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Why Families Face So Many Child Care Struggles

Image: James Cowen says goodbye to his daughter Samantha Cowen, 2, after dropping her off at daycare in Washington, on May 16, 2008.
James Cowen says goodbye to his daughter Samantha Cowen, 2, after dropping her off at daycare in Washington, on May 16, 2008. Jacquelyn Martin / AP, file

The need for quality, affordable child care is something working parents grapple with across income brackets and from state to state. For most, that need is neither temporary nor based on special circumstances but is a daily, ongoing concern that impacts family finances and parents’ ability to work. So why is child care policy not at the forefront of political campaigns and debates? And why are Western European countries so far ahead in terms of broad-based child care policies?

Elizabeth Palley and co-author Corey S. Shdaimah, explore these issues and more in their new book, “In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy,” a deep dive into the history of child care policy in the United States and an examination of the cultural forces which have influenced the debate as well as the lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders who have shaped the availability of child care in America today.

Here, Palley, an Associate Professor at the Adelphi School of Social Work, explains why the Presidential Summit on Working Families is cause for optimism, shares her thoughts on how a changing economy is expanding the debate, and discusses the growing influence men have in the child care arena.

You’re a working mom of two; how did your own experience with child care challenges inform your work?

To be honest, I thought about writing the book before I had children. I was interested in child care, and I am trained as a lawyer and a social worker, and I had some experience working in special education law prior to having children. So, I saw it from the perspective of my clients when I was a lawyer; the incredible struggles that parents with children who are disabled face. When I had my own children, as I had normally developing children, I didn’t expect it to be so overwhelming. I don’t mean overwhelming in terms of just day-to-day care for the children, but as in, “I have to go back to work in three months and how do I find child care?” I thought, well, my mother worked, and it’s 30 years later, maybe more, so clearly there will be places and I’ll be able to look into child care. When I had my first child, I realized that there’s almost no care available until kids are almost two years old.

When I had my first child, I realized that there’s almost no care available until kids are almost two years old.

There’s very little infant care available in New York City; people get on the wait list as soon as they know they’re pregnant. And that’s when you can pay, when it’s not even a question of, “I can’t afford it,” but, “Even if I can afford it. Can I get it?” I was not sure I wanted to have somebody working in my home, which is ultimately what I did in part because there were no other options. And it’s much more expensive to do that, which was a concern.

How have our shifting economic realities -- both parents needing to work, the increasing length of our working days -- influenced the discussion of child care?

I think for many women it has always been an economic imperative; I think it’s becoming perhaps more of an economic imperative for upper-middle-class mothers, professional woman, but I think to suggest that it was not an economic imperative for many working women fifty years ago, is probably not accurate. I think maybe for a larger percentage of the population it is an imperative. I guess I would say, you have to be clear in terms of thinking about who has power in this country, that it’s now more likely influencing families that are in an economic power structure, two-parent working families, and that has not been true for as long.

It’s beginning to influence more and more men, because their wives are working; in two-parent families, wives are working 50 hours a week, so one parent does drop-off, one parent does pick-up.

It’s also beginning to influence more and more men, because their wives are working; in two-parent families, wives are working 50 hours a week, so one parent does drop-off, one parent does pick-up. And there are different expectations for men around child care.

Child care has long been viewed as something required in special circumstances, rather than an ongoing, daily need. Can you talk about that?

In the United States, that has been true. If you think about the Family Medical Leave Act, it’s temporary; it’s only for three months, and it’s only under certain circumstances, child care being one of them. A lot of funding for child care is poverty based. Again, sometimes women get jobs, and then if they get paid too much they lose their child care or their child care supplements. There’s a cut off point. Sometimes there's a little bit of a sliding scale, but sometimes they just lose them depending on the state in which they’re receiving the benefit.

It’s the idea, that not everybody needs this. Head Start was designed originally for low income children -- it also now includes children with disabilities -- but again, there’s special circumstances; it’s not that you or I need Head Start, that’s just for kids who need a special program. Well, really, it should be for everybody. There’s nothing about it that is not designed to be high quality child care. Of course there’s variations between Head Start programs, some of which are higher quality than others, but the idea that it’s only certain kids who need it, is kind of ridiculous.

The idea that it is some kind of temporary, non-permanent condition. I mean, obviously people’s children grow up, but that’s the only way that it’s temporary...

