In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden said that we should do more than praise caregivers. He said we should pay them. But, whom do we count as caregivers?
Value unpaid caregiving
Even in the best of times, it is women who bear the brunt of the unpaid workload of caring for children, but during the pandemic, women have born significantly greater responsibility. Women have suffered more job losses and moms have reduced their working hours four to five times more than dads during the pandemic. Plus, as usual, women do more housework than men.
In addition to more childcare and more housework, 80%of mothers say they are also doing more homeschooling than their male partners. Single mothers, however, have to do it all. If a single mother, for example, is unemployed because of COVID, she must apply for five jobs a week. The US economy has only gained back a small fraction of the 22 million jobs lost since the pandemic, so she will be lucky to get a job interview. But, if she does get an interview, few employers will be able to accommodate the flexible schedule she needs in order to help her young child with distance learning.
Another thing that most employers can’t accommodate is breastfeeding. Most mothers want to follow the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to exclusively breastfeed for six months and to continue breastfeeding for one to two years. In fact, 84.1% of US mothers initiate breastfeeding. Sadly, however, only 58.3% are still breastfeeding at six months because returning to work is a significant barrier to breastfeeding. In fact, women who intend to return to work within a year after childbirth are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, and mothers who work full-time tend to breastfeed for shorter durations than do part-time or unemployed mothers.
Biden helps mothers pay for childcare
Biden’s plan puts a lot of emphasis on caregiving, but it does little to help unemployed single mothers, breastfeeding mothers, or the 11 million parents who care for their own children. His plan calls for a refundable tax credit for families of $8000 to $16,000 a year, to reimburse them for childcare expenses, but all parents do not use childcare. And, while his plan also includes a $5000 a year tax credit for informal caregivers, the credit does not apply to parents who are caring for their own children.
There’s no doubt that childcare costs are a significant financial burden for many families. On average nationwide, families spend 7.2% of their income on childcare. For a family of three with an income above $40,840, childcare would cost nearly $3000 a year on average. For many families, the cost of childcare is simply out of reach.
Not all families need childcare
For other families, however—those who care for their own children or whose children are cared for by relatives— childcare assistance is unnecessary. In fact, women with young children hold conflicting views about working outside the home. Only about 33% of women with young children say that working full time is ideal. For 44%, working part-time is ideal and 19% say not working for pay at all is ideal.
Biden’s plan fails to include parents who care for their own children and does not improve child poverty. We know now that even a brief stay in poverty can have lifelong affects. Poverty itself causes negative child outcomes. And, the pandemic is sharply increasing poverty to a level that could exceed the Great Recession and may well be the highest point in 25 years.
Families deserve financial support
In his recent Atlantic article, “Where is the Bailout for Parents,” Elliot Haspel writes:
Society needs healthy children and families, and therefore, families— especially low-income families, who are more likely to experience instability and the attendant ills of child poverty, during a pandemic or not—deserve financial support.
One successful way to support families is through child allowances, which are supported by conservative, liberal and libertarian think tanks in the US. Throughout the entire European Union, in Australia, Argentina and Japan, child allowances help to reduce child poverty and thus increase overall health and levels of education. A few years ago, Canada increased its maximum payment to about $4,800 per child per year (in American dollars), and quickly reduced child poverty by a third. Britain has been paying child allowances since the end of World War II.
Economic security reduces poverty
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the poverty rate in the US has fallen nearly in half since 1967 because of the effectiveness of economic security programs such as Social Security, food assistance and tax credits for families. In addition, these economic security programs have long-term benefits for participants because they help children to do better in school and increase their earning power in adulthood. Economic security programs have also been found to increase health outcomes at birth, lower rates of certain health problems, such as heart disease and obesity, and extend longevity.
The American Family Act
The American Family Act (AFA), of which Kamala Harris is a co-sponsor, establishes a fully refundable child allowance by raising the Child Tax Credit to $3600 a year for young children and $3000 for older children. A one-year version of the AFA was included in the HEROES Act, recently passed by the House of Representatives. According to a report from the Century Foundation, a robust child allowance would slash poverty overall by 42%, lifting over four million children out of poverty, and reduce poverty among Black children by more than half.
Direct payment programs are successful
An example of a successful program that makes direct payment to families is that of the Eastern Band of Cherokees of Western North Carolina. As Jason DeParle reported in the New York Times recently, the Eastern Band of Cherokees began giving each adult tribal member $4000 per year 30 years ago. The children were found to have completed more schooling, committed fewer crimes, and had less problems with anxiety, depression and substance abuse. The poorest children benefited the most.
Another example of a successful program is The Magnolia’s Mother’s Trust, an initiative that provides low-income, African-American mothers in Jackson, Mississippi $1000 cash monthly for 12 months, no strings attached. One hundred percent of the participants said they now had enough money to meet their basic needs. Eighty percent were able to pay their bills and the number of those who completed their high school education increased by 22%
Make direct payments to families
Our political leaders are on vacation while American families go hungry, fear eviction from their homes, and continue to lose their jobs. Are not parents essential workers? It is time to acknowledge the value of unwaged caregiving work by supporting policy efforts to improve the wellbeing of all caregivers, specifically policies that make direct payments to children and families.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who edits and publishes peggyomara.com. I was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Please sign up for my free newsletter with the latest posts on parenting, activism, and healthy living.