The Catch-22 of Child Care

ChildcareA recent article in the New York Times details the high cost of child care in the United States. Writer Alissa Quart cites research by sociologist Joya Misra, who argues that women with children are not approaching pay equity with men largely because working may not make economic sense given the high cost of child care. Yet if women drop out of the job market when their children are young, re-entering the job market may entail reduced pay and job responsibilities. A classic Catch-22. There has been much discussion in the past about how difficult it is for poor and working class women to obtain reliable, affordable child care, but this new article focuses on the fact that middle and even upper middle class women are also being priced out of the market for safe, high-quality child care. The author interviews several women in good jobs who struggle to pay for decent child care while still retaining enough income to pay for rent and other necessities. While it may be difficult to feel sorry for the plight of working mothers who are earning $40,000 per year or more, the take-away question from the article is this: if such educated and relatively privileged women cannot easily afford decent child care, what are people of average means supposed to do? The author concludes that the United States needs the same kind of high quality, government-subsidized day care that many other developed countries offer.

The dilemma described here – work or don’t work in light of child care responsibilities – is familiar to those of us who study these things, but I was somewhat shocked by some of the reader comments following the piece. There were over 300 comments (with some commenters weighing in more than once). The comments fall into roughly three categories. Some commenters argue that good care for children is a collective responsibility, and we all should pitch in to ensure that the next generations are healthy and productive (with the added advantage of being capable of caring for their elders in their old age). A smaller, vocal group argues that if you have children, you should stay home and raise them; some of these commenters cite their own successful stay-at-home mothering efforts in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and conclude that the materialism of current parents drives them to want to earn money instead of focusing on their offspring as they should. The third group of commenters argues that high child care costs are foreseeable, and if you don’t like the costs, you should not have children. If you do have children, this group maintains that they are your problem and you shouldn’t even think about asking someone else to help with the costs of raising them: you are on your own. I did not tally up the responses, but it is my clear impression that the majority of commenters were folks insisting that they should not have to concern themselves with other people’s children. Obviously this is no random sample, but still…

As a family law scholar, I have many thoughts about this article. I dare say that this attitude of “you had the brats, you can take care of them without my money” exhibited in many of the reader comments is short-sighted and rather mean-spirited. Numerous commenters stated that having children is optional, and difficulties or expenses in raising children are foreseeable and best avoided by not having children at all. Right. But the fact is, not every cost is foreseeable and anyway, these children are here already and they must be cared for. It is legitimate to ask whether the social and financial costs of that care should be borne by their parents alone.

Let me hasten to acknowledge that this is a free country, and people are free to divide paid labor and child care within their own families in ways that make sense to them. However, I am surprised that only a tiny minority of comments to the article acknowledged two brutal facts of American society: first, that when a woman returns to the paid workforce after years away, it is unlikely that she will be able to find a job with comparable pay and responsibility and second, if a stay-at-home mom ends up divorced, she is very likely to pay a huge economic penalty for having chosen to stay at home. These same working class and middle class mothers will rarely, if ever, get significant alimony after a divorce, and they will likely suffer a huge drop in standard of living from which they may never recover. In a country with a divorce rate hovering around 50% this is an important issue for many people.

Here’s the thing: many women find themselves between a rock and a hard place after they have children. If they return to paid employment, they may net very little income because of the high costs of child care. The economically rational thing to do may seem to be for the higher earning parent (on average, the man) to continue to work while the lower paid partner cuts back or stays home with the children full-time. But that only works if the man stays healthy, lives long, the couple never separates, and all essential expenses are covered by the man’s income. If a stay-at-home mother divorces, things can become very dire very quickly for her. Only a small minority of women get alimony after a divorce, and those who do get ever-shrinking amounts for short periods of time. The SAHM will have to re-enter the paid workforce promptly, but her job prospects will be greatly hampered by the time she has spent at home: she will likely earn far less than in her previous job, and her prospects for advancement may be diminished as well. In another recent New York Times article, women who left elite professional jobs a decade or more ago to raise children reflected on the costs of that decision.  Although none of the women admitted to wanting to return to the high stress high-powered jobs they once held, most returned to jobs that had fewer hours, lower pay and less prestige. One woman interviewed after her divorce noted that her choice did not result in a “fairy-tale ending.”

