What “A Day Without a Woman” Reveals About Childcare in the U.S.

“Domestic work makes all other work possible.” This statement from the United Nations’ “Progress of the World’s Women” released last year has a lot of truth to it. If there’s no one to watch the children—whether it’s a parent or another caregiver—no one can go out into the world and be productive. But if we learn nothing else from today’s “A Day Without a Woman”, it is that prescriptions from our nation’s thought leaders and policy makers are totally divorced from reality.

The fact that some public schools were shutting down for the day suggests that protestors also have no idea how women work or who is responsible for our children when we do work outside the home.

The conversations we have about childcare are focused almost entirely on the economics of it. For example, Anne Marie Slaughter writes about the low wages of childcare workers: “In the current system, the average caregiver makes nine dollars an hour (compared to a golf caddy at seventeen dollars and a Whole Foods bag handler at nineteen dollars) and fifty percent of low-wage informal childcare and homecare workers rely on public assistance.” Meanwhile, most middle class families have trouble paying even that small amount for childcare. According to a poll conducted last year by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, twenty percent of families with children under age five say that the cost of childcare is a “very serious problem.”

But all of this is premised on the idea that the care we are getting is good, and that the people caring for our children are a reasonable substitute for the parents who would otherwise be staying home with them. Indeed, the entire feminist movement is premised on the notion that a mother can be just as valuable in the workplace as she is at home and that hiring someone to care for our children before they start school is going to have the same outcome as caring for them ourselves.

For some people, that’s no doubt true. They have found loving nannies, babysitters or people who have home daycare centers. There are some high quality early childhood programs, where kids can get the kind of substantive and loving interaction that a parent might give. All these things cost a lot more than nine dollars an hour and they are awfully difficult to create on a large scale.

This has been confirmed once again by new longitudinal study of the Head Start program. According to researchers at Duke and UC Irvine, who reviewed data from “sixty-seven high-quality interventions—all of which included some degree of pre-literacy and early math skill-building and most of which targeted economically disadvantaged children . . . the effects faded startlingly fast: falling by half within a year and by half again two years later.”

A study last year from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Sesame Street was actually more effective at preparing kids for kindergarten than Head Start was. (It’s obviously more cost effective).

One problem is that Head Start and other large childcare programs don’t do a very good job of teaching the “soft skills” kids get from their home environment. As the researchers from Duke and UC Irvine write, “What holds disadvantaged kids back throughout their schooling is not a failure to master the basics. More fundamental to achievement are hard-to-change characteristics such as intelligence and conscientiousness, as well as persistent environmental factors that are difficult to change.”

In other words, our public intellectuals can go on all they want about the importance of affordable childcare, but if what we get is no better than sticking our kids in front of Sesame Street for eight hours a day, maybe it’s time to reconsider the terms of the debate.

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