By Anne Weisberg
Now that the President has shined a spotlight on child care policy, it is incumbent on those who want to see this become a reality to read In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy (New York University Press, 2014).
The authors make a compelling case that for too long, child care has been marginalized as an issue, in part because it has been framed as a personal responsibility. To build popular support for a national child care policy, the issue has to be seen as one of middle class economics, as President Obama said in the State of the Union address.
The American Dream is, at its core, a dream about making the future better for the next generation. In other words, it’s about family. The importance of family is a defining value of American society—and all but 2% of Americans say that family is the most important or one of the most important things in their lives, according to the Pew Research Institute.
Parents across the country at every income level and from every ethnic background try every day to realize the American Dream by providing for their children. But, all too often, as headlines attest, parents are forced to choose between providing cash and care.
Take the story of Shanesha Taylor, a mother who left her children in the car while she went for an interview for a job that paid a living wage. When she came out of the interview, she was arrested for, in effect, neglecting her kids. She told police that she had no choice because her babysitter bailed and she couldn’t find alternative child care at the last minute.
A photo of Taylor crying in a mug shot made national news, but the child care crisis goes beyond just images of low-income women. Rather—as we explain in our #fillthegap campaign—access to affordable, high quality child care is one of the issues that cuts across income gaps, gender gaps and education gaps. Without it, too many parents are forced to choose between providing cash or care for their families.
As authors Elizabeth Palley and Corey Shdaimah document in In Our Hands, this draconian choice between providing cash or care is not a personal failure. It is a collective failure reflected in the lack of a national child care policy. It almost wasn’t this way. In 1971, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, a bill with bipartisan support that would have enabled centers around the country that would have provided child care and related services to the whole family.
Palley and Shdaimah retrace the demise of that bill and explain what has happened since at both the state and federal levels to sum up what we have in the U.S. today—a patchwork of policies and private sector responses with lots of holes through which more and more families are in danger of falling.
The patchwork is detailed in a chapter that reveals the lack of coordination across federal, state and local levels. The consequences follow in the next chapter (page 135), where the authors document that, since the downturn, “funding for children, including funding for early education and child care, has continued to drop.” The consequence: child care expenses, which have been rising faster than incomes, help make the economics of parenthood precarious.
To be sure, there are some bright spots. The authors point to the U.S. military which, after the 1989 passage of the Military Child Care Act, has developed a model of child care systems based on standards of care, excellent employment practices, sliding scale fees for parents and the like. The authors also describe various public/private partnerships designed to increase the availability and affordability of child care.
But, for me, the best part of In Our Hands is the close look at the larger cultural context in which child care policy has played out. Palley and Shdaimah explain why, as they say in their opening sentence, “[c]hild care in the United States has long been seen as a personal concern rather than a social responsibility.” They show the powerful influence of framing in constructing this view.
While remarkably even-handed in their historical analysis, Palley and Shdaimah do call for a new national movement. They draw on interviews with over 20 leaders of child care organizations—including both Ellen Galinsky and Dana Friedman, the co-founders of the Families and Work Institute—to sketch out what the movement could look like. They suggest that child care policy needs to be reframed as a family issue that affects—and benefits—us all. They urge child care advocates to think in terms of building a social movement around child care that includes framing the role of government in supporting families. They cite the Tea Party as a role model, stating: “’[t]he Tea Party movement provides an example of the potentially transformative role of strategic funding in creating and sustaining a broad-based movement.” They conclude the book with the need to create “a moral message not only about the role of government, but also about society’s responsibility for raising children.” Without such a movement, they argue, more and more parents are at risk of “losing out on the American dream.”
Policy makers are taking note. Last year, the reauthorization of child care block grants sailed through Congress with bi-partisan support. And, on January 21st of this year, Senator Kristin Gillibrand (a Democrat from New York) and Senator Richard Burr (a Republican from North Carolina) reintroduced the Child and Dependent Care FSA Enhancement Act, a bill that strengthens dependent care flexible spending accounts (FSAs) for American families by increasing the amount of pre-tax dollars that families can put into these accounts and indexing those accounts to inflation.
Has the time come that we, as a society, understand that we all stand to lose when parents are forced to pit cash against care? Let us know your thoughts.
BOOK REVIEW SERIES: Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit action tank providing research to live, learn and work by, has launched a book review series that includes video and blog reviews about work-life related books getting people talking and thinking. We go beyond the noise and let you know how popular books on the topic of work can, or can’t, impact your life. We read them for you because you don’t have time to read everything.