Monday, September 5, 2011

Day Care Should Be Free

In honor of Labor Day, I've decided to write about an issue that has bothered me since the birth of my daughter two years ago. Although it should have bothered me long before that. The only reason it didn't is because, until I had my own child, it never occurred to me.

We should have free, public day care in the United States. Just as we have public schools and public libraries, the services of firefighters and police, day care should be free to the public and funded by tax dollars. And we should have this because it is fair and in the interest of not only parents, but our society at large.

Consider these facts:

According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, the average cost of day care for a single child over one year is $11,666.

According to the 2008 Census, average household income is around $52,000. Single custodial parents (who care for 26% of America's children) are obviously earning less than that, although the majority of them still do not qualify for or take advantage of social services such as food stamps, rent subsidy, or Medicaid.

According to analysis of 2008 data by Emmanual Saez at the University of California-Berkley, the bottom 90% of American household's average income is just over $31,000.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers average around $20,000 annually, with the highest paid still barely reaching $30,000. (So basically, those workers - mostly women - can't afford to send even one of their own kids to the very facility they work at caring for other peoples' kids.)

As of 2006 the average full time Walmart employee (working about 34 hours per week at just over $10. per hour) earns $17,874 per year.

The typical working parents of young children are just barely getting by financially, many in the gap where they aren't quite poor enough to qualify for aid, but also aren't earning enough to save for emergencies, retirement, or their children's college funds, much less for well-deserved and psychologically-needed vacations. They are literally on the edge of poverty, and face rapidly rising costs of medical care and insurance, food, gas, and higher education, while wages stagnate.

Obviously huge numbers of Americans simply can't afford professional child care. Even the crappy little one-room day cares loaded with crying infants, where the TV is blaring all day long, and exhausted caretakers are overworked and underpaid are too expensive for most American households. A single mother working a job making $30,000 a year simply cannot afford full time professional day care, but she must work in order to provide housing, food, and medical insurance for her family. So who exactly is taking care of the kids?

Retired and unemployed relatives and friends is one answer. And is that a good solution? I question the quality of care children receive by people who might be alone with them for 40+ hours a week, and whose only qualification may be that they happen to be around and have been pressured into it by a sense of family or friendly obligation. I also question how fair it is to older relatives, usually grandparents, who may not be in the best health, and after earning their retirement now have to go back to work full time doing the highly stressful job of caring for babies and toddlers.  

Then there are the parents who sacrifice earnings and career to care for kids. Many highly educated, productive working mothers (and some fathers) are leaving their careers or at least cutting back heavily on work to raise children, and then finding themselves at a huge disadvantage when they return to their career. Women are especially at a disadvantage if their marriage ends in divorce. Society is losing out on the benefits of these peoples' work.

There is obviously a problem here.

But if I bring this issue up to my middle class, liberal friends, they mostly just sort of shrug their shoulders and say something like, "Well, yeah, it probably should be made a little more affordable for some people."

Bullshit, I say. This is outrageous! The cost of just about everything is outpacing wages too quickly. Children are not a luxury or accessory. They are members of our society who need to be cared for until they mature, and we as a society have a responsibility to them and to the parents and guardians who raise them. Day care should be a free, public service. And it should be as simple and easy as enrolling a kid in public school.

Happy Labor Day, folks.

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