Childcare: Unfinished Agenda

Dianne Feeley

ON AUGUST 26, 1970, in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of woman’s suffrage, thousands of women demonstrated in cities across the country. We raised three central themes: equal pay for equal work, free abortion on demand, and federally funded, locally controlled, quality childcare available around the clock. Looking through the prism of these demands, we can roughly measure the gap that, twenty years later, still exists between women’s need to control our bodies, our work and our lives—and the reality.

Over that twenty-year period women have continued to pour into the paid work force. Today women earn 60% of men’s salaries, and we have won legal abortion, although access is limited and the attack against women’s reproductive rights continues.

Even governmental studies have begun to consider the social cost of a woman’s double day. Recently, a two-year study, funded by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, the Ford Foundation and the Foundation for Child Development recommended that the annual $8 billion in government subsidies for childcare be increased by an additional$5 billion to 10 billion. The study slated that the quality of care in today’s daycare centers is ‘below generally recognized standards.’ It called for setting national standards covering health and safety, acceptable staff-to-child ratios and staff qualifications.

The study was also critical of how little federal money helps low-income parents. While in 1972 80% of all federal money for daycare was spent on low-income families, by the end of the 1980s the percentage had declined to a mere 30%. In fact, twenty-five years after Head Start was initiated, it serves only 20% of all those who are eligible. As “a part-time program it is riot responsive to the ached-tiles and childcare needs of working parents,” the report noted.

Still more controversial was the report’s recommendation that parents be allowed up to a year of unpaid leave to care for infants (while continuing to receive health-insurance benefits) Seeing this measure as simply a beginning step, the — recommended that businesses eventually provide six months of paid leave and six months of unpaid leave.

Typically, business spokespeople denounced the parental-leave recommendation as impractical, costly and disruptive for employers. As Fred Krebs, who monitors government policies for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, remarked of the recommendation, “That has no connection to the real world. It’s so far out that it is a political non-starter.” (Detroit Free Press, 3/15/1990)

Yet during the 1980s corporate-sponsored childcare programs expanded dramatically. Today 5,400 companies with more than a hundred employees offer childcare benefits ranging from financial assistance, alternate work schedules, or childcare centers actually setup at or near work. More municipal and federal governmental agencies are also providing on-site childcare.

One might wonder why corporations would voluntarily provide such benefits in a society where having young children is seen primarily as an individual, “family” responsibility rather than as a social responsibility—especially since childcare programs, because of the need for a small teacher/child ratio and a variety of manipulative materials, are relatively expensive.

Rationalizing the Labor Supply

To find the answer we should look briefly at the history of publicly funded childcare in the United States. It dates, in fact, from World War II, when it became essential to draw married women in massive numbers into the paid work force. Although the programs never met the need, both the government and corporations were forced to fund childcare. A few facilities, given the nature of the nearby key industry, ran twenty-four hours a day. But in the final months of the war, childcare was defunded. This measure was the single most successful mechanism for driving women out of their skilled jobs. At the time women organized against the attack, but although they won some struggles, eventually they lost. By 1950 only 12% of women with children were employed.

Today, however, women with children are a permanent part of the paid work force. Currently almost 60% of all women with preschool children are working outside the home. Within ten years that figure will rise to 70%.

And the children? Currently only one-quarter of all preschool children whose mothers are employed are enrolled in a childcare program. Another 40% are being cared for in their own homes by a relative or babysitter. Finally, 37% are being cared for in someone else’s house. Something like 10 million children under six are in need of childcare programs; another 10 million under eleven need before- and after-school programs and planned summer activities.

Yet, despite the unacceptable unemployment rates, from the government/employer’s perspective, the United States faces a “tight” labor market in the years ahead. Therefore employers have begun to make the minimal structural changes necessary in order to accommodate to this new work force.

Basically there is a two-pronged approach: to provide company-sponsored childcare benefits for women whose skills are considered particularly valuable and at the same time to force relatively unskilled women who have children onto the low-paid job market. For the low-paid woman worker there will be few, if any, benefits provided by the employer. However business interests as a whole are more willing to have more federally funded childcare.

It is within this context that the government/business discussion over the need for a national childcare policy begins to make sense. That is, the factors motivating them to consider upgrading childcare and after-school programs have little to do with the needs of either the working mother or her children. This discussion, on the contrary, is born out of the need to find and maintain a supply of workers at the cheapest possible cost.

