Two professors reach a startling conclusion in their new book on child care policy in the United States: “We, as a society, do not value children and families.”
“In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy” by Elizabeth Palley and Corey Shdaimah, examines why there has been little to no movement toward a national child care policy even though child care is what they call a universal concern for families.
Through historical analysis and interviews with 23 leading child care advocates, the authors argue that only a social revolution will address the need for accessible, affordable and safe child care in the U.S.
“Problems that parents experience in trying to care for their own children are no longer simply individual problems but rather affect such a large percentage of the population that we, as a country, are experiencing a major social welfare crisis,” the authors write.
What has prevented progress on this issue?
“In Our Hands” claims that the child care coalition is as fragmented as child care policy. Educational interest groups have focused on monitoring and regulating preschools; child care advocates have worked to expand the availability of quality care for low-income children; and women’s groups have rarely focused on paid parental leave, the authors assert.
Disunity stems from differences in framing the issue. Historically, child care is viewed in two separate spheres with different underlying interests. It is a custodial remedy that enables parents to enter or remain in the low-wage workforce. And, it’s a means of providing early educational opportunities that often do not match the needs of working families.
According to Shdaimah, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, differences in framing have resulted in different policy approaches, preventing child care and early education advocates to coalesce into a single, powerful movement.
The public’s fear of unwarranted government involvement in families also explains the lack of a universal, grassroots movement, Shdaimah said. The book challenges concerns about the government impinging on individual rights by saying better leave policies and tax breaks would expand families’ options to raise children and balance work and family.
The authors’ own experiences as mothers inspired this book.
Shdaimah juggled the responsibility of raising three children under 13 while researching and writing. Her struggles – even as a relatively privileged woman with significant workplace autonomy and flexibility were surprising, she said.
After examining legislative hearings and bills like the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act, Shdaimah was stunned by the lack of progress in the U.S. since the 1970s.
“It also seems incomprehensible today to think that there would be bipartisan consensus in both chambers to pass a child care bill, never mind one as broad based as the one that passed during the Nixon administration,” she said.
The authors call for developing a system that provides multiple care options, out-of-home care options and increased tax benefits. It's a vision of care even they admit is out of synch with the current political climate.
A number of states have passed parental leave policies, some even for paid parental leave. The Obama administration has a strong commitment to universal pre-kindergarten and the White House held a Summit on Working Families in June, Shdaimah said.
These recent moves suggest there is hope for the child care movement. But Shdaimah says future approaches must not be piecemeal and should address universal needs.
“Child care is just one piece of a larger puzzle in which working and middle class Americans are losing out on the American dream,” the book says.
In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy by Elizabeth Palley and Corey S. Shdaimah | NYU Press | 288 p.