Will Childcare Policy Lead to Another Mommy War?

When Obama started talking about childcare during the State of the Union last night, the social conservatives on my twittered started grumbling. If Obama was going to hand out money to families with two working parents, would he also give money to families where one parent cares for the children on his/her own? Why was he giving preferences to one form of family over another?

Here’s a sample.

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Where Women Work and What Unemployed Women Do

The Upshot is one my first reads of the day. Best new section of the New York Times by far. They had two great articles in the past two days. There is so much data to be unpacked. Loves it.

Yesterday’s article was about the differences in time-use studies between unemployed women and men. There’s a lot of info in that chart, but the main take away is that unemployed men are unhealthy, watch a lot of TV, and spend a lot of time looking for a job. Unemployed women spend most of their time caring for others and doing housework. They are healthier than when they worked.

Today, they have a map of where working women are most common. The upper mid-west and New England have the highest proportion of working women.

These numbers are tough to unpack. Are women unemployed, because they live in wealthy communities that support stay-at-home mothers and have spouses with high paying careers? Or are they full time parents, because the obstacles to work are too high? Are they caring for elementary aged children with relative ease or are they caring for multiple aging adults and special needs kids?

If unemployed women have a full range of choices and are financially affluent, then there doesn’t seem to be a problem. Choices were freely and happily made. If unemployed women are facing the same dismal job market as men and can’t afford childcare or eldercare, then there’s a real problem. The fact that the employment of women has a geographic pattern makes me think that childcare policies and job opportunities are major issues. The Upper Midwest and New England have more progressive policies for parents.

The Impact of Low Investment in Family-Friendly Policies

Compared to European countries, the United States has minimal investment in child care programs and maternity leave policies. All this means, that the U.S. has fewer women who stay in the workforce after they have children. That’s not news. What is news is that the percentage of prime aged women in the workforce has declined dramatically in the past few years. “After climbing for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74 percent for women between 25 and 54. It has fallen since, to 69 percent today.”

The sharpest drop in labor participation is among low skilled, unmarried mothers, but there has also been a dip in higher skilled, married women, too.

It’s hard to work when you have kids. Schools are not set up for working parents. Maternity leave policies are too short. Child care is insanely expensive. If a child has special needs, then the system is even more hostile.

There is no urgency to make reforms in an economy with a 16 percent unemployment rate for men. I think that we’re going to see a lot more small businesses and entrepreneurial work by the higher skilled women in the next decade. Lower skilled women are going to work in the shadows for extremely low wages. Sadly, they are lining up at my dad’s food pantry three hours before opening time in the cold.

All the Single Mothers

In the Atlantic, David Frum explains that abortions rates have gone down and the number of single mothers have risen is because of “the Bristol Palin Effect.” Social conservatives have succeeding in changing American morality about abortion and inadevertantly legitimatized parenthood without marriage. Nearly half of all first births are to unwed mothers. “Single parenthood has become the norm for non-affluent Americans of all races.”

This is the fascinating irony of the pro-life movement. The cause originated as a profoundly socially conservative movement. Yet as it grew, it became less sectarian. Women came to the fore as leaders. It found a new language of concern and compassion, rather than condemnation and control. Most radically and decisively, the movement made its peace with unwed parenthood as the inescapable real-world alternative to abortion.

Given these unexpected outcomes, Frum says that social conservatives have to talk about policy solutions. Wonkbooks has some suggestions.

Egg Freezing as a Dubious Benefit

Last night, the evening news announced that Facebook and Apple were subsidizing the cost of egg freezing for their female employees, and I rolled my eyes. It’s a good thing for many reasons, don’t get me wrong. Younger eggs means less risk for all sorts of disabilities. But really my first thought was that the women in those companies need to have their eggs frozen, because they don’t have a chance to start a family until late in their 40s. The work-life balance must suck at those places.

And sure enough, lots of other women had the same reaction to that story.

Scheduling Workers For Maximum Efficiency

Businesses have learned how to track the times when their workers are most needed — when delivery trucks arrive or during the lunch time crunch. Now they expect the workers to work those hours and only those hours. The hours change from week to week and rarely conform to school or daycare schedules. It’s a big money saver for businesses, but it wrecks havoc on the workers, especially those with small children.

Flex-time used to be a pro-work/family term. Now, it’s a force for evil. More here.

Like increasing numbers of low-income mothers and fathers, Ms. Navarro is at the center of a new collision that pits sophisticated workplace technology against some fundamental requirements of parenting, with particularly harsh consequences for poor single mothers. Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when. Big-box retailers or mall clothing chains are now capable of bringing in more hands in anticipation of a delivery truck pulling in or the weather changing, and sending workers home when real-time analyses show sales are slowing. Managers are often compensated based on the efficiency of their staffing.

Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. “It’s like magic,” said Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which supplies the software for Starbucks and many other chains.

Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families, say parents, child care providers and policy experts.

Work-Family Balance From a Woman of Color

Last year, I went to the NPR studios to talk about an article with Michel Martin. She is smart, smart, smart. I listened to her show every day this month, as I drove Ian back and forth to camp. My Facebook feed is in deep mourning, because her show was just canceled.

She wrote a really excellent piece about juggling work and family as a woman of color. Really great piece.