It had been a while since I had written about the choices parents of young children have to make, so I had forgotten just how electric the question is. Responses to last week’s piece poured in, mostly fast and a few furious. They confirmed my sense that as a country, we need to do better for children than we’re doing.
One reader suggested enlisting private business as an ally:
“I wonder if it’s possible to ease some of the issues of the cost of doing business if more childcare centers were subsidized (in part) by businesses. For example, the daycare my daughter goes to is affiliated with a local healthcare company and as such They do not pay rent for their facility. This money is then passed on to their staff in the form of better wages. They have less turnover and the kids have more consistency. Just a thought.”
This is a great idea, when it works. But it only works when it makes financial sense for the businesses. I’ve seen multiple colleges close their daycares because they just couldn’t make the numbers work.
A few readers reminded me of CCAMPIS grants, which can help Pell-eligible student parents defray some of the cost of childcare. Given how many community college students are also parents, this is a welcome resource. As with the private business idea, though, it’s only terrific if you’re in the specific group that it helps.
Some other readers noted that what looks like a childcare problem is really a wages problem. If the wages available to most people in their 20’s and 30’s had kept up with productivity gains over the last few decades, the cost crunch for daycare wouldn’t be anything close to what it is now. Others took the opposite tack, arguing instead that “babysitting” shouldn’t require advanced training at all; by that argument, credential inflation is the real culprit.
Another suggested having daycare centers sponsor their workers to get advanced training. That way, the students wouldn’t be on the hook for repayment at low wages. I don’t know the profit margins of many daycare centers, but based on what I’ve seen on campuses, I suspect most of them are running pretty close to the bone. I doubt that most of them have the budgetary slack to do that at scale. That said, I agree that turnover is a huge challenge in the industry, and that subsidized degrees can be an excellent employee retention tool.
Readers in different locales reported different circumstances. A reader from Illinois pointed me to the ECACE program there, which can provide full scholarships in Early Childhood Ed. New Jersey and Pennsylvania offer grants through the TEACH program, which can offset some of the cost of training if students meet multiple criteria. Multiple Canadian readers noted that in (parts of?) Canada, the government subsidizes salaries for daycare workers, paying them like public school teachers, and parents pay $10 per day. The higher salaries support getting and keeping well-qualified teachers, and the low upfront cost for parents makes it possible even for parents of modest means to ensure that their children will have access to safe, high-quality care while the parents are working. It sounds like a thoroughly excellent idea to me, particularly compared to what we’re doing here. I have yet to hear a coherent philosophical argument to the effect that five-year-olds should be eligible for free school but four-year olds should be subject to the private market.
Finally, and of course, it’s impossible to discuss childcare without addressing gender. Some argue that addressing daycare at all is an implicit attack on the traditional family and/or part of an agenda by the nanny state to supplant parents as sources of authority. Historians of the family have done a pretty good job of debunking the idea that “traditional” means “eternal” or “inevitable:” In fact, the conditions holding for the white American middle class at midcentury were, historically speaking, a bit of a fluke. But the ideal still holds powerful cultural pull, even if it’s largely honored at the breach.
I’m more persuaded by the argument that we aren’t going to find sustainable solutions to work/life balance – very much including childcare – until we stop defining it as a “women’s issue.” It’s everyone’s issue. Men, and particularly fathers, need both to step up as parents and to contribute to structural solutions. The “Dean Dad” moniker I adopted so many years ago was a gesture towards that; those were the two roles that occupied most of my waking hours. I wanted to write about the challenges of working and parenting from my own perspective, which meant admitting in public that being an involved parent takes time. It consumes bandwidth. It’s difficult. Putting in the time with my kids over the years has helped me build great relationships with them, though, and has given me the context to be able to see that when we started to come back from COVID, we could use the flexibility offered by technology to make life a little easier for working parents. The burdens we put on two-career couples with young children are simply unreasonable. Worse, they’re voluntary. We could choose to make it easier.
Thank you to my wise and worldly readers for shedding light from all of those angles. I know there are many more, and I’m grateful for the grace offered by those who would have been within their rights to point out something else I was missing. And a special thanks to those Canadian readers who wrote in to make the point that it really, honestly, for real, doesn’t have to be this way.