October 19, 2007

NYT: Presidential Candidates Don't Give Damn About Child Care, Whatever That Means

In her NY Times column yesterday, Gail Collins points out that except for a content-free photo-op by Hillary Clinton, exactly none of the presidential candidates of either party will talk about child care in the US. Instead, they talk around the issues facing working parents--jobs, taxes, guns--without even so much as a feeble "election-year pandering" about child care.

But yet, I can't even imagine how child care would take shape as a legitimate political issue, or what solutions, policy- culture- or corporate-wise would come of it. And frankly, Collins' article doesn't make it any clearer for me.

She points out the unregulated, underpaid injustice that is the daycare industry, where usually uncertified, possibly unqualified workers get minimum wage for stressful, undervalued work. Yet on its own, certification and increased pay will only increase the cost to parents, and put professional child care further out of reach of more people.

God bless the people who we pay to take care of our kids all day, but I'm afraid most Americans really don't think or care about them too much. The lever for making changes in the child care world is not the workers represented by NACCRA, the child care industry association; it's parents themselves.

Is there no child care debate because parents just don't feel any child care pain, whether financial, professional, time- or child benefit-related?

Or do they just not see the government as a credible or relevant force for improving child care?

Or is it ignorance or apathy about the issue and the pain and impact it has on someone besides themselves?

I honestly don't know, but I think it's a combination of the latter two, and moping about the just-increased minimum wage won't change anything anytime soon.

None Dare Call It Child Care [nyt]

5 Comments

I have no clue what the problem is. Maybe it's that so many people are on the wrong side of the law and don't want to be exposed. I refused to consider illegal child care when the time came for us to arrange some, which really limited my options when it turned out that we couldn't get into the university child care center until one year later than originally estimated. All the possible nanny shares disappeared when I insisted on paying taxes. We found a great sitter who is completely above board, but as I've learned, she is exceptional.

I still can't believe so many people we know who consider themselves supporters of the working class are so casual about denying their own child care workers the protection of social security, worker's comp, and health care coverage, let alone vacation days and retirement accounts. We definitely paid more, but I don't regret it for a second.

I think subsidized child care could be much more strongly encouraged by the government (with, for example, tax breaks like for health insurance). I used to think I wouldn't want to put a child under 12 months in a center, but having seen the babies at ours I would put a second child there as an infant in a heartbeat, assuming I could get a placement (plus it's just downstairs, so NO PUMPING!!!). However, despite the fact that my employer has tripled the capacity of the existing campuses in the last five years and is planning three more off-site centers after that, the waiting list is 750 families long. And of the people I know who waited for a placement, I know of only one other family that didn't rely on an illegal nanny to bridge the gap.

It actually was a fairly major issue in our last election here in Canada (being that we have some of the other issues you Americans have to spend time on somewhat taken care of... see "Healthcare, Socialized" and "Iraq, Not Invading")... basically it came down to the guys who got elected, the Conservatives, scrapping the much needed daycare plan the previous Liberal government was working on and instead giving us a pathetic $100/month cheque for "childcare".

Hopefully we'll do better next time around...

I really enjoy reading your site, but its always struck me that your experience and frame of reference is so very VERY far from mine (in short, you live in a frequent-flyer-miles $800 stroller world. I live in a working-two-jobs-to-make-ends-meet $75 used Graco stroller world). You have to know that you're probably in the top 1% of Americans in terms of both income and opportunity, yes?

To say that "Americans really don't think or care about [child care, or providers] too much" is a statement that is so far from my personal experience that I don't even know where to start with it. My son is 15 months old and on his third daycare. Finding quality, affordable child care is an obsession for me and for every working family I know, and many (most) work hard to find creative ways to overcome the hurdles that the lack of quality affordable care throws in the path. I work an extra 15 hours a week at a second job in order to be able to afford the child care that enables me to keep my primary job (yes, my husband works too), and we are not low-income by any means. I have friends who have quit quality jobs (including nursing) and sold their homes to reduce their montly bills simply because they couldn't find afordable child care they could trust.

