colorful puzzle pieces

Everyone Benefits from Affordable Childcare — Even Those of Us Without Kids

Parents aren’t the only ones who need policy reforms.

ecently I was asked about my top policy priorities—what, given a magic wand and no comments section to wither the political will of allies, would I enact? And I gave the same answer that I’ve been giving for several years, which is childcare.

Well, technically, my answer is what I’ve been calling “bookend care” which packages together family leave with stipends, tax credits, and industry incentives for both childcare and eldercare. But that’s another essay entirely.

Anyway, this answer was surprising to the person I was talking to because I am famously a childfree hag whose hobbies include cackling mysteriously and baking neighborhood children in my oven. Why would I, a person who specifically underwent surgery to meddle in my Biblical purpose, care about other peoples’ children?

The answer is pretty easy: Because affordable, quality childcare and paid family leave are good for literally everyone in a functional society and continuing to go without is a massive mistake.

I want to quickly acknowledge that the root of this argument can be found in the ongoing struggle to force people to give a shit about one another; if you don’t already think that it’s your moral duty to keep our society humming even when it doesn’t directly, immediately, obviously benefit you, I can’t help you and you should probably go back to pinning keto recipes or whatever.

But if you can get past that hurdle, then here it is. There are a lot of concrete reasons that paying for childcare and covering for your coworkers on family leave is good for you, even if you’re not sure why. Because childcare—and eldercare—don’t just service kids and old people. These are industries that could (and should) pay good, union wages. They’re industries that have a ripple effect. And by starting and ending life with robust care, proper nutrition, and community, we can prevent some of the biggest societal ills we face, like poverty and expensive health conditions.

Even if you’re never having kids—or you’ve already had kids and now they’re grown, or you’re so wealthy that you’ve never thought twice about how to pay for childcare and you don’t worry about dying alone in a nursing home that resembles a Soviet cell—you will benefit from a policy overhaul. Because that’s how societies work.

Let’s go through this.

It’s good for workers.

The majority of voters rank “the economy” at the top of their priorities and have for years. After the Recession, when people lost their homes and had to re-enter the workplace in record numbers, it became clear that it’s really tough out there for people trying to support a family, especially in this era of union busting and wage depression. Gone are the days of your Grandpappy’s factory job, where he put in 40 hours per week every week for 60 years until he retired with a pension, a gold watch, and a lounge chair to watch the Bears lose every weekend. Gone are the days when a single income could support an entire family.

These are jobs that we need—that can scale and that are in demand in just about every town in America—but the people doing them are getting paid well below a living wage. Coupled with the requirement for some kind of post-secondary schooling (read: debt) and the sensitive nature of the work (they’re shaping the children!) and childcare workers should, in theory, be cleaning up. These should be the new “good jobs.”

But they’re not. Instead, childcare workers in the United States earn just over $11 per hour—not enough to rent an apartment in literally any of the 50 states. Meanwhile, the people paying for childcare seem to be shelling out more and more every year.

Indeed, the cost of childcare has exploded over the past decade for a variety of reasons—none of which are because the people trying to keep toddlers from hitting each other are peeling out in a Maybach at the end of the day. Reasons for the increasing cost of childcare include: Increasing operational cost (rent on the space goes up, cost of juice boxes goes up, you know how it is), increasing regulatory burdens (which is a good thing because you probably want to know that your kids are going to a place where someone knows CPR), and an inability to outsource the labor.

Writing for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson put it like this:

The state of American child care might be defensible if it were expensive and high-quality — or if it were crummy but cheap.

Instead, the U.S. has the worst of both worlds: Cadillac prices for an Edsel product. The typical family paying for any child care spends about 10 percent of their income on it, far more than in most similarly rich countries. But American day care is a shambles.

Oof.

It’s not as though the people who get into the business of childcare do it to get loaded, either. People who run childcare centers are typically those who have an interest and who are making very little money themselves—and there are significant barriers to those who do want to get into the business. Opening a childcare franchise can require as much as $75,000 in cash just to get going.

But here’s the thing—in just about any other industry, this is where government comes in. Though there’s plenty of room for ideological argument here, I’d posit that the entire point of government is to help run interference between business interests and the needs of people. That’s why you don’t get a bill when the cops come to your house after a robbery. That’s why people call for a firetruck when something is burning without thinking about how much it’ll cost.

That’s what governments do–they find a way to make things better or at least more reliable when capitalism is failing. And in the instance of childcare owners and workers, capitalism is failing big-time because, in spite of huge demand and lots of potential growth, childcare workers—mostly women of color, many of whom are immigrants, who work full-time providing a service that is very necessary—are still dependent on social services. When an industry is chronically underpaid, it means that everyone pays for it (except the corporations who do the underpaying—looking at you, Walton Family).

