Reality Bites

Recent attention given to efforts to push the restart button on feminism may have also called attention to some reality factors in another direction.  Much of the criticism of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” and her attempt to awaken greater career ambitions in women has focused on its seeming disconnect from the real lives of most women.  Now, in just this past week, two related articles appeared in the N.Y.Times pointing to inescapable realities.

One of these is a news story reporting, “As Child Care Costs Rise, Families Seek Alternatives.”  The other, an opinion piece by a professor of law, is titled “How the I.R.S. Hurts Mothers.”  The story on child care indicates that its costs have nearly doubled since the mid 1980’s, but that the portion of families paying for care has dropped.  According to the report, one explanation is that care is being provided by relatives and after-school programs.  Preschool children of working mothers are cared for by grandparents, fathers, a sibling, other relatives, or non-relative.  It seems that only about twenty percent of these children are in daycare or other more formal childcare setting.

In the second article, about the I.R.S., the author writes about “a cruel reality: taxes.”  She points out that the tax code starts with a bias in favor of couples in which one partner works and the other stays home.  However, this does not directly discourage women from working. “What does is the tax code’s treatment of child care.”  She goes on to state that most working mothers pay for child care out of their after-tax income, which is not an issue for very well-paid women nor relevant for women in poor households explaining why this is so.  

Women in the middle class are the ones hardest hit.  “For these couples, increases in the earnings of the better–paid spouse – usually, still, the husband – directly discourage work by the lower paid spouse.”  The author demonstrates, using real numbers, how this plays out, and asserts that where the costs of working outweigh the benefits, many women “would rationally decide not to re-enter the work force.”

Although the author indicates that her point does not apply to women in poor households, it is noteworthy that the child care article reports that families below the poverty line spent 30% of their monthly income on child care, compared with 8% among other families.  The cost of child-care has an impact on both the poor and the middle-class.  While for some women it might lead to a decision not to work outside the home, for others it may mean turning to others for help with child-care.  As the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund in N.Y. says, “If families don’t have stable child care they’re not able to work” and “relative or informal care is not always a stable source of care.”   

The point of all this is that the central issue of child-care is as yet unresolved.  Families are left to fend for themselves in finding a solution, and the solutions being arrived at present real problems both for individual families and for our society as whole. Well-to-do women for the most part choose care by “nannies”, which creates one set of issues, while all the other kinds of child-care referred to create other kinds of problems. Women at all points on the economic scale who depend on others to care for their children often have similar concerns about the quality of those doing the care.  Besides,   an unacceptable number of children are left unsupervised – 23% of those ages 5 to 14 more than 10 hours a week – according to the article on child-care.

What is certainly clear, is that apart from the impact the cost of child care may have on women’s ability to “lean in” and advance their career ambitions, differences in the kinds of child-care children are receiving are contributing to the polarization in our society that has become a source of general concern.  Differences in education that have been noted and commented on actually begin almost in infancy, reflecting the educational level of caregivers, and the quality of care provided.  In this regard, it is interesting to note that despite the increased cost of paid child care for families who use it, the report cited found that the median wages of full-time child care workers remained flat.

Increasingly, for reasons made clear in these articles, not only those who wish to see women return to a traditional role, but many women themselves arrive at such a solution.  The basic fact is that good child-care as we define it, is expensive.  Many families cannot afford it, employers resist providing it, and the problem has not been confronted in significant enough ways by government.  This is no longer a problem just for women.  More men than ever before are involved as primary caregivers or in arranging tradeoffs which may limit the possibilities for each parent.

Discussions about increasing career opportunities for women begin to seem irrelevant in the face of the real problems of child-care yet to be solved.

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