Most people are not aware that there was a time in this country (during WWII) when an experiment was made: the federal government funded childcare centers for any family who had at least one parent working in "war essential" industry (regardless of income), and some shipyards and other private employers opened centers as well (Google up "Lanham Act Centers" and "Kaiser Day Care" for more details). In 1943 the cost to parents to care for a child in a Lanham center was fifty cents per day (around $14 per day in today's money). The centers also provided hot take-away meals for a small fee, so working mothers (this being WWII and all, the vast majority of those using the centers were female) could pick up their child and their family meal when she went home at the end of the day. Although not every family chose to use the centers (race was a big issue at the time, with black families feeling that the centers were for "whites only" although they were actually integrated, as well as other issues you could categorize as "philosophical") they were clearly successful and their closing had more to do with the post-war social desire to move women out of the workplace than with any failure on the part of the centers.

Today's reality is that the basic infastructure to provide quality, afordable (even free!) full-working-day childcare to every child in America from birth to age 18 currently exisits -- its called the public school system. Where the problem lies in in the will of the government to fund such an endeavor. School funding is a hot-button issue everywhere; schools are underfunded everywhere; but if the government had the simple will to provide the enough money to adapt buildings, pay teachers, and otherwise support the program, there is no reason why a quality childcare option (and notice I do use the word OPTION -- you city people would still be free to send your children to $30K/year exclusive day nurseries if you so chose) couldn't be available to all Americans within 3-4 years.

So while I'm sure its possible that there is some element of lack of faith in the goverment involved here, its only really because the goverment itself has proven to have a lack of will in funding the educational system we currently have. If the government wanted to change its priorites (away from, say, killing Iraqi children and towards educating and caring for American children), I think a lot of that "lack of faith" would vanish in a puff of ... well, in a puff of proof.

I'm not a Hillary supporter by any means, but I do think she's locked onto an issue that is actually an issue for most working class families in this country. Moreso than healthcare in many ways, because if you have a job, you often have insurance -- it might be crappy insurance, but it exists, and your employer helps pay for it. Not so with childcare: if both parents NEED to work (as so many do), they often end up settling for substandard, illegal, or actually dangerous conditions for their child, just because its all that is available to them. If that were to change, it would free up a lot of talent in this country (just as universal healthcare would).

[anastasiav, first off, thanks for a tremendously insightful comment on many fronts. Though it was prompted by a misunderstanding of what I meant, I'm very glad you put a lot of important points on the table. What I meant was that most parents aren't motivated, especially politically, by the needs of caregivers and daycare employees; they're focused and even, as you mention, "obsessed" with their own child's care. Waking politicians to that reality--and getting parent voters to recognize and act on the vital national and societal nature of the challenges they're facing--will be what moves the childcare industry in a better direction.

interestingly/depressingly enough, when I was at this consumer research conference earlier this week, I kept feeling like all the ad and marketing professionals really see THEIR world as THE world. They'd constantly cite the challenges of balancing work and family, but describe the hassles of nanny and sitter handoffs and keeping kids out of your home office, not the kind of tag-teaming and shift-overlapping and inflexibility that so many more families face. (In the elevator, a guy complained to the bellman wrestling with the suitcase, "I'm sure you travel a lot, too. Don't you hate it when the handle gets twisted like that?" And I'm thinking, "Dude, the guy came to this country from Haiti on a freakin' raincoat raft, and besides, he hauls luggage all day every day, not for 45 minute strolls through an airport.") Anyway, off topic, except that the overlap between politics, media, and marketing is near-total these days, and thus divorced from big chunks of real peoples' lives. I hate to say childcare needs a better, feelgood pitch, but until Canada takes us over, it's the way things get done around here. -ed.]

Actually, Barack Obama's policy director is a woman named Karen Kornbluh. Her work has focused on creating a new social insurance system oriented around family life in the 21st century so I think it's not unreasonable to expect her views would influence him considerably if he became president. You can read something of hers here: [democracyjournal.org]

I think many people without children, and possibly politicians who are almost all top moneymakers, seem to think that while having kids is a personal choice these days (true) it's a personal choice somewhat like taking up an expensive hobby. Like fancy model trains or collecting sports cars. Their reasoning may be "Why should the Public pay for your sports car hobby? If you can't afford sports cars or babies, then don't have them."

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