-in at city hall, forcing an extension for several months; when that ran out, they sat in again, this time with their children, securing another extension that was eventually undone by a court ruling.
But the centers didn’t survive the end of the war that created them. Then as now, views still aren’t settled on women in the workplace. Most Americans support the idea of women working, but when it comes to mothers, the majority feel that children are better off if they stay home. It was a live debate among activist mothers in the 1940s, too. One faction fighting to save Lanham Act centers in Cleveland declared, “We believe that a democracy which professes no discrimination because of race, sex, or creed and in which co-education is prevalent has a responsibility to provide the service women need to enable them to express themselves in the way for which their talents, education and skills enable them.” But another faction in Columbus instead positioned child care solely as a welfare program for women in poverty who needed to work.
The country went with the Columbus view. Lanham Act centers more or less ended shortly after the war, despite women’s protests. “In lieu of a national program for day care, America opted in the postwar period for a set of tax incentives, cementing the idea that individual families would be responsible for their own support,” Konczal writes. When the government does subsidize child care, it’s for low-income women, mostly as a way to encourage them to leave the rolls of welfare. Women’s right to equal participation in society and work is no longer part of the debate.
Today, the United States faces myriad dire crises, many of them recent, like a devastating pandemic—but others, like housing or health care, that have been going on for decades. The public wants these issues solved. And, increasingly, it wants them done in expansive ways that make goods freely available to everyone. Three-quarters of voters say they support public options for housing and child care; majorities also support the public provision of health care.
Americans have become accustomed to an idea of freedom that is entirely negative: free from constraints, particularly when it comes to engaging in markets. Unlike European countries who, over the last half-century, have built robust public programs for everything from child care to housing, the United States has resorted to privatized patchworks. But being free to invest Social Security retirement savings in a 401(k) account is not the same as positive freedom: the freedom of knowing that Social Security will ensure that if you become disabled, or when age takes you out of the workplace, you can still be financially solvent. Without social insurance, in the words of former U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, “Life is passed in a constant ferment of fear and insecurity.”
Neoliberalism’s focus on market-oriented solutions has become so ubiquitous as to feel like the only approach the country has ever deployed, “becoming like the air that surrounds us,” in Konczal’s words. To secure a dignified retirement, you have to invest wisely in a 401(k). To protect your health, you have to buy health insurance through your employer or on a government-run exchange. To make sure you can go to work after having children, you must locate and pay a private caretaker. To further your career through a college education, you have to take out a private loan and go into debt.
But these are all recent inventions, Konczal reminds the reader, a sharp departure from much of the United States’ own history. “We have forgotten that free programs and keeping things free from the market are as American as apple pie,” he writes. In 1862, the government passed the Homestead Act, which resulted in “a massive transfer of wealth, one of the largest in American history, to everyday people to provide for their families,” he writes. About 246 million acres of land were freely given to 1.5 million Americans; an estimated 46 million Americans descend from those who received land. After decades of legal setbacks in the courts, militant workers who staged thousands of escalating strikes secured a limit on their workdays that gave them back free time. Through both the 1862 Land-Grant College Act and the GI Bill, higher education was, up until the 1970s, available free or highly affordable. Today, Social Security is the most powerful anti-poverty program the United States has, lifting 26.5 million people out of it. Single-payer health care has existed for the elderly through Medicare since 1966.
The book keeps a key question front and center: What is the ultimate goal of providing these goods? Should the government offer tax breaks and subsidies for a limited number of women to afford child care because they need income, or make it universal and affordable so that women can equally participate in society? Is higher education meant to allow people to invest in their own human capital, minting millions more workers to fuel capitalism? Or is it to “give our plain boys from the log cabins a chance to develop their minds,” in the words of the president of the University of Michigan in the 1800s—a place to develop all Americans as thinkers and citizens equally?
“[T]he goal isn’t just protection from market dependency,” Konczal argues, “but also emancipation from unjust domination.”
Because the book follows the course of U.S. history, the narrative by itself seems pessimistic. It begins with the philosophers and activists who fought for and secured free public land and ends in the neoliberal thwarting of free higher education for all. But the message of the book overall is one of hope. Yes, these are difficult fights. But they are ones that those on the side of positive freedom and public goods have won many times over. And just as neoliberals used government to craft an economy warped by markets over the last 40 years, so too can government be used to bring Americans back to their roots and provide a robust, universal safety net for all.
Some of these fights can unify Americans across their many divisions. In the 1800s, “Demand for time could unify workers facing very different working circumstances,” Konczal writes, from bricklayers to printers to bakers to city employees. “The demand for ‘more’”—more leisure time, as well as a greater share of the wealth workers produce—“could be a way to coordinate across lines that divided the working class.”
There’s a lot of work for such a multiracial, cross-class movement to accomplish. The country still hasn’t enacted universal health care, which was supposed to be part of the safety net that was first knit by Social Security and has long existed across much of Europe. The United States remains the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave to insure against the inability to work due to illness, or paid family leave to insure against having to temporarily leave the workforce to care for a new baby or family member. Even before the pandemic housing had become an acute crisis for too many Americans, but now millions are at risk of eviction, energizing calls for publicly provided and guaranteed housing, perhaps modeled on the social housing found in Vienna or the United Kingdom.
These are urgent problems. President Joe Biden may have defeated former President Donald Trump and, with him, his attempt to upend democracy and impose a white-supremacist agenda on the country. But he’s not going to be the last populist authoritarian the country sees. Enacting policies that create positive freedom from the market “is capable of short-circuiting this far-right threat,” Konczal argues. “Universal social insurance, free public programs, economic security, and power for workers are the things that ensure broad prosperity—they succeed because they work.” The United States can be united by this promise of freedom, if only Democrats are bold enough to pursue it.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.