Personal attacks on freelance author and editor Francine Almash's use of subsidized daycare provoked her consideration of the social implications for all of us.
Recently, a friend of mine asked to interview me for an article she was writing on the chipping away of subsidized day care programs across the country. The point of her article was that, for many middle-class single parents, childcare subsidies are indispensable to our survival. She chose to speak with me not only because I am a friend and single mother (as she is), but also because I have had a range of experiences with the struggle for decent childcare for my children over the past 5 years, and subsidized childcare literally saved my life.
My personal story aside, the issue of subsidized day care has proven to be a sensitive one. Within hours of my friend's article appearing on the Web, the responses started rolling in. Many were positive, but just as many were nothing short of hateful. More than one person referred to my friend (a single mother of two small children) and me as welfare queens. A blogger actually took the article and produced a paragraph-by-paragraph personal attack on both of us.
I am not thin-skinned when it comes to this subject. I know what people tend to think about women like me. I am single; I have three children; I receive benefits in the form of WIC checks, food stamps, free healthcare, and, yes, subsidized day care. Members of my own family have categorized me as "mooching off the system." The common thread among the critics responding to the article was, "Why should my tax dollars go to support your irresponsible lifestyle?" There was talk of forcing us to change careers and move to different cities. We were ordered to take responsibility for ourselves and our children, and stop expecting a free ride, and, of course, there was loads of blame for the fact that we decided to have children in the first place. In addition to the welfare queen characterization, that blogger I mentioned went so far as to refer to my friend as a "slut" for choosing to have children out of wedlock, and declared his hatred for all single mothers who are not widows.
Responses on the other side of the argument were just as puzzling. Among the people who agreed that the attack on public day care was a problem, many felt the need to fill in the missing information in my friend's life story - there was talk of abandonment by her children's father, or that he must have been killed, or living somewhere refusing to pay child support. It was important to those readers that there be a reason a woman ends up struggling to take care of children on her own.
While I appreciate the kind thoughts those readers sent out, they also missed the point. Their responses still make the conversation about blame: whose fault is it that women are in this position and whose responsibility is it to pay? This way the world gets divided into two categories: those who feel sorry for women like me and my friend and think everyone should pitch in and help, and those who think single mothers are a blight on the tax system and lazy slobs who drain the resources of respectable, married, working people.
The longer the article stayed up, the more heated the argument became. It was when that blogger came to the conclusion that we had no one to blame for our situation but our entitled, unmarried, irresponsible selves that I felt I finally had to respond.
While the focus of my friend's article was on single mothers, she was not saying that we need to band together to help all the poor, abandoned, unmarried victims (or fools, depending on your perspective). Her point was that the cost of day care in this country is ridiculously, prohibitively expensive. Period. Whether you are single, married, partnered, polyamorous, what have you, day care is an enormous strain on finances. The day care system has not caught up with the post-feminist world we live in. The reality is that, married or not, there are an enormous amount of women in the workforce. And some of them, at some point, will decide to reproduce. While a good many of them will decide to be stay-at-home moms, others will decide to keep working - out of financial need, for personal satisfaction, out of a desire to contribute something to the world besides children.
One evening at a work function, a colleague of mine, a married woman in her 30s with a 1-year-old daughter, was commiserating with me over the cost of childcare, which was completely eating away at her family's income. "The fact is," she said, "people have to have children. If we want the human race to continue, someone's got to do it." Given this reality, why have we as a society completely ignored the necessity for infant care and early childhood education? Not every woman who has a baby is going to stay home with her kids, not every woman who has a baby is married (gasp!). Doesn't it make sense to come up with a plan for all these children that come into the world every year?
Here some people argue that, if you can't afford to have children, then you have no business bringing them into the world. That seems like a simple enough statement, except that capitalism being what it is, there will always be the haves and the have-nots (and a whole slew of people in between). Are we really to say that only the haves should be allowed to reproduce? Maybe you should be required to apply to get pregnant, the same way you apply for a loan at the bank. Your finances will be combed through, your credit score checked, and you will be cleared for reproduction only if you can prove your ability to finance the cost.
Didn't we already test out this idea? It was called eugenics, and while it did pave the way for the modern-day birth-control movement, it was, thankfully, dismissed. Moreover, given our current economic times, and the ever-increasing burden on the middle class, that would leave baby-making to a very minute part of the population.
