Child Care Costs

Gail Collins is absolutely right.

We aren't going to solve the problem [of child care] during this presidential contest, but it is absolutely nuts that it isn't a topic of discussion - or even of election-year pandering.

Do read her column in today's Times, "None Dare Call It Child Care*." It got me to thinking. Let's get out a piece of paper and pencil and try to write down ten reasons why "child care" is such an open sore. Everybody recognizes the cause of the problem (few middle class families can support themselves on one spouse's income alone), and its side-effects (poorly paid, unlicensed caregivers) are certainly well known. What's the problem?

I didn't really bother with the paper and pencil because the first thing that I would have written down interested me so much that I knew I wouldn't think ahead (for the time being) to a second item. The "problem" of child care, as everyone knows, is that nobody wants to pay for it. But nobody wants to pay taxes, either - and yet people do. There must be something behind the disinclination to pay for child care - and of course there is. Until just the other day, so to speak, child care was provided for "free" by stay-at-home moms. How do we square the way we're hugging the dream of stay-at-home moms with our more mature awareness that, like most other domestic servants, stay-at-home moms have become economically unviable? Why can't we just grow up and accept that things have changed?

What interested me when I began thinking about this was what led me to put quotation marks around the word "free." Nothing in this world is free - nothing that has to be provided day after day for years. Even slaves must be fed and clothed. Stay-at-home moms were only recently reconsidered as slaves, and only by a minority of women, and nobody spoke of "feeding and clothing" America's mothers. No: they were "supported," by their husbands. Their husbands, in marked semantic contrast, were "paid." There difference between "support" and "payment" is so obvious that I needn't spell it out; it's enough to observe that payments are fixed and contractual in nature, and generally non-discretionary; employers don't have the right to withhold salaries, even when they don't have the money to pay them. "Support," in contrast, is extremely discretionary, and usually rather vague; it's the supporter, who may be practically ignorant of the supportee's actual needs, who determines how much support to provide. The supported wife may complain, but she cannot compel.

A husband known for his miserliness, for withholding wherewithal from his "dependents," might excite a degree of neighborly opprobrium, but unless he forced his family into sufficiently awful penury to arouse the attentions of civic social services, he was within his rights as be a stingy bastard, and too bad for the wife and kids. In this man's world, the breadwinner must be paid by his employer, but he might turn over as much of his income to his wife as he saw fit.

What this means is that the "going rate" for child care was determined by tens of thousands of fathers in tens of thousands of households. It was rather like the frequency with which a married couple had sex: the couple's own business and nobody else's. To set a figure on the cost of child care - which is where any rational scheme of socially-subsidized child care must begin - is in its way an invasion of conjugal privacy. Who are you - whether you are my neighbor, my father-in-law, or the state - to tell me how much I ought to give my wife to run my house? The fact is that we still live in a world where this defiant question sparks in tens of thousands of taxpaying minds whenever the most elemental question about child care - its cost - is raised.

There is nothing gender-specific about most of this. Wage-earning women can be just as tight, just as reluctant to allow a third party to determine the quality of child care by "arbitrarily" setting its costs. Working moms, in short, don't change the picture. They don't, as one might expect them do to, introduce a new voice into the discussion of costs - except to say that their own provision of child care is no longer "free" or "supportable." If men can no longer provide adequate support, then their wives are going to seek payment from employers, just like the husbands. Now it's not just the dads but everybody who gripes about child care.

The result is a child care "system" that haltingly replicates the old discretionary support arrangement. Some children enjoy sterling child care, just as they did when it was their fathers, and not their parents' employers, who were generous. Many children - who knows how many - languish in "day care centers" that would probably be closed down if closely scrutinized, just as children did when their stinko dads gave their mothers just enough to pay a few necessary bills and little more. With this difference: where it was all right for the stinko dads to be cheapskates, it is not all right for substandard day care centers to subject children to dirty, idle, and unsafe environments. The minute a child passes into the care of a third party, the third-party invasion of the bedroom that I mentioned above is launched. How much should child care cost, and who should pay for it?

With utter cheerlessness, I file the question of child care away under "problems that will solve themselves when baby-boomers who can still remember the old ways finally die off." Statistically, I've got to be one of the first to go before Americans are willing to grapple with the cost of child care. (October 2007)

* Thursday, 18 October 2007, p A37.

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