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U.S. is stingy in caring for its children


There is a simple principle that can test the moral spirit of people and their government: What is good for the kids is good; what is bad for kids is ungodly. Let’s take that principle and look into the American soul. Be warned in advance: The United States does not get a passing grade.

Gloria Albrecht in her recent book, Hitting Home: Feminist Ethics, Women’s Work and the Betrayal of “Family Values” (Continuum), makes it clear that our nation does not think that having babies is in the national interest. Somehow we miss the point that if we have no babies, there is no tomorrow. Since 1920 the number of women in the work force rose from 21 percent to 60 percent. The economy is such that one earner per family is not enough. Fifty-eight percent of women with a baby under 1 year are in the labor force and 77 percent of mothers with kids under 6. Only 23 percent stay at home. This means many children are latchkey kids, unsupervised for many hours per week. Is that in the national interest?

Obviously, children need care but the ruling assumption in this land of ours is that if you have a baby, it’s your problem. Child care is looked on as a consumer item. If you can afford it, great. If not, too bad for you. Ninety-six percent of working parents pay full costs of child care. What government help there is, is inadequate. Only 12 percent of employers provide child care. Of course, all this hits the poor hardest. Low-income families who pay for their child care spend 35 percent of their income on it, compared to 7 percent of income spent by non-poor families.

In democratic America, the quality of child care varies according to class. Once society decides that child care is a consumer item and not a basic human right that deserves national support, market logic kicks in, and you get only what you pay for. Of course, and, ironically, according to classical economics, those who receive the benefits should pay the costs. The benefits of healthy, well-cared for, well-educated children accrue to the nation not just to the families. They are tomorrow’s citizens.

Because they are the bearers of children, women are discriminated against in the workplace. They are denied opportunities not just when they have children, but by the very fact that they can have children.

Our attitude toward children shows through in this telling statistic: The median wage of child care workers in 1997 was $7.03 per hour, three cents less than that of parking lot attendants -- and this is usually without benefits. These workers could not afford child care for themselves. Obviously caring for children is not work we value. In fact, according to the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program, caring for someone else’s children is classified as work. Caring for your own is not.

Has anyone heard from the so-called “pro-life” people on any of this? Could it be that their interest in life is short circuited by birth?

As Albrecht says: “The United States lags behind all other industrialized nations in addressing family/work concerns through public policies.” A White House report in December 2000 said, “States were able to provide child-care assistance to only 12 percent of all federally eligible low-income working families.” Albrecht states the assumption of U.S. welfare “reform”: “There is wide-spread social agreement that economically poor mothers cannot, by definition, be good mothers unless they work away from their homes and children.” Poor parents often cannot afford to work because of the cost of transportation, clothing and child care needs at home. In a U.S. survey of 152 countries, the United States was one of only six countries that does not have a national policy requiring paid maternity leave.

Some 40 states are deeply in debt and are shortening the school week and cutting certain classes and programs. According to The New York Times (Jan. 12), 60 percent of Americans oppose raising taxes to correct this. Meanwhile the Bush administration is spending billions to ship soldiers to the Middle East while the states back home starve and victimize kids.

There are countries that do not hate their children. Albrecht writes: “Many European countries already provide universal health care and child care, as well as generous (by U.S. standards) paid parental and family leave, paid vacation time and unemployment policies.” Swedes currently are entitled to 18 months of paid leave with job protection that can be prorated over the first eight years of a child’s life. France provides universal child care to all toilet-trained children and single mothers receive government payments until their children are over the age of 3. In Denmark all children up to 18 years of age have access to free dental care for both routine examinations and treatment. Europeans are guaranteed longer vacation times, four to six weeks, and this is protected by legislation.

Americans bask in a surreal self-image, seeing themselves as “kind and gentle” people, leading the world in foreign aid. Most would be offended to read in Duane Elgin’s book, Promise Ahead: “The United States is the stingiest developed nation in terms of the proportion of total wealth that it donates.” We should not be surprised. If we can treat our kids the way we do, why would we be generous to strangers?

Daniel C. Maguire is professor of moral theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003