A quarter of a century ago, Richard Louv, in a popular book—Childhood’s Future—wrote: “Today’s children are living a childhood of firsts. They are the first daycare generation; the first truly multicultural generation; the first generation to grow up in the electronic bubble, the environment defined by computers and new forms of television; the first post-sexual revolution generation; the first generation for which nature is more abstraction than reality; the first generation to grow up in new kinds of dispersed, deconcentrated cities, not quite urban, rural, or suburban… (C)hildhood today is defined by the expansion of experience and the contraction of positive adult contact… The way to reverse this process is to find ways to increase positive contact between adults and children.” (Childhood’s Future, p. 5)
One of the things that seems striking about Louv’s 1990 book is that a non-expert, then a newspaper columnist in San Diego, was concerned enough to pen a thoughtful reflection on the nature of childhood and the way we nurture and form our society’s children. Except in textbooks on child and adolescent development, I don’t find much to read these days about the nature of childhood; neither do I read much about the challenges for American parents. What I do know is that the world has changed significantly since I was a child. According to the U.S. Department of Labor: in 2010, “(O)f the 123 million women age 16 years and over in the U.S., 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were labor force participants—working or looking for work. Women comprised 47 percent of the U.S. labor force.”
Today when we think about what adults ought to be doing, we value working. The name of the 1996 welfare reform law defined paid work as what we value; even its name—the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act—defines adult responsibility in the language of paid work. Childcare as a form of work doesn’t count much when it is done by a mother or father at home; it is valued only when it is provided as a paid service, and even then we don’t pay much for it— $9.99-per-hour, on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ironically the 1996 welfare reform law sent many women who were providing childcare at home as an unpaid service into the workplace where they were paid so little that even with subsidies they couldn’t afford quality childcare services for their own children.
Our culture harbors some conflicts at the level of deeply held values about children and childcare. Many of us grew up in the decades before so many women worked, and we are accustomed in our individualistic culture to consider raising children to be a private matter, even though work demands on parents and especially mothers have drastically changed. A neighbor once told me she opposes government subsidized childcare and pre-Kindergarten programs because, “I shouldn’t have to pay taxes for somebody else’s daycare!”
Even the way we think about families doesn’t really capture the realities of life for many parents today. In The Widening Gap, published in 2000, Jody Heymann, who taught at Harvard at the time and now serves as the Dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, concluded: “If we were to believe television portrayals, we would conclude that adults have few work-family conflicts. Only 3 percent of adults in television series recognize any work-family conflicts over a two-week period. In contrast, in our national survey, 30 percent experienced some conflict over the course of a week… The fantasy life depicted on TV as representing adult norms is in fact nearer to the experience of corporate and political elites, most of whom either have a full-time, stay-at-home spouse or the financial resources to easily fill the gaps when society fails to provide services… (T)he majority of working Americans are caring for children, elderly parents, or disabled family members. This holds true across race, ethnicity, gender, education, and income. Yet most are harmed by their lack of needed supports… Seventy-four percent of Americans say the government should provide financial assistance to middle-and low-income families to help pay for child care.” The Widening Gap, pp. 163-164)
Not much has changed, however, in the years since Louv and Heymann published their books. Our public policies conform to the fantasy life Heymann describes portrayed on television and the kind of early childhood many of us remember when our moms were at home. The main thing that has changed has exacerbated the problems for the poorest parents: the passage of welfare reform in 1996—the law that reinforced the value of paid labor by forcing parents into the workforce and putting time limits on the government subsidies the poorest parents could collect. And today, the most important child poverty program emphasizes working in the labor force: the Earned Income Tax Credit the EITC. According to ethnographer, Kathryn Edin, the EITC has provided a substantial pay raise in the form of a wage subsidy—lifting more than 3 million children above the poverty line each year…” but it does nothing for the poorest parents unable to find work. ($2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, p. 157) Foodstamps, now called SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), are all that remains of any kind of safety net. And even for the parents who work outside the home and are rewarded with the Earned Income Tax Credit, the 1993 federal Family Medical Leave Act will grant them 12 weeks for personal or family illness or pregnancy, but the Medical Leave is unpaid and only in workplaces with more than 50 employees and only for those who have worked at least 24 hours a week for at least a year. Our society fails to guarantee maternity leave and for those in the service sector and many other hourly jobs, even minimal unpaid time off for illness or care-giving responsibilities.
