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Kate WardSeptember 16, 2021
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The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked in a day care center, watching over children from 18 months to 5 years old. Not yet responsible for my own expenses, I felt lucky to have a job that sometimes took me outdoors and paychecks I could save for my college needs. My co-workers with children 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 their own families on our low hourly wages.

The job had other challenges, like working without pay when parents were late for pickup. A cook prepared students’ meals, but teachers were not allowed to have one, even when a daily hot meal would have made a big difference. A regular lunch for one of my co-workers was a snack-size bag of chips.

The societal upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed how many U.S. families depend on underpaid educators like these for their own economic stability. After shutdowns of schools and day cares shredded the already fragile safety nets of many working families, the United States has finally begun to engage with child care as a public policy issue. Elected officials and policy wonks across the political spectrum are bringing diverse proposals to the table. 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 public child care policy are a huge step forward. Particularly given the U.S. tendency to envision family life as sealed off from public life and the economy, the acknowledgement that voters might want their leaders to help secure reliable, high-quality care for all young children is a welcome paradigm shift.

Equally important, discussions around child care policy suggest a growing consensus that all of society shares responsibility for making sure vulnerable people are taken care of, and that human beings matter to our common life regardless of whether they are seen as independent and productive members of society. This anthropology, or way of seeing human beings, is one proudly proclaimed by the Catholic tradition.

Currently, many different plans are being discussed for helping provide and pay for care across the stages of childhood. President Joe Biden’s comprehensive American Families Plan starts with infancy by calling for a national paid family and medical leave program, addressing the shameful reality that most U.S. workers have no paid time off after welcoming a baby. (Only 13 percent of workers have access to paid leave, and many fear career consequences if they actually use it.)

Most U.S. workers have no paid time off after welcoming a baby.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, guarantees unpaid leave for employees of larger companies, but many families cannot afford to go without a parent’s paycheck. This helps explain why nearly a quarter of new mothers in the United States return to work within two weeks of giving birth—a shameful practice that harms moms, babies and the society our children are joining. Catholic thought would heartily agree with an insight on paid leave supplied by Matt Bruenig, of the socialist think tank People’s Policy Project: While U.S. society too often views parental leave as a nice perk for elite workers, it is more accurately “a benefit for children,” and making it accessible to all families should be a national priority.

The Early Years

The years between the newborn period and full-time school are no easier to navigate, as many families must choose between keeping a wage-earning parent home with the children or paying major sums for child care. The early childhood advocacy organization Zero to Three reports that in 30 states, center-based child care costs more than public college, and worries about child care costs in particular drive nearly two-thirds of Americans to limit family size below what they see as ideal.

So Mr. Biden wants the federal government to guarantee “high quality” preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, with additional financial assistance—beyond tax credits—for child care for lower-income families. And Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, has proposed a plan of cash grants to families, though his proposal would eliminate a welfare program that benefits many parents for a portion of their children’s lives.

Perhaps most ambitious is the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts. Ms. Warren recognizes that families struggle to access child care for two reasons: 1) the challenge of cost and 2) the shortage of spots at quality centers. Her plan would direct the federal government to establish and fund a network of locally run, center-based and certified in-home care providers, while helping families pay for care. While some conservatives raise concerns about the potential quality of government-sponsored, center-based care, Ms. Warren frames it as a pathway to economic opportunity for women and notes that the government already runs public schools, the Head Start early childhood program and military child care centers.

Cash grants to families could help pay for center-based care or cushion the cost of a wage earner staying home.

Cash grants to families could help pay for center-based care or cushion the cost of a wage earner staying home. Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Romney’s proposed cash grants resist the temptation to tie cash assistance to waged work, or to punish the poorest families in which parents do no paid work at all. Stay-at-home and working parents earn the same benefits under both plans. Cash payments to caregiving parents is settled policy in most other wealthy nations, and the idea boasts a range of advocates, from feminist activists to the pope.

The multiracial, international Wages for Housework movement first called for cash payments to caregivers in the 1970s, and Welfare Warriors, a Milwaukee group with a similar history, continues to advocate that “Motherwork IS work and should be paid.” In “Laborem Exercens,” his 1981 encyclical on work justice, St. John Paul II wrote that “family allowances or grants to mothers” are a means for securing just wages and “verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system.” As the Catholic writer Leah Libresco Sargeant explains, “There is dignity in work, but we should support more than just work done for wages.”

