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The Debate Over Universal Childcare: What Is Really Going On?

Have you noticed that we keep talking about universal childcare in the United States, but, with the exception of a handful of states and cities, it never happens? Nearly all of the current Democratic candidates for president are promising it, but this has happened before without legislation ever passing at the federal level. We know that the United States is one of the few Western industrialized nations that does not provide subsidized childcare for working parents. Why not?

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times writes that the reasons are not economic. She notes that substantial research shows that children and parents benefit from access to affordable or free day care:

  • Women being in the workforce helps the economy and is economically beneficial for families.
  • High quality, affordable, easy-to-find childcare and longer school days result in higher levels of employment for women. In Washington, DC, public (free) prekindergarten increased labor participation of women with young children by 10 percent.
  • The economic benefits of good, affordable childcare for low-income children extends for generations, and spending on it more than pays for itself.

Miller notes, though, that conflicting beliefs in US society create resistance to universal childcare. She describes some examples of the conflicts:

  • Both parents work in two-thirds of American families: 93 percent of fathers and 72 percent of mothers with children at home are in the labor force. Yet one-third of Democrats surveyed by the Pew Research Center say that one parent staying at home is ideal. In another study, nearly half of Americans said one parent should stay home. These statistics conflict with the reality of the lives of Americans.
  • A moral question has resurfaced about whether mothers should work at all. Tucker Carlson of Fox News states, “It is more virtuous [for mothers . . .] to raise your own kids”; in other words, the proper place for mothers is at home with their children.
  • However, poor women, especially black women, have always been expected to work from the time of enslavement to the present, and are denied childcare support or required to work for it when support does exist.
  • Research shows that when subsidized childcare and education are available, the participation of women in the labor force expands, showing that women want and need to work. When childcare costs increase, mothers (more so than fathers) drop out of the workforce. Researchers at the Universities of North Carolina and Maryland note that “you’re boxing women out of the labor market” with the high cost of childcare.

As described by Miller, most women and men who are parents of young children work. Yet Christina Caron of the New York Times notes that the lack of affordable childcare creates a significant financial stress for families. A study by NYT Parenting, based on data collected by YouGov, an international polling and market research firm, found these worrying statistics:

  • Almost 60 percent of parents around the country with children enrolled in preschool or day care reported that the costs created a significant financial strain.
  • Some families had to go into debt to pay childcare expenses.
  • Half of Americans live in places with no licensed childcare providers or very limited slots available.

The moral ambivalence in the United States about whether mothers belong in the home rather than in the workforce is still actively blocking progress on achieving universal childcare. Miller notes that “Americans are more likely to believe in gender equality in work and politics than in the home”-but we can’t have one without the other. It’s time to move on from the moral ambivalence embedded in our culture about mothers working.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at https://www.annelitwin.com on August 22, 2019.

Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together', OD Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Workshop Trainer

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