The summer after I graduated high school, I worked in a day care, taking care of kids from 18 months to 5 years old. Not yet responsible for my own expenses, I felt lucky to have a job that took me outside and pay I could save for my college needs. My coworkers with kids were in a different position. They loved every one of our charges and worked hard to keep them happy and safe and to help them develop. Yet they spoke frankly about the impossibility of supporting a family on our low hourly wages. The job had other challenges, like working without pay when parents were late. A cook prepared the kids’ meals, but teachers weren’t allowed to eat, even when a daily hot meal would have made a big difference. One of my coworkers’ regular lunch was a snack size bag of chips.
Later, when I read Christine Firer Hinze’s Glass Ceilings and Dirt Floors, I discovered an analysis of a problem I had sensed but lacked the language to describe. Hinze shines light on the many facets of care in the global economy, including unpaid care in the home and paid care done in the workplace. Typically done by women and viewed as “natural” to them, unpaid in-home care is stigmatized as unskilled and treated as invisible, even as it constitutes “a systemic transfer of hidden subsidies to the formal economy that go unrecognized” (90-91). Unpaid care work transfers its low status to care work done for pay, including child care, elder care, cleaning and food service, among other feminized, low-paid and precarious forms of paid work. For Hinze, paid and unpaid care workers are “canaries in the coal mine” (15), sending up warnings of the failure of contemporary economies to account for vulnerable human beings and to accurately value the many unpaid acts of care that undergird the formal economy. Recognizing the real and significant economic value of unpaid care work helps put the lie to romantic notions of its ease and naturalness that can be used to limit women’s roles in public life, and helps make the case for working conditions and wages that honor the skills and worker dignity of paid caregivers.
Hinze’s book is utterly prescient in the face of the social upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic. As shutdowns of schools and daycares revealed the fragility of the networks upholding many working families, the United States has finally begun to engage with child care as a public policy issue. Advocates are discussing multiple proposals. President Biden wants the federal government to guarantee “high quality” preschool for all 3 and 4 year olds, with further benefits for lower-income families: cash grants in the form of tax credits and separate assistance for child care beyond universal preschool. Republican Senator Mitt Romney has proposed a plan with higher cash grants, albeit eliminating a cash welfare program that benefits many parents for a portion of their children’s lives. Conservatives are raising concerns about the potential quality of government-sponsored center-based care, while progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren frames it as a pathway to economic opportunity for women and advocates rally around the claim that “child care is infrastructure.” In a society that has long viewed child care as a matter of private choice (read: the responsibility of individual families and particularly of working mothers), substantive arguments over what good child care policy would look like represent a huge step forward. Particularly given the U.S. tendency to privatize family life and envision it as sealed off from public life and the economy—another myth Hinze’s book helps expose—the acknowledgement that society has an interest in helping secure reliable, high quality care for all young children is a welcome paradigm shift.
Catholics can bring many insights to this public policy conversation from our Church’s tradition and from our lived experiences. The following points should be uncontroversial in light of Catholic social thought’s view of the family as society’s basic unit and government as legitimate agent of society.
- Policies that seek to improve children’s lives need to recognize the basic fact that families come in many forms. Making assistance to caregivers contingent on marriage or on a caregiver working outside the home punishes children, full stop.
- As Hinze reminds us, caregiving conditions are working conditions. It’s not that US families want paid caregivers to struggle to feed themselves or their own kids, but when working families must pay for child care alone, wages stay low and turnover stays high. Biden’s plan commendably acknowledges this, calling for a $15 minimum wage and subsidized education for professional caregivers. Proposals of cash payments to family caregivers acknowledge their care as work, too, by attaching an economic value to its performance. As Catholic writer Leah Libresco Sargeant notes, “There is dignity in work, but we should support more than just work done for wages.”
- When we talk about wanting social policy that supports children and families, the “why” matters as much as the “what.” Predictions of population decline, or a “baby bust,” across the U.S., are worrying college administrators and inspiring cringey jokes about couples doing their bit for society. It’s true that “baby bust” concerns have been twisted to openly racist ends by those who imply or outright state that white American babies are preferable to increased migration. Catholics can support increased migration even as we note the sadness in the fact that U.S. people have fewer children than they say they want, and advocate for child-friendly policies that could help reality meet aspiration. Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating immigrants and supporting the family aspirations of people already here are both likely to help address U.S. population decline, but more importantly, both recognize the human dignity of some of society’s most vulnerable people.
- Better care policies will address a symptom whose root is an economy oblivious to the needs and flourishing of vulnerable people, including children, and the family networks that support them in care and love. In 2020, my husband and I were among the many parents who suddenly became stay-at-home caregivers when Covid-19 closed down public facilities across the U.S. Without minimizing the tragic circumstances, which are ongoing, or the exhaustion and burnout faced by those who share our privilege of staying home, we both agree that more time with our toddler has been a source of light amidst the past year’s darkness. If universal childcare’s only achievement is to get more parents into jobs that constrain time with young kids to perhaps one hour a day, there will be lots more work for family advocates to do. Rare is the situation where one worker can support a family, including with health insurance, and spend time with young kids during the week after work and commute. A more family-friendly economy would make that possible. Policies like universal healthcare, paid sick leave, paid vacation time for all workers or even a universal four-day workweek are further goals to keep in mind.
One heartening aspect of the burgeoning discussion of care policy in the U.S. is the broad range of smart people across the political spectrum whose voices effectively critique and challenge some of the sillier ideas out there. Take feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, who trenchantly writes, “Sometimes the patriarchy will say the quiet part out loud–HAVE BABIES FOR THE ECONOMY–while ignoring what many who do indeed want to have babies have long been saying out loud—YOUR ECONOMIC POLICIES HAVE MADE IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR US TO HAVE BABIES TO BOOST AN ECONOMY THAT BENEFITS VERY FEW OF US.” Or conservative Catholic writer Ross Douthat, who reflects that “the idea that having more kids is swell and good and all-American” sits uneasily with his own lived reality of “parenthood as enforced kenosis,” an unmistakable spiritual discipline full of joys and rewards, but perhaps fundamentally at odds with individualist, pleasure-obsessed U.S. mainstream culture. By acknowledging society’s interest in supporting families raising children, and positioning the government as the proper actor to offer that support, politicians, pundits, and Twitterati across the US are coalescing around a view of families that’s deeply at home in Catholic anthropology. Let’s appreciate this—and work to meet the moment.
What do you see as the best policies for governments hoping to support families in caring for children?
What have your own experiences as giver or receiver of care taught you about what families need?
 The idea of cash payments for caregiving parents is frequently credited to the feminist Wages for Housework campaign which began in the 1970s. Theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who tweets as @IBJIYONGI, regularly points out that the foundational contributions of Black women leaders like her mother, Margaret Prescod, are frequently erased in conversations about Wages for Housework and cash payments to caregivers more broadly. In a recent tweet thread, Prescod-Weinstein pointed to the most recent profile of Prescod’s activism, which appeared in 1986.
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