Years after my brief stint as a day care worker, I picked up Glass Ceilings and Dirt Floors, by Christine Firer Hinze, a theology professor at Fordham University. Hinze’s text on care work in the global economy reveals how day care workers’ low wages and scanty support for parents at home are two sides of the same coin. Dr. Hinze shows that our society’s failure to care for those who give care stems from the fact that economists traditionally count and observe only work that generates economic exchange or profit, which is typically done outside the home. But though we may not think of unpaid care in the home as “work,” it actually creates immense economic value.

Dr. Hinze shows how unpaid in-home care constitutes “a systemic transfer of hidden subsidies to the formal economy that go unrecognized.” Innumerable daily acts of cooking, cleaning and laundry prepare paid workers to go out and generate countable profits, all while helping to raise children who will one day join the paid workforce. Unpaid in-home care is stigmatized as unskilled and treated as invisible in large part because it is typically done by women and widely viewed as “natural” to them. And unpaid care work transfers its low status to care work done for pay, including child care and elder care, as well as cleaning and food service—low-paid and precarious forms of paid work that are disproportionately done by women and, in the United States, by women of color.

Though we may not think of unpaid care in the home as “work,” it actually creates immense economic value.

While paid and unpaid care workers deserve public concern and better working conditions, Dr. Hinze says their hardships are actually not unique, but increasingly common in an economy that has failed to account for all humans’ need to receive care. She said paid and unpaid care workers are “canaries in the coal mine,” whose struggles warn of a larger system failure.

Dr. Hinze’s book helps us see how care undergirds the entire economy, from the day care workers and unpaid family members whose work allows some parents to work for pay to practices as simple as office workers packing their own lunch. The vital omnipresence of care in economic life proves the claim that “child care is infrastructure.” And it evokes another classic claim of the Catholic tradition: Families are the basic unit of society. Infrastructure means what is below the structure, at its base.

Both framings help us see that our whole society is built from the ground up on the care each adult worker received as a child. And professional child care is not something separate from family care but an extension of it that many parents rely on as they raise their children and carry out their many other important tasks in society, including paid work.

The People’s Policy

Since our culture highly prizes economic self-sufficiency and familial privacy, it might feel strange to Americans to think about public policy supporting parents raising their children, but it makes sense from a Catholic understanding of humans and the world. The view that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of society is not just a call for families to receive support; it makes a deeper claim about human nature. Humans are by nature vulnerable and relational, and the family is most often the place where we are allowed to be both of those things.

As relational beings we create societies and, in democracies, elect government representatives to pursue our shared goals. The government, in Catholic thought, is not something over against the people, but the people’s legitimate agent, so a government enacting policies to support families is one legitimate way for a society to take care of its own. No surprise, then, that government policies that support families are frequently called for in the writings of popes and bishops that make up the body of Catholic social doctrine. We can use that tradition to explore what governmental support of families should look like through a Catholic lens.

First, policies that seek to improve children’s lives need to recognize the basic fact that families come in many forms. Some approaches to child care policy want to push more parents of young children into the waged workforce, while other advocates want measures that would incentivize mothers, specifically, to stay home. But a too-stringent insistence on families taking one path or the other could end up penalizing needy families whose division of labor looks different.

Poverty causes familial instability.

Amber Lapp, a researcher who writes for the conservative think tank American Compass, notes that stable employment and marriage can be difficult goals to accomplish while in poverty. Poverty causes familial instability. The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton observe that “repeated re-partnering in the US is often driven by the need for an additional income, something that is less true in Europe with its more extensive safety net.” If aid to caregivers is contingent on marriage or stable employment, such plans will exclude the families most in need of help.

“Whereas the intent is to instruct and promote virtue, the practical effect is to punish mothers in desperate situations,” Ms. Lapp notes; and of course it punishes the children of unmarried parents, too. “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis’ beautiful document on the family, called Catholics to support families in precarious situations by fighting stigma and working to build structures of support. Attention to the concrete realities of poverty is crucial for any good national child care policy.

Second, as Dr. Hinze reminds us and I experienced myself, caregiving conditions are working conditions. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, reports that almost half of early childhood educators receive public assistance available to those in poverty, such as Medicaid or food stamps. “Undertaking this work has been a pathway to poverty for many early educators and poses a risk to their well-being,” the center concludes, “with consequences extending to their own families and to the children in their care.” Of course, every parent would prefer that their child’s caregiver receive just wages and good benefits and have safe, stable working conditions; but when working families must pay for the entire cost of child care, wages stay low and turnover stays high.

When working families must pay for the entire cost of child care, wages stay low and turnover stays high.

The plans proposed by Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren are commendable for their acknowledgement of the economic struggles of professional child caregivers. While Mr. Biden’s plan calls for a $15 minimum wage, Ms. Warren’s would link early educators’ wages to those of local K-12 teachers. Proposals for cash grants to family caregivers also align with the Catholic understanding of work as much broader than waged economic activity.

