Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 18, 2011

This Issue's A Bust

Once in a while the political news circuit gets stuck on a topic so amazingly trivial and foolish that the spectacle of such a large tempest raging in such a small teapot makes it hard to look away. This week, the leading ladies of the right and left have decided to fight it out over breastfeeding.
I picked this for obvious reasons, but the parent in me says "No diaper and white dress: Watch Out!"
How, you might ask, could something like breastfeeding become a hot political issue? It seems that as part of her Let's Move program to reduce childhood obesity, Michelle Obama has decided to promote breastfeeding. A nurse-in at the White House? No, that might actually be interesting. Rather, the proposal is for the IRS to grant a tax deduction for breast pumps and other nursing supplies.

Seeing a chance to turn a phrase, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have weighed in, saying that getting the government involved in breastfeeding is the ultimate in "nanny state" politics. And this has given political commentators on the left the chance to weigh in with "Palin attacks breastfeeding" and "Bachmann says government has no business telling women what choices to make about their bodies" type headlines.

Frankly, this strikes me as one of the silliest topics to have a political fight over, ever. The proposal itself is laughably ineffective. A quick glance down Amazon shows current prices for popular breast pumps ranging from $50 for the basic battery operated model to around $300 for the "Medela Pump In Style Advanced Breast Pump with Metro Bag".

Now, I'll be the first to agree that $300 would be a significant outlay for many working class moms having to go back to work while their babies are still nursing. But let's think for a moment about how a tax deduction works. You still have to shell out for the breast pump yourself. You save the receipt, and months later when you do your taxes you get to take that $300 off of your reported income. This doesn't lower the amount of tax you pay (or as people usually think of it: increase the amount you get back) by $300, though. It decreases your taxable income. The maximum amount you would "get back" months after the fact would be your top marginal tax rate times $300. If you're middle class or working class, that would be 15%. So you'd get $45 dollars back for the $300 you spent, but only months later.

Perhaps I'm overly skeptical, but I find it hard to imagine this would cause lots of working class mothers who would otherwise have given their kids formula instead of breastmilk once they returned to work to think, "Wow. I could really do this. And it comes with a 'metro bag' too. That will make it all work out!" (Not to discount the virtues of a metro bag. I mean, couldn't we all use a little more metro in our lives?)

The thing is, the main costs of breatfeeding your child are not monetary, especially for a mother who is having to work away from her child for a standard set of works hours. The main costs relate to time and trouble. And there's no way that a tax deduction can solve that problem.

So the proposal is, I think, pretty clearly so ineffective in achieving its purported aims as to be deeply silly. Which makes the attempt to grab headlines by opposing it also a quite silly. While I can agree with the desire to keep the tax code simpler, that's a horse that left the stable a long time ago and this sort of empty posturing is going to cost the government virtually nothing, since a truly minimal number of people will ever use it.

Now if Mrs. Obama really wants to generate awareness for breastfeeding, I think that nurse-in idea at the White House has some merits. Just picture a thousand nursing mothers on the White House lawn. Nurse for America!

At the very least, it would make for better pictures than that characteristic "anger shots" which reporters can't help illustrating their stories with when they write about the female public figures arguing. And after all:


Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife said...

I remember working for Abbott in Dallas, Texas. They had a "nice" program, where they allowed nursing mothers a room (with a fridge) where they could pump and store milk. We actually had mothers who used it. That to me is the best "program" that working mothers could use. Simply support through the workforce to allow for time (and resources) to pump for their child.

Jamie said...

It's handy for moms to be able to count breast pumps as FSA expenses -- not a magic bullet, but definitely handy. Pumps suitable for full-time working mothers are going to cost closer to $300 than $50, because maintaining a full milk supply requires decent equipment. There's something to be said for FSAs as planned pre-tax savings for health-related expenses, and before now women couldn't use that money for pumps.

The First Lady is also pushing for more hospitals to achieve Baby Friendly status, which would be fantastic because some hospitals do a really breathtaking job of sabotaging breastfeeding. There's a proven association between Baby Friendly training for HCPs and increased breastfeeding exclusivity/duration.

Her comments about breastfeeding rates in the black community are right on, and I think it's valuable for a respected black woman to be talking about the importance of breastfeeding when there are still significant cultural barriers.

I guess I'm a little baffled about the Bachmann/Palin response.

Anne said...

As a Certified Breastfeeding Counselor for WIC, all I can say about this post, other than a sit-in would be great, is I love the picture! Thanks for this post!

Jenny said...

I don't understand this issue at all. It seems obvious to me that the financial incentive provided is trivial compared to the alternate cost of formula. And yet...

A couple of weeks ago, when it was first ruled as a nonmedical expense, the breastfeeding blogs exploded in indignation. And now that it has been approved, they are triumphant. I can't help but think who would make a breastfeeding decision based on this ruling? Anyone?

You are correct that the real cost of pumping is time and effort. It is a good thing that employers are now required to offer mothers time and space to pump.

But the breast pump itself? I don't see how $30 makes a difference and I am astonished how worked up folks get over it.

JMB said...

I just think people get tired of being told what to do all the time. At least I do. I breastfeed all my children because I wanted to lose weight real fast and I was too lazy to make bottles. I really enjoyed it. So my motives were less than ideal, but it was a win/win situation for me and baby.

Everyone knows breastfeeding is ideal for baby, just like smoking is dangerous for your health. Do we need this to be pounded into our brains any more? Secondly, just because you "know" something doesn't mean you will do it.

Literacy-chic said...

Meanwhile, some crazy feminist at Texas A&M is arguing that breastfeeding oppresses women and that the health correlations are spurious.

Literacy-chic said...

I agree that I am baffled by the Palin/Bachmann response! It speaks to "Politicians first, women and mothers second." Yeah, it's an empty gesture, but it's not government control of the family. Sheesh.

E said...

A great way to actaully promote more breastfeeding moms would be to have more paid time off maternity leave so the moms could be with their babies longer.

Jamie said...

You know, I would understand if Bachmann/Palin had ripped into a proposal for longer paid maternity leave. I would still disagree with them, but I do understand that such a policy would be costly and logistically difficult for business owners. But really? Permitting women to buy their own breast pumps with their own pre-tax savings is an incursion of the nanny state? Not buying it.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

The issue of (low) breastfeeding rates among black Americans doesn't seem to be getting a lot of traction. But it seems very tied in with Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity project, which so far has seemed, admirably, to recognize that the obesity problem is very much a problem for racial minorities in the U.S.

The odd thing to me is that somehow the recognition that our society has failed to persuade black and hispanic women to breastfeed at any significant rate has turned into "tax breaks for breast pumps." It's like watching politicians notice (again) that public schools in poor areas are seriously underperforming, and immediately switch to talking about tax incentives for computers in the classroom. It's just not getting at the heart of the problem. Is lack of an affordable breast pump to take to work *really* what's keeping breastfeeding rates low among black women?

Further, I've nowhere seen in discussion of this issue mention of studies which indicate (I vaguely recall from my La Leche days) that the obesity-preventive qualities of breastfeeding don't seem to translate well to pumping and then feeding the baby breast milk from a bottle. Where's the paragraph of these stories that shows us that it's some magic quality in breast milk itself, and not the whole complex system of nursing, that relates to reduced obesity?

Kate Wicker said...

Very well-said as usual.