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 one 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.