Monday, January 26, 2015

State of the union: the (hidden) cost of childcare in 2015

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he highlighted several issues related to gender equality, including maternity leave, equal pay, and affordable childcare. In focusing on affordable child care, he referred to it as a “must-have,” and specifically discussed giving middle- and low-income families a tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year. Given some of the ways in which the lack of affordable childcare adversely affects women and their access to the job market, the concrete policy President Obama presented was rather encouraging.

From 1990 to today, the rising and unaffordable cost of childcare has reduced from 42% to 32% the number of US families able to pay for childcare. Meanwhile, the annual cost of childcare can range from $5,496 to $16,459 for an infant, and $4,515 to $12,320 for a 4-year-old. While for upper- and middle-class women, the rhetoric surrounding childcare is on
e of choice – i.e. choosing between staying at home to care for their kids or sending them to high-priced childcare – for single and low-income mothers, there is no such choice.

Many women in single- and low-income households cannot afford to stay at home to care for their children. And when more than 40 percent of mothers are unmarried or split from their partner before the child is 5 years old, affordable childcare is even more clearly a necessity. Unfortunately, equality feminist rhetoric of workplace empowerment, choice, and equal opportunity only marginalizes those most in need of childcare – low-income families who cannot afford childcare and need to have one spouse stay at home. In the case of childcare, this strand of feminism represents only a fraction of privileged women's position.

In her piece in California Magazine, Tamara Straus quotes Arlie Hochschild’s assertion that American capitalism is in part to blame for neglecting childcare as a prominent social and gender equality issue—by embracing empowerment, capitalism has sidetracked caregiving. As a result, childcare becomes a hand-me-down issue, from men to women, and from high-income women to low-income women. Straus blames the lack of affordable childcare as a reason the feminist movement is dwindling:
We don’t have an affordable, taxpayer-subsidized system of infant-to-12 child care that levels the playing field for all women, their partners, and their children. What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes.
At the end of the day, choice rhetoric, which seems to be touted by equality feminists, only speaks to the experiences of privileged working women and neglects the experiences of low-income women. So in turn, the materialization of President Obama's remarks on affordable childcare presents great potential in leveling the playing field for low-income women, and perhaps even revitalizing the feminist movement.


Jessica S. said...

I agree it is encouraging that President Obama is acknowledging the issue, and stating a concrete plan. It is a step in the right direction. However, even paid child care falls predominantly on women, leaving many fields gendered. I wish society could accept men doing paid and unpaid child care. A friend of mine recently witnessed a father with his young daughter being given disapproving looks. Sad.

Ahva said...

You mentioned Arlie Hochschild's assertion that "by embracing empowerment, capitalism has sidetracked caregiving." I agree. We focus a lot on this concept of middle- to upper-class women spewing this rhetoric of choice, when actually the "choices" they make about childcare and work inherently reflect the sexist framework within which they live. I agree that this choice rhetoric is misguided and that, often, women are simply deciding between two non-ideal alternatives. But I think it's also harmful to feminism to assume that all women who choose to stay at home and be caregivers instead of market workers are cheating themselves or being cheated from feeling completely fulfilled as a woman and productive worker. Childcare is productive work and severely undervalued. And I know some women who genuinely prefer to stay at home and care for their children full-time, and not because they were essentially forced to choose between kids and market work. I believe that some women feel that their true calling is to be a caregiver and home-worker, and not because they are brainwashed, uneducated, or misguided.

Personally, I know that I WANT to stop working for a period of time and care for my children myself, even if my husband and I can afford third-party childcare in the future. I don't see this as anti-feminist. I sometimes feel that women's empowerment has become synonymous with women's opportunities in the market, and in turn, a woman's genuine preference for working in the home is considered disempowering (or, for educated women, a "waste"). We have to allow for differences between women in terms of what they feel will contribute to their sense of fulfillment and productivity, in the same way that we should allow for these differences in men.

Juliana said...

I agree that it is not anti-feminist to want to stay home and care for children. The main issue I have with childcare is that staying at home is a luxury only upper- and middle-class women get. At the end of the day, for low-income women living below the poverty line, your children are going to go hungry if you don't go to work. So even if they prefer to stay home, its simply not an option. The point is not calling women who stay home anti-feminist. The point is that to re-ignite the feminist movement, all women regardless of socio-economic class, need to have a more level playing field.

Perhaps this is an argument for the state to put more energy into subsidizing caregiving-dependent relationships, instead of giving recognizing marriage between two adults as the dominant legal relationship that organizes society.