Women's work, day care, elder care and (more) class issues

Oct 09 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Anne-Marie Slaughter had an op-ed piece a few weeks ago in the NYTimes about Women's work and how she stepped away from a fast-track job. She comes across as the anti-Sheryl-Lean-In-Sandberg [Note this is from a book of hers that just came out called "Unfinished Business", NYT review here, excerpt here,  another review here].

One of the points she touches on, but doesn't explore at length in the op-ed (but maybe in the book, I haven't read it), are the issues of the kind of jobs most women have (which is not academia or Law School Dean or professional class) and what the wages of the jobs signify. One of the quotes I liked from the NYTimes piece:

The problem is even more acute for the 42 million women in America on the brink of poverty. Not showing up for work because a child has an ear infection, schools close for a snow day, or an elderly parent must go to the doctor puts their jobs at risk, and losing their jobs means that they can no longer care properly for their children — some 28 million — and other relatives who depend on them. They are often suffering not only from too little flexibility but also too much, as many low-wage service jobs no longer have a guaranteed number of hours a week.

One of the most common calls in this corner of the blogosphere is for "affordable day care". Usually its younger people (of various genders) thinking about their kids. I'd point out that there is a lot of that going around in my generation (early-mid-boomers, 50-60ish) because our parents are still alive, and often in need of elder-care. My mom is in a wonderful facility, that is staffed by about 80-90% women. It is not cheap. It costs more than an expensive-in-America private school college education. This facility wouldn't work if one had only social security. I have sibs with resources, and my parents lived a frugal life and saved for this eventuality. In fact, it only works because I am in the middle-of-America-rural. The same facility in the Big Cities where my brother and sister live is two to three times more. Why? salaries for workers, who are not minimum wage at a place like this, but still lower here than in coastal cities.

Which brings me to the salient point. When people ask for cheap, but good day care, what are they asking  for? Care-takers who will minimally treat their children (or parents) with respect, keep them from being hungry and tired, and make sure they are allowed to run and play and learn and be children (or whatever activities are possible for people with dementia).

To do this means you need people who are capable and committed to doing taking care of someone else's children. Something that obviously the people asking are not doing for their own children (or parents) or for the caretakers children (or parents). It is a level of care that the caretaker's children often don't receive. The place where my Mom is pays better than minimum wage. There are many people who want  that job, and the place can chose good workers, caring people, and do background checks. That's why it costs so much.

Daycare costs a lot. Good daycare costs even more. And so, we come to the crux of the issue. Who should pay? As Slaughter says in her article, affordable pushes the wages down, which are wages for the most part for women.  I have heard too many grad students/postdocs say "I can't afford that". Well, actually you can afford it, you just don't want to put that much of your income into "that", and have to give up things like vacations and organic food and whatever phone/internet/etc service you have.

The next level of response is "it should be subsidized". Subsidized by whom? The universities, who claim they don't have money to cover what they do right now? Ha, I say. There is so much uni's could cut. A whole layer of middle management administrators. Professor salaries. Climbing walls for rich undergraduates. Athletics programs. But realistically, right now, this is not going to happen. Better day care will require higher fringe rates (which are now between 30-40% at most places) to cover the benefits. Where will the money come from for such postdoc/grad student benefits? NIH grants, mostly, and we are back to the arguments about what the cost of a postdoc or student is. And we've been down that path before.

The  next usual suspect for covering benefits/daycare etc  is the "government". Where does the government get its money? Right now, in our country, we are engaged in a struggle, a political struggle about what should the government do and where should the money come from. This is not likely to be settled before the need for daycare for most current students and postdocs has long expired. The question is what are you going to do about changing this now?

Every generation, not just the boomers, tends to forget what their issues were at a different life-stage. The most marvelous wonderful committed millenials I know, many working for Bernie Sanders are not much different from those of who worked for George  McGovern (go look it up, I'll wait for you). And now those McGovern workers of days gone by are the despised boomers who are stealing your NIH funding. I'll be long gone before I can say "told you so" to aging Millenials who will in turn be despised by what comes after Gen Z. I double dare you to take on an issue that is not your immediate bread-and-butter. I can't think of a single millennial or GenXer in academics, right now, who thinks elder care is a burning issue that needs to be solved. Or who thinks we should be investing more money in dementia research. Hell, I don't care if you do or don't. Personally, I think there are more pressing social issues, and (hell, its my bread-and-butter, even if not solved in my lifetime) especially what the heck is happening with NIH funding.

But back to daycare. Without government or university/employer subsidies, what does pressure for "low cost daycare" produce? More minimum wage jobs for women. Particularly women. Women who likely have children or parents or both of their own in need of care. Women who after a long day of caring for your children or parents, go home to try and love and care for their families. Women who aren't in higher education, and who are glad for a regular job with a regular paycheck, and even some small amount of healthcare benefits.

I'm all of out of solutions and suggestions here. I work to change the world, in my own little way. I try and pay people, where I have the ability, what they are worth. I don't cheat on my taxes, despite the fact I think the government wastes huge amounts of money on not doing things, and then puts more into doing things I think are Wrong. All I ask is that when you ask for "affordable day care" you think through the implications. Someone is providing that daycare, at a wage you wouldn't work for.

3 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Of course, poor women taking care of richer women's children is how it has always been. That doesn't mean it's right or good, but there is a looooooonnnng history of it. Let's also be clear, the cost of daycare is so high because of the regulations and the building, not the salaries. When my kid was 4, and therefore at an 8:1 kid:teacher ratio, and we were paying $1100/month--wow, each teacher would be doing pretty darn well if s/he were earning 8 x $1100/mo = $105,000 salary. Even taking a bit out for the kids' lunches and toys, that would still be a sweet job.

    But of course, none of those teachers are earning anything close to that, because the money goes to rent, overhead, meeting accreditation standards, etc. It is perfectly possible for parents to realize that both things are true--that a) daycare workers are paid too little as it is, and yet b) daycare costs a huge amount of money and is damn near unaffordable for 2 kids if you both earn postdoc salaries.

    I think it is possible to be frustrated by daycare (and, presumably, elder care) costs without wishing that the employees earned less. It isn't an easy problem.

  • potnia theron says:

    I agree its not an easy problem. My point about salaries is that in the same area (with roughly the same overhead costs, etc) that the difference in cost to parent is likely to be salaries for workers. Those workers tend to be young and female and receiving a low wage. If people are willing to buy something at a low cost (whether they are choosing to save money, or don't have money to pay more), then someone will provide the service at that cost. As I said, I don't have solutions, but often working class people who provide services are frequently invisible to those who buy the service.

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