Staying at home with children is a risky economic prospect. On the other hand, working for no net-pay after covering the expenses of working seems like economically irrational behavior. But is it? Women who stay in the paid workforce may be investing in a more secure future situation – a future when their children are in school all day or are grown-up, and the women can be self-supporting. During the children’s preschool years income may have been diminished, but afterwards, the woman retains prospects for advancement and will likely have more disposable income (at least in the years between daycare and college). Women have not traditionally been socialized to look at their situation in quite this way, but maybe they should be. Putting the family and children first is a wonderful thing, but neither the law nor majority public opinion currently favor financial assistance for mothers whose children have greater than average needs or whose partners are unreliable. It is as if our society has decided that having a child is like buying a lottery ticket: you are free to spend your money on it if you like, if it’s a healthy, happy winner – good for you. If it’s sickly or needs more food, education or other care than you can afford and your partner isn’t able to make up the deficit – well, you are on your own: you should have thought of that before.

Perhaps government-subsidized daycare is a good idea, perhaps not. But surely the care and protection of the next generation – and the financial stability of parents – are things with which the larger society – and the legal system – should concern themselves.


This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Melissa Greipp

    Great blog post. Another problem is that not only are women economically disadvantaged by the cost of child care, they are also disadvantaged from the standpoint that if they remove themselves from public spheres of influence and limit themselves solely to the domestic sphere, they are much less likely to achieve their full potential as contributors to society. That is a choice that undoubtedly many women happily make, but as you note, even re-entering the workforce after taking time off to raise a family for a few years limits a woman’s full ability to rise in her career or enter into other spheres of influence.

  2. Ann von Mehren

    The U.S. government subsidizes countries that have nationally owned corporations competing for U.S. jobs and U.S. factories, giving these foreign entities free access to our economic playing field. Those foreign corporations are fully subsidized by their governments in Europe, especially Scandinavian, French and British companies, as well as the former Russian federation. U.S. corporations are outsourcing, citing cheaper labor costs. In Europe, the governments pay for child care, guarantee return-to-job after many months or even years of parenting leave. Competitive countries have established “entitlement” programs that make their people better educated and competitive for jobs. India, China, Japan — you name it, the governments support any factory job relocation through supplying tax breaks to get their people working. There is no such thing as “the economically rational thing” in today’s international competitive market. The lobbyists and opinion-makers forcing these decisions that are detrimental to the American people are from London, Stockholm, Hamburg, The Hague, Brussels, Peking and New Delhi. This relates to Immigration reform as well — we are carrying the burden of the 12 million undocumented, many of them women who have left their children with their parents or other relatives in Latin America, China, Ukraine, Africa and Asia — working for cash that they send home as remittances, rather than put in U.S. savings banks and pay taxes on the interest. The Obama Administration accepted lobbying from the IT barons to expand graduate school places for foreign students in the work visa pool — and those tens of thousands can have kids here in advantageous jobs, while no increase in funding for for Dream or U.S. born students to help them get into graduate schools. We need to drop looking at this as “American work ethic” and realize a strategy that puts American labor first — not as a union issue or a class issue, but as a practical issue. Local jobs, filled with employees educated to do the job here in America. Thank you for this thoughtful article and let’s get some political will to educate our children in a conscientious way starting with public investment in comprehensive child care the first 3 years of American children’s lives.

  3. Steven Cochran

    Is this real life?

    In the words of the author, I was thinking it was “short-sighted and mean spirited” (not to mention selfish) to have to borrow money from future generations to pay their own daycare. . .

    Every government social welfare program I can think of gets bigger. It never minimizes/shrinks the supposed problem it was created to address. The same would happen with government daycare. Despite what LBJ said, we didn’t end poverty, we expanded it, by ‘fighting’ it with tax dollars in the hands of beauracrats.

