Saturday, October 17, 2015

And now let's hear from a neo-liberal feminist

Gail Collins takes note of new data showing that the number of working women in America is declining, after decades of rising. We just slipped below Japan in this metric; there 64% of working age women are employed, vs. 63% in the U.S.:
Stick with me for a minute on this. We spend half of our national debate time talking about how economically fragile Americans feel. Why do you think that is? Well, there’s the whopping disproportion of national wealth flowing into the pockets of the already-wealthy. And the plummeting power of labor unions.

But women falling out of the work force is also a huge deal. It reduces family standards of living and puts a crimp in the economy. And why do you think this is happening? One of the reasons is clearly, positively, absolutely the cost of child care.

It’s incredible that we’ve built a society that relies on women in the labor force yet makes no discernible effort to deal with this problem. . . .

We generally — and rightly — talk about early childhood education as something that’s critical because it increases kids’ chances of success in school. But as Carmel Martin of the Center for American Progress points out, “there’s also evidence of a positive effect on the economy over all.”
I'm all for helping poor families send their children to preschool; my kids loved preschool. But this argument considers the raising of children essentially as an impediment to women working for pay, and that makes me shudder. That some women might want to stay home with their children because they find that more fulfilling than office politics seems never to have occurred to Gail Collins. But then she has an awesome job, senior editor and columnist for the New York Times.

The goal of human life is not maximum economic productivity, or the highest possible test scores for children. Whenever we design our policies around those goals, we need to ask ourselves if we might be interfering with something else a lot more important, like the search for meaning or the formation of communities. I think, as I keep saying, that the biggest thing driving Americans out of the work force is that so much about our jobs is miserable: we spend our time struggling against red tape, micromanagement, productivity drives, and management fads, all in pursuit of nebulous goals in corporations set up as pyramid schemes. Is getting more mothers away from their children and into such jobs really a noble end? Could we instead put our efforts into figuring out ways to make office work less awful, creating educational systems that actually encourage learning, and other things that might make people want to work?


Unknown said...

I think you're being a little unfair to Gail Collins, partly because I love her sense of humor--so a sexist/chivalrous part of me wants to play the knight and defend her-- and partly because I don't think she actually thinks that greater economic productivity and higher test scores is the goal of human life. Like a lot of neo-liberals, including the Clintons and Obama, she makes arguments like that because she's trying to win support from the econobot crowd for positions that she supports for other reasons.

Surely making child care easier to get wouldn't be a bad goal for government?

G. Verloren said...

"I'm all for helping poor families send their children to preschool; my kids loved preschool. But this argument considers the raising of children essentially as an impediment to women working for pay, and that makes me shudder. That some women might want to stay home with their children because they find that more fulfilling than office politics seems never to have occurred to Gail Collins."

Cripes, this sounds condescending and presumptuous. I don't think you meant it to sound that way, but gorblimey - reflect a bit on some things you maybe take for granted, yeah?

Collins is arguing for women to have an option to send their children to daycare. Whether or not some women want to stay home as a form of self fulfillment isn't the issue here. The issue is all the women who don't want to stay home, or who do want to stay home but simply can't afford to.

Step outside your own comfortable middle class lifestyle for a moment and consider the millions and millions of poor working families in America. It has become quite common for both parents to have to work to support a family. They simply cannot survive on a single paycheck. So then who cares for the children while both parents are busy at the daily grind? You can't just leave them alone in an empty house.

Being able to drop your child off at daycare or preschool is astoundingly important when you're trying to juggle inconsistant work schedules between two people sharing one vehicle and making just enough money to cover all their bills. Even just short term care, just for a couple hours a day, or only a few days a week, can make or break a poor family's financial situation.

But daycares and preschools have become more and more expensive, while wages have not kept pace - just one more example of cost of living being constantly on the rise with no relief in terms of commensurate pay.

And of course, the thing to note is that these risings costs place the biggest strain on the poorest families. A small rise in expenses is easy to shoulder when you've got a comfortable bit of extra income over your monthly costs. But when you're barely breaking even, even a small rise in costs can send you over the brink and into a downward spiral.

I am utterly certain that given the chance, most poor women would absolutely love to stay at home and care for their children. But if wishes were horses then beggars would ride. Many millions of poor Americans don't have that luxury.

When Ms. Collins talks about women leaving the workforce to stay at home and care for their children, she is speaking in the context of women who don't have any choice. Their families really need them to work to bolster their finances, but their children need someone to watch over them even more so.