The Campbell Soup Model

Typical is the daycare facility at the Campbell Soup corporate headquarters in Camden, New Jersey. Joseph J. Murtha, who oversees the daily operation of the center, remarked, “We truly believe that in having the center here, we solve absenteeism problems and increase productivity.” Established in 1983, the daycare center quickly reached its capacity of 120 children. Open from 7a.m. to 6p.m., the center accepts children as young as six weeks.

Campbell’s pays half of the tuition while the parent pays somewhere between $92-140 a week no matter how many children in the family are enrolled. Parents who leave the company, or are fired, may not leave their children in the center—it is for Campbell’s employees only. And, as you might have suspected, Campbell’s does not have a union.

It is also important to take a look at the more than 3 million childcare workers. Fully 96% are women, and many are supporting not only themselves but also their children. Yet more than 40% of all fulltime childcare workers earn less than $5 an hour! Their working conditions are as bad as their salaries, with inadequate relief time, little paid vacation and sick leave, and woefully few insurance benefits. As a result—according to the National Commission on Working Women—annual staff turnover for these workers ranges from 35%-60%.

Our Agenda

Over the last several years the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) and a number of unions have supported legislative bills that outline a major federal commitment to childcare or protect workers’ rights to unpaid leaves of absence in order to meet family responsibilities. For the first time since Nixon vetoed the childcare bill back in the early 1970s a national discussion about childcare is unfolding.

In late March 1990 the U.S. House of Representatives voted $5.5 billion a year over the next five years for childcare-President Bush may veto the bill but, more likely, a compromise will be worked out, probably adding $4 billion annually to the childcare budget. It also seems clear that more changes will follow.

How can feminists, trade unionists and socialists use this unique opportunity to push forward an agenda that is focused on the needs of working women? I should like to suggest that the role CLUW, unions, feminist organizations and the socialist left should play is not that of foot soldiers mobilized to insure Congressional passage of admittedly minimal bills, including the “best” of them. Instead we can use this opportunity to explain what women and their families need. For instance, in 1988 the National Organization for Women (NOW) passed a comprehensive childcare action program that attempted to articulate the scope of quality childcare. NOW proposed an immediate funding of $40 billion.

Without that overall liberating vision of what real social responsibility to the next generation requires, progressives will spend energy on pushing capitalism to make small structural adjustments in order to utilize women more efficiently as paid workers. Instead we need to protect what U.S. society can provide We need to focus the spotlight on breaking the cycle of poverty into which a growing number of families, usually headed by working women, are forced to live. Otherwise, life can be simple drudgery, going from work or school to home, television and sleep.

The demand the women’s movement raised in 1970 for federally financed, community-controlled, quality childcare is still valid. It’s essential because society needs to provide institutions that help parents educate their children, help children acquire the social and educational skills learned in a daycare setting—and yes, provide parents with some time away from their children.

In the context of this discussion, I’d suggest we raise demands—none of which are gender-specific–that include:

• A reduction in working hours—from forty to thirty—so that more people can be employed at living wages and so that who are working can have time to enjoy their lives. This is a key demand. Without reducing the work week, parents have little time to be with their children. Young children need a mix of individual and group care. With the average work week now longer than forty hours, many parents are forced to leave their children in group settings much longer than is beneficial.

• Job training/retraining programs at living wages, available for those who need them.

• The control of daycare facilities in the hands of the community, especially its parents and teachers.

• The right of childcare workers to decent salaries and working conditions and their right to unionize.

• The obligation of society to provide an educational program that includes a socially relevant, antiracist, non-sexist curriculum.

• Parental-leave legislation that provides full benefits for workers on leave. Only a small proportion of families have enough savings so that parents could take advantage of unpaid leaves.

I think it would be politically irresponsible for progressive organizations to fight for inadequate childcare facilities, overlook the low wages and abysmal working conditions of current childcare workers, or fail to demand a reduction of the work week.

If necessary, the corporate world is prepared to offer women whose skills they desperately need adequate childcare, but they will fight tooth and nail against any broad-based program. We, on the other hand, maintain that all the children in our society are valuable, that it is a social crime to have higher infant mortality rates, higher illiteracy and drop-out rates, higher unemployment rates and higher crime rates in the Black and Chicano urban ghettoes.

Part of the task of adulthood—and not just a “mother’s” individual responsibility—is adequately preparing the next generation. That means providing children with the emotional, creative and problem-solving skills a complex society needs. It means providing a social infrastructure that nurtures children through adequate health, housing, educational and recreational facilities.

It is necessary to defend the needs of women and their families by defending the needs of the most vulnerable, by helping them to organize and articulate what control over their lives entails. And it is this emancipation by the working-class community that is the essence of a socialist vision.

May-June 1990, ATC 26