Get to Work, Children

"Only poor kids have to work to have fun."

Get to Work, Children
Riley and two of his brothers

The pandemic exposed what Emma Dowling calls the Care Crisis in her excellent book, The Care CrisisWhat Caused it and How Can We End It? We've long been in a care crisis, but now we are finally talking about it. Well, some of us are.

I recommend Dowling’s book whole-heartedly. It’s written within a UK context but has global insights. I read it on a flight from Denver to New York City this last weekend, marking it up so furiously my seatmate thought I was reviewing it. In the book, Dowling interrogates the role governments and markets have played in actively devaluing care. She rightly notes that capitalism and unpaid care do not exist in opposition to each other. Rather, capitalism depends upon unpaid care to survive. Without unpaid care as a submissive superstructure, American capitalism cannot exist.

I guess in this scenario, capitalism is a child! And without unpaid care, it will wither and wilt away. It just can’t take care of itself, you know?! In America, children aren't the only dependents. As a primary caretaker, I get listed as a dependent on my husband's social security contributions. When and where is capitalism going to be listed as my dependent? hmmmmmmm?

You'd think as a dependent of unpaid care, capitalism would seek to treat it with some damn respect. And for a brief shining moment, as I reviewed Biden’s The American Families Plan, I thought it might! The plan had provisions for paid leave that would finally bring us in line with every other wealthy country. There was direct cash support for children, universal preschool, education and tax cuts for lower and middle-income families.

Get to Work, Children

Sounded neat! But of course, because capitalism depends on the exploitation of unpaid care, we are not going to get most of what Biden initially planned. The Republicans won’t break rank to vote for care. Two Democrats, Sinema and Manchin, stand in the way of the proposed care for care. Sinema’s opposition isn’t worth interrogating, she wants to make money and headlines. It seems to be working for her. Manchin? Manchin is wrong, but Manchin is also saying many of the things I’ve heard people say before. So let's dig in, a little.

Manchin is against a national paid leave program because he thinks it would be too costly. As of this morning, Democrats were trying to negotiate with him to get a 4 week paid leave program instead of the original proposed 12 weeks. Those concerned about the cost of paid leave should consider that a lack of it is far more costly! Most daycares will not take infants until six weeks. People who have had c-sections still are not allowed to bend down 4 weeks post-birth. They also are not supposed to pick up anything heavier than their baby. A hard ask for someone going back to waiting tables or delivering Amazon packages after having a baby!  Postpartum depression, the kind that made me suicidal, is less likely when parents have paid leave. Studies show that paid leave up to 25 weeks significantly decreases hospitalization and infant mortality. But those are costs Manchin, and the American capitalism he represents, are willing to pay to survive.

It’s not just the paid leave. Manchin is also upset that there is no work requirement for parents who receive a cash benefit for their children. That cash benefit was implemented in the middle of the pandemic. A mere $300 per child per month, it’s lifted half of the children living in poverty right out of it. In 2018, 1 in 6 American kids lived in poverty. Shall we define poverty? That's a family of four living on less than $25,000 a year. For families living on that little, Biden's cash benefit is a way to survive, not thrive. Manchin wants to drop those kids right back into intense need.

Why? Why would someone think a child should be pushed back into hunger in one of the wealthiest nations in the world?

Manchin thinks hard work equals financial security in America. Anyone who has worked as a waitress, a house cleaner, a teacher or an unpaid caretaker knows that hard work does not always mean soft prosperity. Children are not supposed to have to work for their bread in America. I mean we passed all those child labor laws! But Manchin thinks kids should be left hungry based on their parents' ability to do economically valued work. Earlier this month he asked, “Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that people should make some effort?”

As I read Dowling’s book about the care crisis, I kept thinking about the everyday assumptions we make that enable the crisis. Why does Manchin think he can say work should be required for kids to receive benefits? And why do so many people hear him say that and think he is being reasonable?

Manchin can say that access to childhood benefits should have a work requirement because we already require children to work to access benefits. It’s baked into every part of our society, including little things like school field trips.

Hear me out.

My husband, Riley, grew up pretty broke. One of his formative memories is his mom crying in a grocery store parking lot. He was little and she’d just dropped a gallon of milk. It hit the asphalt at just the right angle and burst. His mom started to cry. She couldn't afford to buy another gallon. She loaded the kids in the car and drove home. They didn't have milk that week.

