The one that got away

And what should be done about it.

About a week ago I had to turn down a position with the International Rescue Committee. This position was not permanent; I was going to take it through the Americorps program and the director of the Dallas office told me she used Americorps to fill out her staff. It was clear after leaving my first interview that this is an amazing organization and I would have loved to be a part of it. And so, yes, after all my angsty-ness about not having a job, I still turned it down.

Why? Because we didn’t qualify for the child care subsidy. We make too much money. This is, of course, absurd because God knows we do not have $1300/month left over to pay for child care for two kids. And so, without the subsidy, I could not take the position. Americorps only pays a meager stipend and even combined with Eric’s salary, we could not have made it work (and still feed ourselves, pay for gas and bills- you know, survive). Even if we had, I would have only been working to pay for child care. Again, absurd.

But, I’m not the only parent in this position. I know a number of moms (sorry, haven’t met any dads personally, but I’m sure they’re out there) who have to choose between working to pay for child care and staying at home with their kids. This is amplified for those of us who officially inhabit the middle class (if you make six figures, that’s not really you). We make too much for public assistance, but too little to be financially secure (or sock away money into retirement and savings, invest, etc., etc.). To borrow a term from the Medicare D program, I like to think of this as the other donut hole.  Considering Eric and I have five (FIVE!) college degrees between us, I won’t even go into how depressing it is that we have to weigh our job options based on whether or not they pay for child care.

As I worked my way through the frustration last week, I could have easily become angry with my kids and my situation, right? I mean, I could have chosen not to have kids until we can afford such things, right? Yeah. Whatever. There are a number of destructive directions I could have taken with my depression over the situation.

What I realized is this: the problem is the inhibitive cost of child care that forces working adults to choose between working and staying at home. It’s crazy that I wanted to work in public service and could not because we couldn’t feasibly cover the cost of child care. I think this reveals something much more problematic, however. The assumption underlying this situation, I would argue, is that newborns and preschoolers are supposed to be at home with someone (and we know who that someone is supposed to be- their mother), while someone else brings home a pay check.  When I sit and really think about all this- I mean, really, really think about it- this is an extremely complex, class-based problem that, in short, restricts the choices those of us in the middle class can make. Although “restricting choices” may not sound like the worst thing in the world, when the available choices affect a household’s ability to construct a solid financial foundation because one member is forced to stay home…yeah, it really is that bad. On one modest income, we can’t put much money in savings, we can’t put away money to retirement, and we live paycheck to paycheck, often taking money from what little savings we have to make ends meet or pay for the crappy little crises that pop up.

I honestly think there is a contingent out there that would blame my choice to have kids or our choices, period, as the problem. I have no one to blame but myself, this line of thought would go. That’s the first argument I would anticipate. This would be the same cast of characters that disregard the presence of institutional or systemic racism/sexism/classism, instead blaming personal failures or shortcomings, as the source of any problem or inequity in society. They therefore see no need for the Social Contract, or for public intervention in the form of government programs (as tedious as those may be), to help people out or to better society in general. There’s plenty to deconstruct here (such as our current welfare system that punishes parents for working by decreasing their benefits…what planet do lawmakers live on?!?!?), but I’ll try to stay focused.

And that’s why I think the American perspective on child care- that before kindergarten, no publicly accessible system of child care should be available to those who want it unless they qualify according to the federal poverty level standards- has left a huge, gaping chasm regarding the resources available to working parents who need and want quality child care. More specifically, my proposal is that early childhood care, for newborns through preschool, should be available just like kindergarten and elementary school at the very least.  Early childhood teachers need to be educated and paid on a salary like any other educator (and we’ve had both for Katie- there has been a world of difference between her teachers with and without degrees). Like I mentioned, the resources involved in the care of the smallest of kids tells you plenty about our assumptions guiding their care; day care workers don’t have to have degrees, they are poorly paid, and there is high turnover in those positions. Early childhood educators are not highly regarded, as evidenced in their pay, because I think as a society we still think small children should be at home with a parent (i.e., their mothers) before entering public school.

And that’s fine if you can afford it. There are plenty of day cares around Dallas that only run between the hours of 9 am and 3 pm, which tells you exactly who their clients are. What’s also clear around Dallas in particular (that I didn’t see as much in Iowa City because of it’s comparative homogeneity) is the class and race-based differences between day cares. Affordable day cares tend to be staffed by crappy workers who stick your kids in bucket seats and swings all day. Seriously. The rest are way, way expensive.  It’s clear who has better access to resources for their small children and who doesn’t. This is not to blame the parents in any way, but the system which allows this to happen because early childhood care is only marginally seen to be a concern of the public education system. Look no further than the debate over extending unemployment privileges when $60 billion war funding passed Congress without a peep for validation of my argument. Funding education at all levels is just not a priority in the U.S., despite the consequences for the country, and some would remove it from the public sector altogether.  We just don’t want to care for our own people. We think everyone should already be able to care for themselves. If you can’t, to hell with you.

The education profession has issues in general, namely, the valuation of that line of work through proper pay (just talk to my friends with advanced degrees who don’t even make more than $50,000 a year). We hear about it all the time at the elementary, secondary, and higher education levels. I propose, however, that we include in that concern the first weeks of a child’s life when parents still need help and need or want to enter the workforce. I think parents should have access to public schools for even the smallest of kids, in child care centers staffed by degreed, caring, nurturing individuals susceptible to the rigors of national and state standards of education (note: this is not an endorsement of NCLB).

Rising tides float all boats: if early childhood education pays better, more will do it. If it’s more accessible, more parents can work. If more parents can work without worrying about the cost of child care, we can save more, invest more, do more. Yes, this will involve government involvement. It might also involve an overhaul of the school calendar (and if teachers work more, they should be paid more…of course). The current U.S. school calendar was constructed around the needs of an agrarian society. It would involve altering not only the school day but the hours parents are forced to work as well. Believe me, though, if the expense of child care is removed from the family budget, so much more money would be available to parents that they may not have to have multiple jobs. Maybe instead we can spend a little of the money we put towards defense, energy, and all those other things that destroy life on things that make life better for us all.

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