Freedom Socialist • Vol. 29, No. 4 • August-September 2008
Far too many children left behind:
how the U.S. government has failed working parents

by Linda Averill

Anyone who says that women have arrived, or that there's no longer need for a workingclass feminist movement, hasn't considered the state of childcare in the United States. It is a barometer that paints a mean picture of deprivation for mothers.

The bare facts are startling enough. More than 60 percent of moms with children under 6 years of age are in the workforce today. Clearly, daycare is as essential to them as healthcare. Yet only a tiny number of employers provide daycare, and the quiet, daily crisis this creates for working parents goes unreported in the media — even though 11.3 million children under age five require such care.

Most other major industrialized countries provide some level of support, on the logical assumption that care and early education of children is a social good and human right. But not the U.S. Here, the government, business, and the rightwing push the ideology that child rearing is an entirely individual responsibility, in particular, the mother's. So tax monies and propaganda favor programs designed to push women back into the outmoded institutions of marriage and the nuclear family.

But women aren't interested in going backward. Whether by choice or necessity, the ranks of single moms and non-traditional partnerships are growing. Today's majority of women work while raising their kids. But due to lack of childcare, far too many moms are stuck in low-wage jobs, without the time or money to get education and training for better jobs. They are forced to rely on relatives, go into debt for decent care, work odd night shifts, or leave their children home alone. For the kids, it means a lousy second-class start in life.

Insurmountable barriers. Obtaining childcare boils down to availability and money. Nationwide, there is a huge gap between the known need for childcare and the actual supply of centers, especially those regulated and licensed by the government. In poorer locales there are fewer places for more children.

Even rarer is quality care like that at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where childcare is conveniently located on site to faculty, staff and students. Teacher-student ratios are great — three infants to one teacher, for example. But all four care centers at the U.W. are full. Parents "need not apply."

Another giant hurdle is affordability. At the U.W. fulltime toddler care is $1,180 per month. This isn't unusual. Nationally, the cost of childcare averages between $4,000 and $11,000 for a four-year old. Yet one-quarter of families with young kids make less than $25,000 annually. For the working poor, daycare costs can take a 29 percent chunk from the paycheck.

The mere search for childcare is daunting. Parents must find a site near work — or figure out transportation; get alternative care when a child is sick; assess and monitor the quality of care, especially given the lack of regulated daycare, and so on. Consequently, many parents are forced into time-consuming searches. How they are supposed to hold a job in the midst of this is anyone's guess.

Millions of parents are never able to find or afford quality daycare, such as that at the U.W. And the lost work days that inevitably result from having to stay home because a child or babysitter is ill can lead to lost pay days, or worse, to lost jobs. For sick children it can mean delays in visits to the doctor while frantic parents arrange time off work.

The barren state of childcare is a driving factor in the record number of single moms who are in desperate straits. Twelve years after the introduction of strict time limits on welfare, approved in 1996 by President Clinton and U.S. Congress, 30 percent of single mothers and their children live without job income or public aid. And as the current recession deepens, this travesty will intensify.

The history of childcare. Quiet as it's kept, the U.S. government and businesses are very capable of providing quality daycare, especially when labor is in short supply. In the 1930s, during a time of union upsurge, federally funded nursery schools were provided for poor families under the New Deal.

In the 1940s, during World War II, business and government expanded these nurseries to facilitate the mass entry of women workers into the military industries. During these war years, the Lanham Act funded and provided care for 600,000 children, until 1946 — when men returned from the war and women were pushed out of the labor force, partly through the removal of support systems like nursery schools.

In the 1960s and '70s, the feminist and anti-poverty movements exerted enough pressure to revive federal support for childcare. In 1988 and 1990, the federal government funded four different childcare programs for women who received Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and to poor families at risk of needing aid.

But like abortion, another essential reproductive right of women, childcare funding has faced constant cuts and political attacks, from Republicans and Democrats alike. In 1996, it received a mortal blow with Clinton's replacement of AFDC with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).

In addition to dismantling AFDC, a federal guarantee of assistance to poor families who fell below a certain income threshold, the federal government dumped its responsibility for providing childcare aid through TANF. It instead handed money over to the states in the form of block grants, with wide latitude to design their own programs. Under this arrangement, the situation for poor single moms has deteriorated rapidly.

President Clinton and Congress promised that childcare and other support systems would be beefed up so that women could successfully gain access to the workforce and jobs with sufficient pay to become independent. A robust economy full of low-wage jobs did halve welfare rolls. But all the promised support, including more childcare, has failed to materialize. Today, the economy is in full recession, childcare support is declining, and the safety net is shredded. Only one in seven children who are eligible for childcare under federal law actually gets assistance.

The high price of motherhood. Women hold an unenviable place in society. Their traditional role has been domestic servant and care giver, providing free labor in the home. This sets the stage for the lower wages of a predominantly female labor force that provides daycare, home healthcare, cleaning, and other services essential to running a household. The average wage of a daycare worker is only $9 per hour!

Because of their domestic responsibilities, including childrearing, women are also disproportionately represented in the ranks of temporary and part-time jobs. This work provides minimal benefits, lower pay, and is the first to face layoffs in hard times.

The price that women pay in their childraising years drags on into retirement, in the form of reduced pensions and benefits. Is it any wonder then, that so many of the "fair sex" are impoverished? Nearly 15 million, that is, especially women of color, elders and single moms.

The rightwing and big business harp on about the "sanctity" of marriage and the home. But that is not what worries them. Paying workers the actual cost of maintaining a home would substantially erode corporate profits — and the basis for women's low-wage status in the work force.

Daycare is a labor issue. To win full equality for women will require a societal shift, where childrearing is supported rather than penalized. Access to early education programs and round-the-clock care for infants and children must be part of the support system, and made available to all families.

Yet this question fails to get the serious attention it deserves by the major labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. True, both organizations are pushing for "family friendly" legislation, including a requirement that employers provide paid sick days, flexibility in work schedules, and paid Family Medical Leave. Such demands help fill the gap in a system that is downright hostile to the special needs of working parents, women and men.

But so much more is needed. Free, universal, 24-hour quality daycare is an integral ingredient to raising the next generation of workers — not to mention offering sanity to the current generation! And business and government should provide and fund it, rather than lay the bulk of the burden on women — through a patchwork, privatized, mostly unregulated system of childcare.

The feminist and labor movements are natural allies in this quest. The last labor upsurge in the 1930s played no small part in forcing government and business to pony up for the first public nursery schools. Another offensive is long overdue.