Tuesday, June 17, 2014

America Needs Quality, Subsidized Day Care

Me working  a job while recovering from having my first
child. As an independent contractor, if I didn't work, I didn't
get paid. 
 I have three jobs. One is full time, two are part time. Only one pays, and not much. 

I am not alone. 

My first, full time job is as a stay-at-home mom (SAHM). 23% of American moms with kids under age 15, and 35% with kids under age 6 stay home. Such work is always unpaid, and always more than the typical 40 hour work week. It's a job we can never leave. The kids are there in the morning needing to be changed and dressed, taken to school, play dates, classes and practices, fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner, helped with their homework, bathed, and gotten ready for bed. Many of these moms are single, and many others have husbands who work long hours and/or commute to jobs, causing them to come home late and exhausted. 

It's a big risk being a SAHM. Even for those of us who are married to spouses with well-paying jobs with good benefits, the divorce rate is still high, and sometimes spouses die or become disabled. For a parent who stops working for years to take care of children, going back to work in later life poses all kinds of challenges, and our life-time earning potential has been drastically lowered. 

On the other hand, many SAHMs express deep fulfillment in this practice. I know I feel grateful for all the time I spend with my daughters, how much I get to see them grow up, and how I'm building a bond and memories that the three of us will cherish for our lifetimes. 

Everything in life is give and take. 

My second job, as an artist and writer, is also mostly unpaid. I manage to put in an average of 20 hours a week in my studio making woodcuts and doing blogging and social networking to "raise my platform", and sending my work out to agents, editors, and galleries. I do this work while my littlest one is napping and my older child is at school, and after they go to bed at night. I rarely go to sleep before midnight. In my studio I'm surrounded by to-do lists and self-set deadlines to keep myself focused. 

In addition to fulfilling my creative and intellectual needs, my work as an artist gives me a huge sense of personal accomplishment and sense of career status. When strangers ask me or my husband what I do, we talk about my art - where I'm showing, the book I'm trying to sell, the new book I'm working on. After all, only other parents really want to hear much about my kids, and even then talking about the kids can get tedious. 

Me working on a book at the kitchen table in between
making dinner and getting kids ready for bed.

But as I said, this rarely pays. I sell a few, small prints on Etsy every month. I earn a paltry amount through Google Ads. The last arts and crafts sale I did, after the table fee, brought in only $25.00. I scored an agent, but she wasn't able to sell my book for me, so now I'm again at square one with that project, adding to the pile of things to do. It is a daily struggle to keep myself feeling confident that eventually I'll hit my "tipping point" and make some real income. 

My third job is as a part time art teacher. I must do this to bring in extra income because my husband's pay alone isn't quite enough to support our family. I work through non-profits and art centers. It pays a decent hourly wage, but I get hardly any hours, and those I do get require a lot of babysitting trades with other parents to cover childcare. When all the extras are added up, it's really not much more than minimum wage for a few hours a week. 

I am one of the lucky moms. My marriage is strong, and my husband has a good job. Without his gainful employment, my art career would go comatose, despite years and thousands of dollars in investment. I also have enough family support to get us through rough patches. If things for me keep going the way they have (fingers crossed), odds are I will eventually hit that sought after "tipping point", so that by the time my kids are grown, I might actually have a full time paying career as an artist and writer. 

But what about the moms without supportive spouses who can pay the bills? The ones without extended family who can help out? 

Today in America, women are under-represented in politics, business, STEM fields, the arts, just about everywhere. And not for lack of women getting the degrees and having the potential to be hugely influential in all those segments of society. Do we really wonder why? Do we really think we can fix this problem by merely giving women lip service and the encouragement to "lean in"? 

Typically, the only subsidized early childhood care in America is for poor parents, and most of these programs, including Head Start, are at facilities where those children are segregated from their more affluent counterparts. 

In general, day care in America is associated with substandard early childhood care, which is one reason why so many parents who can manage to avoid it, do. But in many other industrialized nations, publicly subsidized day care, which is accessible to all families, often on a sliding scale based on income, is of high quality and embraced by parents. Just look at France. 

American parents seem increasingly convinced that children fare better with a parent at home than in center-based care, but there is little to no scientific evidence for this. Consider: 

Multiple studies, including the NICHD study, have found that, after statistically adjusting for the effects of social class and other potential confounders, kids enrolled in high quality child care given by nonrelatives develop slightly better cognitive and language skills—as measured at various points in their lives, all the way up through age 15—than do kids in low-quality care. These beneficial effects are more pronounced for low-income kids than children from more affluent families and for kids in center-based care than other types of care. The NICHD study also compared children in child care to children who stayed at home with their mothers for the first three years of their lives, and the ones at home fared somewhere in the middle: They scored better on verbal comprehension tests at age 3 than did kids in low-quality care, but they scored worse on language tests at age 2 than kids in medium- and high-quality care. Interestingly, studies suggest that the cumulative amount of time kids spend in care makes little difference when it comes to scores; what matters is whether they go at all and if it’s good or bad.

In her article The Dark Side of Preschool, Gwen Dewar compared studies of American center-based care to a study done in Norway. Although more studies need to be done to come to a better understanding of how center-based care impacts children, there is some evidence that it is largely the quality of care that makes a difference, not whether children are at home or in a day care center. 

So if Zachrisson’s team found no evidence that preschool attendance causes behavior problems, that might be because preschool in Norway is better. 

The question becomes this: how can we make center-based care in the United States as good as it is in other developed nations? In addition to integrating programs that separate the poor and middle class, another no-brainer seems to simply subsidize care so that we can afford to raise the professional standards for those who work in day care centers and preschools.

Childcare workers are often paid a paltry sum, despite frequent requirements for degrees in Early Childhood Education and having to work year round and longer hours than school teachers. The average hourly wage of these workers is less than
$10 an hour. Even in New York City, day care workers are paid an average of $25,000 a year - barely a living wage! This leads to high turnover, low status, and staff burnout, not exactly a formula for quality child care. 

We Americans need to ask ourselves what sort of society do we want to be? One where women are equally represented in every career field while our children receive loving, quality care from well-respected child care professionals, or one where we turn back the clock to the days when women took a back seat to our husbands running the world while we stayed home and changed diapers, regardless of our educational backgrounds, talents, and aspirations. 

I'm raising two little girls. Right now I tell them that they can be whatever they want to be so long as they work hard. But I know that's only a half truth. When my girls come of age, will I have to change my tune and tell them that they will probably have to choose between fulfilling their career dreams, or having kids while being financially dependent on a spouse and setting their careers back at least a decade? I dearly hope that they and none of the other American women of their generation will have to make that choice. 


  1. Martha, I hope you will submit this piece to the next Carnival of Atheist Parenting!


    Peace, Karen

  2. Well said! For working parents finding a quality daycare has become a tough task. Early childhood care at home and daycare is really important for the betterment of a child. I am a single working parent living in Brooklyn, but I am happy that a childcare in Brooklyn is providing quality care to my child and I am not worried as she is in safe hands.