The Debate Over Universal Childcare: What Is Really Going On?

Have you noticed that we keep talking about universal childcare in the United States, but, with the exception of a handful of states and cities, it never happens? Nearly all of the current Democratic candidates for president are promising it, but this has happened before without legislation ever passing at the federal level. We know that the United States is one of the few Western industrialized nations that does not provide subsidized childcare for working parents. Why not?

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times writes that the reasons are not economic. She notes that substantial research shows that children and parents benefit from access to affordable or free day care:

  • Women being in the workforce helps the economy and is economically beneficial for families.
  • High quality, affordable, easy-to-find childcare and longer school days result in higher levels of employment for women. In Washington, DC, public (free) prekindergarten increased labor participation of women with young children by 10 percent.
  • The economic benefits of good, affordable childcare for low-income children extends for generations, and spending on it more than pays for itself.

Miller notes, though, that conflicting beliefs in US society create resistance to universal childcare. She describes some examples of the conflicts:

  • Both parents work in two-thirds of American families: 93 percent of fathers and 72 percent of mothers with children at home are in the labor force. Yet one-third of Democrats surveyed by the Pew Research Center say that one parent staying at home is ideal. In another study, nearly half of Americans said one parent should stay home. These statistics conflict with the reality of the lives of Americans.
  • A moral question has resurfaced about whether mothers should work at all. Tucker Carlson of Fox News states, “It is more virtuous [for mothers . . .] to raise your own kids”; in other words, the proper place for mothers is at home with their children.
  • However, poor women, especially black women, have always been expected to work from the time of enslavement to the present, and are denied childcare support or required to work for it when support does exist.
  • Research shows that when subsidized childcare and education are available, the participation of women in the labor force expands, showing that women want and need to work. When childcare costs increase, mothers (more so than fathers) drop out of the workforce. Researchers at the Universities of North Carolina and Maryland note that “you’re boxing women out of the labor market” with the high cost of childcare.

As described by Miller, most women and men who are parents of young children work. Yet Christina Caron of the New York Times notes that the lack of affordable childcare creates a significant financial stress for families. A study by NYT Parenting, based on data collected by YouGov, an international polling and market research firm, found these worrying statistics:

  • Almost 60 percent of parents around the country with children enrolled in preschool or day care reported that the costs created a significant financial strain.
  • Some families had to go into debt to pay childcare expenses.
  • Half of Americans live in places with no licensed childcare providers or very limited slots available.

The moral ambivalence in the United States about whether mothers belong in the home rather than in the workforce is still actively blocking progress on achieving universal childcare. Miller notes that “Americans are more likely to believe in gender equality in work and politics than in the home”—but we can’t have one without the other. It’s time to move on from the moral ambivalence embedded in our culture about mothers working.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Five Reasons Why It Is Time for Universal Day Care

Did you know that we almost got affordable, high-quality universal day care in the United States in 1971? Katha Pollitt writes in the New York Times that bipartisan legislation, the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, was passed by both houses of Congress—and vetoed by President Richard Nixon. Nixon’s veto resulted from pressure by the Christian right to resist “communal approaches to child rearing” that would undermine “the family centered approach.” In 1971, the women’s liberation movement was gaining steam and beginning to threaten established gender roles. Nixon was able to prevent a veto override by appealing to an existing hostility toward women working and being mothers and to a fear of communism in our Cold War culture. But as Pollitt notes, times have changed. Most mothers of small children now work (and some always did), and the fear of communism has been replaced by the growing popularity of mixed economy, social democratic welfare states successfully modeled in Western Europe. Pollitt argues that it is time to put affordable, high-quality universal day care at the top of the Democratic Party agenda ahead of proposals for free public education, health care for all, and a living wage. She notes that while these are all important causes, if we cannot afford them all and must choose, universal day care would help the most people and do more to change society for the better. She explains that “only about a third of Americans age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher” (though more would probably try for a degree if it were affordable). By comparison, 86 percent of American women are mothers by the age of 44 and are struggling with access and the cost of day care. Pollitt notes that the lack of stable and affordable day care in the United States creates a crisis for families and has a huge impact on women’s employment:

  • Women who want and need to work and who have partners are often the ones who quit to stay home when day care is not stable or affordable. This lack of stable and affordable day care is a primary reason that women’s workforce participation has stalled and even decreased.
  • When unstable day care arrangements fall apart and women miss work, they can be legally fired. Being fired is economically devastating for their families and especially dire for single mothers.
  • The decision for women to quit working because of day care costs has more implications for a woman’s future than just a lost paycheck: she will have less Social Security in her old age; she will have fewer promotions during her working life, even if she returns to work when the children are older; her skills may become outdated; she will lose professional contacts while she stays home; when a woman stays home, previously egalitarian couples often revert to traditional gender roles, which are maintained even when she goes back to work.
Pollitt argues that now is the time for bold policy agendas, and universal day care should top the list because “It’s good for workers and employers, for communities and families and children.” Specifically, it would do the following:
  1. Create lots of jobs
  2. Alow lots of people to go to work
  3. Raise incomes
  4. Relieve stress and unhappiness
  5. Give children a good start in life
It does seem that now is the time for universal day care. Actually, it is past the time when we should have both affordable, high-quality universal day care and paid family leave in the United States. Caitlyn Collins reminds us that the United States is “the only country in the industrialized world without federally mandated paid maternity leave.” The levels of stress that American families experience is an urgent political issue that requires a political solution. How many people do you know who would benefit? Let us hear from you.   Photo courtesy of https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/kids-playing-with-puzzle-education-concept-gm669922316-122456419 (iStock standard license).]]>

The Pregnant Prime Minister and Other Working Moms

Many young women feel they must choose between pursuing a career and having children. While support is (slowly) growing for paid family leave and employer-supported day care, only a few role models exist of women in senior leadership roles who are also new mothers. Some recent examples provide inspiration for both women and men. Charlotte Graham-McLay of the New York Times reports that Prime Minister Jacinda Arden of New Zealand recently became only the second world leader to give birth while in office (Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was the first in 1990). While Prime Minister Arden acknowledged that she is privileged to have a partner who will be a stay-at-home parent, she also speaks openly about how her dual responsibilities as a leader and a parent still require a balancing act. “And there is guilt behind every door,” she explains. Her hope is that one day women will be able to feel satisfied with making choices and doing the best they can in both the workplace and the family without guilt. Prime Minister Arden notes that seeing women who are both leaders and new parents is still unusual, but she predicts that one day this situation will become normal. In fact, in the New Zealand Parliament, at least five lawmakers returned to work after the most recent elections as parents of babies under a year old. In the United States, Senator Tammy Duckworth became the first senator to deliver a baby while in office in April 2018, forcing changes in senate rules that previously did not allow children in the senate chamber. Another example of a new mother forging pathways is Rebecca Slaughter, a newly appointed Federal Trade Commission (FTC) commissioner—one of the nation’s top business regulators in Washington, DC. Cecilia Kang of the New York Times reports that Slaughter, who gave birth to her third child on the day of her nomination to the FTC, brings her nursing baby to work. Slaughter shares that while she is tired, she cares deeply about her career and her family and it feels worth it to navigate the two. None of the senior leaders in these examples say that having a new baby and a career is easy, but they stress that certain adaptations can help, like cutting back on business travel and evening networking events. Kang reports that the male colleagues of Slaughter say that her decision to continue working with the baby helps all working parents. What has worked for you?   Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash]]>