Last year, Pope Francis told a gathering of informal workers, including caregivers, that “this may be the time to consider a universal basic wage that would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out.” The cash grants proposed by Mr. Biden and Mr. Romney are not the same as a universal basic income, but their proposals share Pope Francis’ understanding that unpaid care work is work with real value to society and deserves to be compensated.

While the Catholic tradition describes work (not only paid work) as a good, it rejects the view that work is the only good thing in human life, or that we are only useful to ourselves and others when we are working. Paid work should allow workers to support families and also spend time with them, as well as allow time for worship, civic activity and restful relaxation.

All this means that if universal child care becomes a reality but results in more parents in full-time jobs with inflexible schedules, family advocates will have lots more work to do. Rare is the situation where one worker can support a family, including providing health insurance, and spend time with young children during the week after work. A more family-friendly economy would make that possible. Policies like universal health care, paid sick leave, paid vacation time for all workers or even a universal four-day workweek are further goals to keep in mind.

Good child care policy values children for themselves.

Third, good child care policy values children for themselves, not for their economic potential or (worse) their nationality or race. Predictions of population decline, or a “baby bust,” across the United States are worrying college administrators and inspiring awkward jokes about couples doing their bit for society. Concerns centered on the economic impact of a smaller workforce have been rightly criticized as oblivious to the economic reasons parents are having fewer children. More troublingly, “baby bust” concerns have been twisted to openly racist ends by those who imply or state outright that white American babies are preferable to allowing more immigration to the United States.

Catholics should resist these shameful attempts to oppose the two good goals of welcoming immigrants and supporting U.S. families. Child care policy conversations are a great opportunity for Catholics to share our view of children and other vulnerable humans as worthy in and of themselves, not as objects or potential economic producers. The Catholic writer Ross Douthat does this beautifully in his reflection 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.

Finally, while children can never be reduced to objects, people who desire to be parents aspire to a legitimate vision of the good life that they can validly expect their elected officials to support. It is deeply troubling, especially from a Catholic perspective, that people in the United States will have, on average, one fewer child than they say they want, and that this is largely for economic reasons.

People in the United States will have, on average, one fewer child than they say they want, and that this is largely for economic reasons.

The unfulfilled dreams not fully captured by that statistic trouble commentators across the political spectrum, from conservatives like Mr. Douthat to the feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, who bitingly 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.”

Contrary to the way it is often described in the popular media, “reproductive justice,” a framework of thought developed by working-class women of color, is not concerned only with access to abortion; it also proclaims that the right to have children and to raise them in flourishing communities is part and parcel of the human right to bodily autonomy.

Developed in U.S. communities where forced sterilization of poor women of color is part of living memory, the “right to have children” aspect of reproductive justice has now been cited by high-income women who find their dreams of parenthood threatened by the increased precariousness of today’s economy. Family-friendly policies like government-subsidized child care could help more would-be parents welcome and raise the children they hope for. 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 Search of the Ideal

Sociologists coined the term “ideal worker” to describe the expectation that workers will be always available, unconstrained by family or social duties, tiredness or illness, or the desire to do anything at all besides work for wages. In white-collar jobs, ideal workers answer email at all hours and travel at the drop of a hat; in hourly work, employers issue bizarre schedules on short notice, expecting employees to have no commitments besides their paid job.

For far too long, employers in the United States have expected every worker to fit the mold of an ideal worker, and workers have tried their best to meet these impossible standards. This past year, as children burst in on Zoom calls and workers interacting with the public weighed keeping their jobs against exposing family members to Covid-19, we have seen anew just how unrealistic the “ideal worker” image is.

The “ideal worker” could not be further from the view of working humans found in Catholic anthropology.

The “ideal worker” could not be further from the view of working humans found in Catholic anthropology. Catholics believe that needing care is part of every human life, and all of society is responsible for making sure vulnerable people are cared for. Living for and with others can be challenging, but it is one of the best and most precious things we can do, and for many people, raising children will be a major way they live out that human calling.

“The State has the responsibility to pass laws and create work to ensure the future of young people and help them realize their plan of forming a family,” Pope Francis wrote in 2016. With a variety of child care policy proposals on the table, U.S. leaders are moving closer to fulfilling this responsibility. Want to help? Tell your elected officials you support good child care policy at the national level, and talk to your friends about what our society can do to better support children and families raising them.

Whether or not we are parents, we all benefit from our economy’s invisible structures of care. Making that structure visible—and giving caregivers respect, compensation and support—helps make our economy more friendly to everyone who works, gives care and receives care within it; and it helps every one of us as vulnerable, relational human beings.

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