Or, with the Child Care Development Block Grant, much of that money is, again, connected to poverty-based programs and getting woman off of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and getting them to work. Again, it’s the idea that they only need it while they’re in economic hardship. And of course, many women who in fact are in economic hardship, can’t get funding; say you get a job and you’re doing shift work and you’re not working standard hours, well, often you can’t find care; you won’t get assistance. Again, the idea that it is some kind of temporary, non-permanent condition. I mean, obviously people’s children grow up, but that’s the only way that it’s temporary, or that’s the only way that it’s irregular.

There is a lot of ambivalence about what the government’s role should be in caring for our children; as a culture, we pride independence and self-sufficiency. Do you see the ambivalence ever being reconciled?

I’m not sure. I would like to believe that there will be change. Men are now more engaged in child care and that may have an influence certainly. And the fact that it has affected the upper-middle-class. One of the things that we talk about in the book, is the need for kind of a mass social movement about the role of government, really, and not just about child care.

Unless there’s a major shift in the way that we view child care, in the way we view government in general, it’s very hard to see child care policy being changed. I do think that the President’s summit, where he really does say this is a universal problem, is a step in that direction.

Unless there’s a major shift in the way that we view child care, in the way we view government in general, it’s very hard to see child care policy being changed. I do think that the President’s summit, where he really does say this is a universal problem, is a step in that direction. It’s someone in a position of power, using the bully pulpit to kind of say, “You need to look at this differently.” I think that could make a difference over time.

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the White House Summit on Working Families at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington, June 23, 2014. LARRY DOWNING / Reuters

The book references the fact that in the 70s there was no consensus amongst feminists on the need to advocate for child care. Why was that?

One of the things, I think, is people wanted to distance child care from feminism, in part to make the argument that this is a family issue, this is not about women. Feminist organizations have focused, since the 1970s, more broadly on civil rights issues such as gender and employment discrimination and, of course, abortion rights, and less specifically on broader women's issues such as child care. Abortion tends to be divisive and the other issues are not often seen as broad-ranging issues, although I believe they are. I am hopeful that with the next wave of feminism, we will be able to return to focus on child care.

People wanted to distance child care from feminism, in part to make the argument that this is a family issue, this is not about women.

One of the main issues surrounding the possibility of a broad-based child care policy is of course cost. Is that the biggest elephant in the room?

I think so. I think that’s true for any kind of social spending. I think that was true for health care too. I think that’s why the whole idea and discussion of universal health care was kind of cut off and we ended up with the Affordable Care Act, which has other issues around it. But I think that the idea of social spending, and again that this is government’s role to care for its citizens, is something that’s difficult to gain traction with in this country. You know the Affordable Care Act mandating insurance went up to the Supreme Court. Just the very idea that the government could and would mandate something. And not everybody has children, so it’s people being asked to pay a cost to benefit society that it is not necessarily going to help them individually.

Traditionally, we spend a lot more money on older adults; they’re a voting block. Children are not.

Traditionally, we spend a lot more money on older adults; they’re a voting block. Children are not. It’s hard to get parents with young children to organize; people are working full time and have young children, so they don’t have the time to be as politically active as senior citizens who are better able to protect their own rights in many cases.

The public discourse places huge value on family and the well-being of children, yet care workers in our economy are not well compensated. Why the disconnect?

I think a lot of people still hold these traditional values that you are supposed to care for your children; you are supposed to care for your parents. There’s a disconnect in accepting that this is actually part of the work force, and it’s a strange disconnect because there is so much care work that goes on. You would think that for people, at some point, it would click: “We have a nurse’s aid for my parent. I’m not there 24/7 and there’s no conceivable way that I could be.” I think it’s because it’s traditional female work. I think it’s simple sexism.

And, also, with industrialization, you can produce more. Things are cheaper than they were 20, 30 years ago, certainly than they were 50 or 100 years ago. But care work has not changed. You still need the same number of care providers if somebody’s bedridden. You can only care for so many bedridden people; you can only care for a certain number of children. That hasn’t changed, and so the economy has changed but care work hasn’t changed with it, and I think that’s also a piece of the puzzle.

If you were to cite one influence or factor that gives you optimism that there will be progress on child care policy, what would it be?

As an optimist, I would say the Presidential summit. The idea that he would have a summit and he would say essentially what I said in the book, which is that these things are all connected, and that this is also connected to the employment market. I think that was huge. If there is a change, I think we’ll look back at that moment as a moment in time where the argument was reframed. And I don’t think he did this all by himself. Obviously, he has advisors and there are people who are probably in touch with the advocacy movement; it’s not like that came out of nowhere. But, I think just the reframing of these pieces as: This is an American issue. This is a universal problem. I don’t think we have -- not since the Nixon administration really -- looked at child care as a universal problem, or as an American problem.

This interview has been edited.

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