Some contend that I am spending your tax money to raise my kids. Wrong. I am spending my tax money to raise my kids. I put myself through college; I earned a Master's degree; I have a decent job; and I make what, frankly, should be a decent wage. The fact is, things are expensive. Rent, food, transportation, the cost of everything has been rising at a far greater rate than wages in this country for a long time and nearly everyone is feeling it. The reality is, I work. I work my ass off. I pay taxes, and as a result of my tax money (and yours), these programs exist for those who need them. I would like to see the definition of "need" expand to more realistically reflect the actual situation.
As for the cries of critics who demand that if we can't afford to raise our kids on the salaries we make, we should change jobs, get retrained, move to different cities, to that I say, why should I? I've been working in editing for over 12 years and I think I'm pretty good at my job. Plus, I actually love what I do. Why should I have to give that up? Again, this goes back to the question of whether only wealthy people should be afforded the freedom of choice - choice of careers, choice of family size, choice of geographic location.
Even if I picked myself up and moved to this magical city, or suburb, or rural township that Web posters seemed to hint at, where the cost of living is so low that even a lowly editor like me can live off her riches (or be suddenly retrained to perform some high-paying job that awaits me), the fact is, not everyone is going to make a six-figure salary. Someone needs to wait on you in restaurants, drive that bus you take to work, cut your hair, and, yes, edit those books you like to download to your Kindle. There will always be people - talented, hard-working, useful people - working at all levels of the economic spectrum. And that's a good thing, because we need them.
For those who assume that people like me are just too lazy to work, in order to receive subsidized day care, you have to work. You actually can't sit at home doing nothing and collect this benefit because in a rare moment of logic, the government actually realizes that if you're not working (or in some kind of education program), you don't need someplace to send your child every day.
I am lucky to be a single mom. I think even if things had worked out with my children's father, I would be very unlikely to marry him. My personal feelings about marriage aside, it's just not a good economic choice. Married couples with two incomes take an enormous hit financially: too "rich" for any assistance from the government, yet struggling to meet the monthly expenses of raising a family. That colleague I mentioned earlier, the one who shared my feelings about day care, she and her husband eventually moved out of Brooklyn. They didn't necessarily want to leave, but their quality of life was just never going to improve with the expenses they were subject to. Some of you may think they made the responsible choice, but is that really good for the city? Do we really want to see a mass exodus of married, middle-class families because the cost of childcare is such a burden?
Instead, why not create a public day care system that starts at infancy, much like we have a public school system? Why not take the burden off everyone instead of chipping away at a system that right now helps only a few? Too expensive you say? I find it hard to believe that the long-term cost of creating a national day care system outweighs the cost of people who must leave the workforce because it's too expensive to get care for their children - whether this is two-income families that drop to one, or single-parent households that wind up on public assistance.
Furthermore, the quality of the education my children are getting now is sure to pay off for society down the line. Thanks to the subsidy I receive, my kids attend a childcare center with a serious academic approach. I have seen first hand the benefit of quality early childhood education. My oldest son will be starting public kindergarten next year, and, in spite of the fact that we are considered low SES (socioeconomic status), he will enter public school already knowing how to read, with a solid foundation in math and science, and a real thirst for learning. It's true that I had some hand in that, but the real credit goes to the teachers who have cared for him every weekday, from 8 to 5, for the past two years.
The groundwork is being laid for my children to grow into productive members of society. In addition, having day care has allowed me to continue working, continue paying taxes, continue spending money to stimulate the economy.
Shouldn't that be the least of what we offer to everyone? Let's see some real changes to the system - let's see the government start to view safe, affordable, subsidized childcare as a family value. Not only should we continue funding programs for the poor and working poor, let's go further and create a system that is accessible to everyone.
It's simple logic: parents who work full time need a safe place to send their children so they can continue working. In my neighborhood of Bay Ridge, the cheapest day care I've found is $200 a week ($40 a day for 10 hours - you really can't get cheaper than that). So, for three children, that's $600 a week, approximately $2,400 a month - over $31,000 a year. Even for a fine, upstanding, married couple, an extra $31,000 a year is hard to come by. And that, by the way, is for less-than-four-star service. No educational component: I'm talking about a place where the staff is nice enough, and there is the occasional walk outside, but for the most part, kids are in the apartment playing with the TV on. You want something with a curriculum and teachers, well you're talking anywhere from $250 to over $400 a week, per child.
I have three children. Whether or not I should have had them, or planned to have them, or how I came to be raising them as a single parent doesn't matter. They are here; I am not sending them back. The question is, what happens now?