Thus poor families end up with one exhausted parent working miserable hours pulling in two or three jobs while trading stimulants for sleep, and the other distressed parent staying home to mind the children while fretting about what they're going to do if the family breadwinner takes sick from pushing themselves so hard just to get by.

This isn't about women being greedy capitalistic corporate ladder climbers, abandoning their families in the pursuit of wealth and status - this is about families being able to afford the most basic of care for their children during times when they simply cannot be available to care for them and still survive.

John said...


But what if everything we do to help middle class mothers work outside the home ends up pressuring more and more women to do so -- by raising the cost of housing since most couples will have two incomes and therefore bid the price up, by raising taxes, by increasing competition for jobs and therefore holding salaries down, by emptying neighborhoods during the day so that stay-at-home moms are lonely, by making working for pay such a powerful norm that few can resist it?

And what if women who enter the corporate workforce are actually less happy because of that?

These are the sorts of doubts that nag at me. I am all for providing women (and men) with real freedom of choice in their lives. But it very happens that making it easier to make one choice makes it harder to make others. It is very difficult to act neutrally in politics or life.

I support subsidized preschool because I think it is good for children as well as parents. But I am not at all sure that the two career model of family life is really the best system for either adults or children.

G. Verloren said...

What exactly are you arguing?

That giving people options is actually going to take options away? That giving people the opportunity to be more affluent is somehow going to force them take it if they don't actually want to and can manage otherwise? That middle class mothers are going to be lonely and unfulfilled because the allure of greater family wealth compounded by an availability of cheap daycare is going to seduce them into a career they secretly dread? Give me a break.

Even if - somehow - such fears were proven to be sound, you still would have to balance the notion of some comfortably well off middle class women facing existential crises against the prospect of millions of poor people literally risking starvation and homelessness because they're forced to make an impossible choice between employment and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their children. How is that even a contest?

Maybe our two-career family model isn't the best. But what alternative would you realistically propose? Reversion to a single career model? Even entirely putting aside the complications of gender in our culture, such regression would be completely unfeasible on every level. The very notion is absurd, for so many different reasons, most of them economic.

Personally, I'd like to recommend a somewhat more communal focus, with the notion of a nuclear family largely discarded or pushed to the side, supplanted by a cooperative mindset that concerns itself with the wellbeing of everyone.

But as appealing as that notion is to me, I do still recognize that our society and our culture is nowhere near where it would need to be for such a shift to be remotely plausible. And beyond that, I also recognize that such a development would necessitate a complete restructuring of many of our key economic systems and philosophies. It's just not going to happen any time soon.

Ideals are well and good, but we have to be practical here.

And in that spirit, focusing for the moment solely on the context of the cost for childcare in this country, the simple fact is that cheap childcare has an utterly massive potential to help many millions of the nation's poorest, most desperate, most at risk families. The possible unintended consequences - the potential cultural or societal costs which might theoretically impact middle class families - are so staggeringly inconsequential in comparison.

Concerns that cheap daycare might possibly lead to a reinforcement of our two-career family structure are so utterly tangential and obtuse. Our current two-career system is going to persist no matter what, whether daycare is cheap or not, so how is that a relevant concern?

G. Verloren said...

Also, I'm not sure I follow your logic in a few places.

You fear housing prices will rise because families will have more money, in turn raising taxes as property values rise.

Yet this is supposed to all happen at the same time that job competition is too high, and subsequently wages are low? How does that work? Do people have more money or don't they? If wages are kept low, then how do people have the money to spend on houses?

And as for emptying neighborhoods, you blame economics for this rather than culture? So why don't we see neighborhoods getting together and being active after working hours? And if the current stay at home moms are so lonely and desperate for socialization, then why aren't neighborhoods more active -during- working hours?

And are you honestly suggesting that stay at home moms are entering the job force merely because there aren't enough other stay at home moms around? And yet at the same time, somehow all these women who go out and get jobs are also unfulfilled? How does that make sense? Why would someone who is unfilled in life bother to get a job they don't need when they're just going to stay unfilled working it? Wouldn't they quit once they realized it wasn't making them any happier? Wouldn't they just go find a hobby to take up or a social club to join in the first place instead? And wouldn't that prevent neighborhoods from being empty and unfulfilling?

No, that particular problem is cultural. We don't have communities anymore, because our society's default viewpoint is suspicion and distrust. We're culturally aloof and self isolating. People flock to suburban housing developments, paying through the roof for identical mass produced houses, where they can shutter their blinds and park their SUVs, and never have to interact with other people. There are no neighbors anymore - just the strangers who live next door.

How did we get here? That's a complicated question with no simple answer. But it wasn't by making daycare affordable for struggling working lower class women.