He says, as a kid, he didn't know his family was broke because he always had a bike and a Disneyland pass. The bikes always came from garage sales. The passes from a distant grandparent he saw once every few years. His parents were hardworking and hardhoping. They were all happy, but it was wearing. They moved around a lot. Broke and renting is a vulnerable combination. There were other times when milk spilled and couldn't be replaced. When his little brother was born too early and with too little health insurance, the family fell further financially. It’s very expensive to be poor.

Riley started working at a Dairy Queen before he hit the legal working age. His boss paid him in cash so he didn't get caught. Riley had to work so he could buy clothes. Work also helped him split the cost of a couple hundred dollar car with his brother so they could get to work. He paid for car insurance and anything extra - sports, extra pair of shoes, a movie here and there. He stopped playing school sports so he could work. There wasn’t the time or money for both. When he had some money left over, it went into a bank account meant for college.

If he wanted to do something that cost money, his 15 year old self had to check his bank account. He’d figure out how many minimum wage working hours he'd have to work to afford it. He'd need to go to school, work those hours after school and stay up late to finish his homework. There was a lot that cost money. He went to public schools that offered enrichment “opportunities” to students. Big Go to Another Country and Expand Your Horizons! trips and little after school day trips. He’d never been on airplane, never been in a world famous museum. It sounded nice. And expensive. He’d do his calculations and realize he couldn’t work enough hours to pay for the opportunity. So he didn’t get the opportunity.

Riley and I grew up together. I did not grow up broke. There were lean years in my early childhood. But by middle school my family was solidly middle class. When a big event or school trip was coming up, I just had to tell my parents about it. They wrote the check. (This was back when people used checks.) My parents didn’t work harder than Riley’s parents. They just had different work that was valued differently by the American economy. Everyone in this story was working very, very hard. But not everyone had the same opportunities. Work requirements are ridiculous because we do not require that all work lead to the same opportunities.

This isn't a tragic story. Riley’s family’s hardships were still bits of luck compared to the circumstances of many people in America. Riley and his brothers had excellent parents and an excellent home life. Eventually, his family reached a place where milk could be replaced and then generously provided to others. They helped us in our early years when spilled milk made me cry too. Working during high school wasn't bad for Riley. He has funny stories from work. His brothers worked at Dairy Queen with him. It was okay! But it was okay, because it turned out okay. It turned out okay because he is a white male with a skill set that lead to post-college work the American economy values highly.

My daughter has the opportunity to go on a school trip abroad next year. I am sure it will be expensive. I don’t know how her school addresses the fact that access will be severely limited by cost. Maybe they have a good solution! But here’s how it usually goes,

"We know this opportunity is an extra expense. We encourage the kids to find opportunities to earn money to contribute to the cost of their trip."

Find opportunities to earn opportunity! Just so American, right? Childhood enrichment is sold as some bootstrapping moment of working enlightenment for the kids. They can EARN this trip! It's a LEARNING opportunity. But that line isn't included for ALL the kids. It's just there to make people feel better about the kids who can't participate.

"Well, we told kids to work for the money. If they couldn't figure it out it's not because we failed. They just didn't want it enough."

I don't have a problem with kids working to earn things. But that's not how this ever shakes out. When opportunities are only frictionless for kids from families with money, those kids are the only ones who get opportunity. The kids who get the opportunity are overwhelmingly white and middle to upper-class. This isn't a problem of work. It's a problem of systemic inequality.

Everyone makes themselves feel better about the kids left behind from school trips, opportunity, the American Dream, because they just didn’t want to do the work. Please tell that to my husband when he was sixteen and working 30 hour weeks on top of full-time school. He was working harder than any of us. He still couldn't participate. When we were talking about this a few months ago, my husband got quiet and then shook his head,

"Only poor kids have to work to have fun."

He’s right. But it doesn’t stop there. And it never has. In America, poor kids have to work to have fun and poor kids have to have parents who work to be fed. One leads to the other and back again. Many don’t recoil when Manchin asks, “Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that people should make some effort?” because it’s a question they ask all the time. And too often, so often, nearly always, the answer is, “Yes.”