In that way, we’re all subsidizing the cost of childcare in this country. We’re just not seeing much benefit from it. Which brings us to the next benefit.

It’s good for tax payers.

If you’re one of those people who is convinced that government waste is one of the biggest issues facing the economy, you’ll be interested in this: There’s a pretty easy, cheap way to cut government spending.

That’s right. Better childcare.

Early childhood education is one of the single most effective tools we have, as a society, for closing the wealth gap. A 2017 EPI report found that “ it is increasingly apparent that performance gaps by social class take root in the earliest years of children’s lives and fail to narrow in the years that follow.”

Which is to say, they clarify, “children who start behind stay behind — they are rarely able to make up the lost ground.”

Whether it’s universal pre-K or a way to help make childcare more affordable (which could include tax credits, subsidies, or a capital gains tax that just funds much of the necessities of local childcare centers), helping kids of all income levels start earlier provides major cost-savings down the road. One decades-long study, which compared students throughout their childhood, adolescence, and middle age, found that involvement in a pre-k program had “lasting impacts…that reduced life-course-persistent crime among males and increased their earnings during middle adulthood.”

Starting kids earlier and with more reliable inputs can help head off some of our biggest societal costs, including the revolving door of the criminal justice system and the kinds of stress-related reactions children learn when they grow up poor.

Translation: Even if your kids are long grown or you’re never having kids, you very well may still benefit from the lower cost of human services, lower crime rates, and lower poverty rates when childcare is more accessible, more affordable, and more viable as a career option.

It can help close the gender wage gap.

It will come as exactly no surprise to anyone who’s even been around a small child that women tend to do a lot of the work and consideration. From a young age, women are socialized to remember the shoes and the socks, to pack extra snacks, and to remember where everyone is supposed to be at a given time.

That is, of course, not a rule—gender is a spectrum and more dads are staying home or serving as primary caregivers than ever—but by and large, the cost (both mental and literal) of childcare still tends to fall on women.

Here’s a chart from Vox and a story to go with it:

Chart showing that women without kids continue to earn more while women with kids see a substantial slump in income.
Chart showing that women without kids continue to earn more while women with kids see a substantial slump in income.

“Historical drivers of the gender wage gap — a lack of education among women, for example — are disappearing. But the professional penalty women face for having children is stubborn, and it isn’t going anywhere,” writes Sarah Kliffe.

As a childfree woman, you might expect that I’d be like “hell yeah, look at my earnings.” But here’s the thing about yanking Ye Olde Rope Ladder up behind you: You’re going to get burnt. This wage gap between women with kids and women without kids doesn’t do me any good—it doesn’t mean I get all the extra money that women with kids aren’t getting. What’s more likely is that all of us do worse in the workplace in this situation. It means fewer women in the room, fewer women getting promoted in general, fewer women to support one another when, say, we’re getting talked over.

Additionally, the folks who work in childcare—the ones making less than $11 per hour for the care and keeping of our Precious Angels—are overwhelmingly women and, specifically, women of color. And that is, again, bad for everyone.

The care work that women, and especially women of color, perform has been undervalued in the United States for centuries — often precisely because it is women, and especially women of color, who do it. — The National Women’s Law Center

This general devaluation of labor is why childcare is expected to be both cheap and good. It’s why women who work in that field are expected to be great at what they do without costing us much. And it’s why women are more likely than men to drop out of the workplace when they have kids. Because we just assume that childcare is the easy, natural thing for women and that we should just be able to do it because it’s what we do.

It’s also why it took me one million years to convince someone that I didn’t want kids.

We can solve this issue through awareness—there are a litany of articles like this one to be found on the internet—but we can also solve it through policy. Through actual changes to the law and through new channels of funding and through budgetary line items which finally determine that childcare is worth something. That this “women’s work” is worth something. And not only that, but that it’s worth a lot—at least enough to live on.

Policies like Senator Patty Murray’s Child Care for Working Families Act are a great example of how this could look. The bill proposes spending on training and salaries for childcare workers, as well as assistance for families to ensure they aren’t paying too much for the care they’re getting. It would support the owners of childcare businesses by allowing them to hire more workers without breaking the bank or raising rates.

Even if you don’t have kids now—or you have grown kids, or you’re never having kids—policies about childcare do impact your life and your community. This is on all of us.

I wrote that one thing you didn’t really agree with. Interests include progressive policy, minor league baseball, and avoiding Zoom calls. Curious to a fault.

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