It’s the Low Wages and Lack of Childcare, Stupid

Once again, parents are a forgotten piece of the economic puzzle.

And so it begins. Faster than you can say “vaccine,” the narrative that unemployment benefits are causing people not to work is creeping into the news. This isn’t new — and it isn’t true, either. While blaming the government for being overly generous and blaming potential employees for being lazy is a convenient story, it’s also an oversimplified one, leaves out many reasons people may not be jumping eagerly into employment lines. In addition to health and safety concerns, one of the key factors these stories omit is childcare, and the fact that in major cities — including mine — most schools are still not operating full time, and daycares are running with limited capacity.

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

Unemployment benefits on their own are not nearly as enticing as employers would have you believe. But when you couple them with the money you are saving on 3–5 days per week of additional childcare (that’s if you can find it), well, all of a sudden your job is going to need to pay quite a bit more to come out on the right side of the calculation that American parents are constantly making: can we afford to work? Does the equation of income - childcare costs = enough money to justify the stress that comes with being a working parent in this country?

Even before the pandemic, many women, coming to the end of their short and often unpaid maternity leaves, determine that when you solve this equation, the answer is no. They discover the cost of childcare is so astronomically high that by returning to work they are, at best, breaking even: that every dollar of their income will go towards paying someone else to take care of their child. They decide this isn’t worth it.

I struggled with this math myself. My second child entering daycare in notoriously expensive New York City was the tipping point. I scaled back my hours at work, since every hour I spent there was negated by the cost I was paying for childcare. Then we left New York altogether and I went freelance for two years. When my oldest entered public school, the equation shifted again, and I returned to full time work. And that balance was fine until the pandemic layoff hit — a moment that happened to coincide with the closing of schools. Since schools have not fully opened, I have not been fully employed. Now that CCS has announced a plan to return to classrooms full time in the fall, I am back to looking for full time work. The numbers in the math equation may change, but the need for constant calculation remains.

Meanwhile, self-identified “experts” on LinkedIn issue stoic warnings that those of us who have been out of the workforce this year will never recover. Historically, it has been true that time away can have a great long-term impact. It’s also been true that women have born a disproportionate share of this burden. And if we go back to that — if we let corporations attempt to dictate the value of our work; if we let them gaslight us into believing that the energy spent teaching our children, caring for our family members, cooking and cleaning and sanitizing and sewing masks and making vaccine appointments and figuring out every logistical detail required to function in a pandemic was not real work, we haven’t learned anything this past year.

Covid shone a bright light on the inequalities in this country, as we first asked low-paid service-sector workers, many without health insurance, to risk their health in a pandemic. At first, the term essential applied: they kept our supply chains going, our grocery shelves stocked, our packages delivered, our first-responders fed. Slowly, like so much of our language during the Trump era, the term essential began to lose meaning. Was opening restaurants for dine-in essential? What about gyms and sporting events? What about zoos and indoor playgrounds and hair salons and movie theaters and everything else? How was one supposed to navigate the tension of living under a stay-at-home order when everything was also supposed to be open for business? It’s a tension that never resolved, only lessened, as people finally began receiving vaccines.

Now that we’re finally at the point of being able to ask what comes next?, it’s also a moment to demand that we learn from the lessons of the past year. President Biden is placing childcare at the top of his economic agenda. But President Biden won’t be in the room next time most of us who have been playing the role of caregiver for the past 14 months interview for a job. We need to collectively remember what we’ve done and advocate for all we are worth. We need to shape the narrative of our own lives.

Columbus-based writer, educator, and mom.