All this is why I think Paul Krugman’s column in yesterday’s NY Times is so important. It is unusual these days when a white male, Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist in a major newspaper argues for better public policy to support America’s parents. Krugman writes: “U.S. politicians love to pose as defenders of family values. Unfortunately, this pose is often, perhaps usually, one of remarkable hypocrisy… Judged by what we actually do—or, more accurately, don’t do—to help small children and their parents, America is unique among advanced countries in its utter indifference to the lives of its youngest citizens. For example, almost all advanced countries provide paid leave from work for new parents. We don’t. Our public expenditure on child care and early education, as a share of income, is near the bottom in international rankings (although if it makes you feel better, we do slightly edge out Estonia.)… (W)e place very little value on the lives of our children, unless they happen to come from affluent families. Did I mention that parents in the top fifth of U.S. households spend seven times as much on their children as parents in the bottom fifth?”
Krugman points out that both Democratic candidates for President have endorsed policies to support parents, particularly Hillary Clinton’s careful plan for improving affordable, quality childcare. While all this seems to be drowned out in the press by the spectacle of this campaign and press coverage of politics as a sports competition, Krugman explains that Clinton’s plan would be affordable. It “would use subsidies and tax credits to limit family spending on child care—which can be more than a third of income—to a maximum of 10 percent. Meanwhile. there would be aid to states and communities that raise child-care workers’ pay, and a variety of other measures to help young children and their parents All of this would still leave America less generous than many other countries, but it would be a big step toward international norms… (I)t’s an incredible waste, not just for families but for the nation as a whole, that so many children’s futures are stunted because their parents don’t have the resources to take care of them as well as they should… The usual suspects will, of course, go on about the evils of big government, the sacred nature of individual choice, the wonders of free markets, and so on.., (B)ear in mind that we’re talking about children, who are not in a position to choose whether they’re born into affluent households with plenty of resources or less wealthy families desperately trying to juggle work and child care.”
Early childhood experiences, and access to quality childcare and pre-Kindergarten have all been shown to matter for children’s later school achievement. Achievement gaps are place before children enter Kindergarten and are difficult for schools to close when the poorest children have entered school far behind. In his 2013 book about the extraordinary transformation of schools in Union City, New Jersey, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp describes the elements that were combined to reshape schools and ultimately raise test scores in a way that has been sustained over time. Among the most important, Union City’s schools took advantage of the Abbott v. Burke school funding remedy that incorporated enriched preschool for 31 of New Jersey’s poorest school districts: “Thanks to the Court’s 1998 ruling, every three-and four-year-old in an ‘Abbott district’ is entitled to attend a high-quality prekindergarten… In New Jersey, the sizable infusion of money, an average of $12,000 for each child, was coupled with stiff new standards. Every prekindergarten teacher had to have a bachelor’s degree, there could be no more than fifteen children in a class, and only a curriculum with demonstrated efficacy could be used… State dollars paid for major renovations and covered the cost of tuition for staff members who pursued bachelors degrees.” In Union City, district staff “deployed standout master teachers as mentors to the newly minted graduates.” And in a bilingual community, the preschools became fully bilingual: “The vocabulary that the kids are exposed to, in both Spanish and English, is growing more sophisticated… and the teachers are acquiring the pedagogical tools that are used throughout the district. Instead of spending the entire day telling the children what to do, they’re asking the kids to explain what they’re doing—why they’re designing a car from LEGO building bricks or what they anticipate discovering when they pour out capfulls of sand.” (Improbable Scholars, pp. 108-111) Union City’s school improvement also changed K-12 public schools in major ways as well, but Kirp explains why changing school achievement had to begin with a top-quality program of early childhood education.
I agree with Paul Krugman that we need to pay closer attention to the issues in this presidential campaign. And I absolutely agree that support for programs that assist families and young children is at the center of what we need to be discussing.