    Call me short-sighted and mean spirited, but somehow, the last six or so decades of government sponsored social welfare history, does not yield “long term and friendly spirited results”.

    Whether its clothing, daycare, food, housing etc. . . I think the following “harsh, short-sighted, mean spirited” policy is one rooted in fostering personal and fiscal responsibility for future generations:

    “Can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em.”

  4. Catherine Loew

    I started law school at the age of 33 because of this exact problem. I love my three children and my husband of 14 years. I sacrificed my professional opportunities to stay home with our kids. My husband’s career has flourished while it cost me more to walk out the door than I could make. Where we live and how the public school system is set up reinforces a stay-at-home mom environment. I have tried every type of childcare- daycare, friends, and AuPairs and know that the work place does not respect sick days, dinner time, and special moments in a child’s life. With my oldest starting high school and my youngest starting kindergarten, I finally have the freedom to pursue the career I want without sacrificing a happy childhood for my kids. It is a challenge for our marriage as well, as the household and child raising duties have never been divided. We started out as academic equals with promising careers, but one parent had to put the kids above their career ambitions. We did not live by family because of his career.

    I will face a struggle when I graduate paying off law loans and working for low pay with long hours, long commute times, and resulting with no benefit to my family. I chose to have our kids in my twenties after seeing so many women struggle to have families when they wanted them later and struggling to give up a career to have them. It is not fun knowing that I could not support our 3 children without my husband for another five years. It is an economic reality that I hope he thinks I am worth carrying the financial burden mostly alone for 15 years. I often think if work is to make money to provide for my family, then I have made the wrong decision. We are a team and work daily to maintain our marriage while we transition through this difficult change.

    I do not regret my decision but my daughters grew up in a stay-at-home mom community and hate that I returned to law school. I have a hard time explaining my decision. Now they are watching many families end in divorce and are seeing the effects of the choice to stay to home have on other moms. It is our money, not Dad’s money is something I have said. We have paid more in daycare than it costs to send a child to the best four year state University. I am not asking for anyone to pay for our childcare, but I wish there was a better option for my children.

  5. Irene Ten Cate

    Interesting article, post, and comments!

    One thing that bugs me is: Why were no fathers interviewed for the NYT article?

    Perhaps the answer is, in part, that many women still view childcare as coming out of their individual incomes. Ms. Dimyan-Ehrenfeld, the lawyer interviewed in the article, provides a clear example of this way of thinking when she observes that she only earns fifty cents in each bi-weekly pay period, after childcare expenses–for a nanny and a private preschool–are deducted.

    Of course, not all women think this way. Professor Bellamy, also interviewed for the article, appears to regard childcare expenses as shared ones, noting that “[o]ur entire disposable income goes to childcare.” It may or may not be significant that Professor Bellamy brings in more than two-thirds of the household income (her income is $74,000, and their household income is $110,000).

    The NYT article raises important questions about whether society as a whole should take responsibility for making high-quality childcare available to working parents. I am puzzled, however, by the article’s presentation of childcare costs as a women’s issue.

  6. Judith McMullen

    In response to Irene ten Cate: I agree that the tendency to view this as the woman’s problem is part of why we are where we are. Child care is, after all, the responsibility of both parents. However, where the mother has stayed home, I think that individual families do the calculations like this: if mom gets an outside job, everyone else in the family will have to make sacrifices and take on extra responsibilities that were previously hers alone. If there is no significant financial payout for this, many couples feel that it is not worth the family disruption. Catherine Loew’s comment above illustrates this: she continues to work outside the home, but she and her family are paying a high price for it, and they have second thoughts about the decision sometimes.

    Part of my point is that young women need to consider that the real benefit to continued paid employment is not necessarily immediate financial gain, but security in the event of death, divorce, disability or downsizing of the other wage earner. It’s a little like insurance – you hope you don’t need to use it, but it is a comfort to have it and can protect from complete financial disaster. On the other hand, people who luck out and don’t need to collect on the insurance sometimes grumble that their money was wasted. I simply argue that effort spent reducing risk is a good thing for most families.

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