How to fix the child care crisis

In “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville describes “thousands on thousands” of hungry sharks pulling at the flesh of the whale carcass being towed by the Pequod, gradually reducing it to nothing. “How at such an apparently unassailable surface, they contrive to gouge out such symmetrical mouthfuls, remains a part of the universal problem of all things.”

An apt analogy may be drawn to working-class Midwesterners, even those who have never set sail: You are the carcass, and you will be eaten. Every dollar you make will be consumed by creatures with limitless appetites, leaving nothing — or less. That way, you’ll have to continue to work. And, you’ll work until your carcass is all used up and nothing is left but bones. Perhaps the bones will be consumed, too.

A particularly gruesome set of jaws tugging at us is that of basic child care. Child care is so expensive here that parents often can’t get the flesh on their bones in the first place. Americans spend about 23 percent of their annual net income on child care — twice what the rest of the world spends. In Kentucky, the average yearly expenditure for one child is over $6,000. In Indiana, it’s almost $9,000 — more expensive than in Florida and Hawaii.

You want government assistance to pay for your kids’ day care? In Indiana or Kentucky, you can get it, but you lose those benefits if you are making just a little more than minimum wage. If you are lucky enough to make a living wage, forget it. Even if you qualify, you will be waiting for months, sometimes years, for that assistance. Drop out of school, lose a job or just forget to submit a pay stub on time while you wait, and you get to start all over again. Or you could live in one of many counties that has no child care available at all, so it doesn’t matter whether or when you qualify.

Your excess flesh will be consumed by one row of teeth or another.

Naturally, when faced with this Hobson’s choice, many people elect to not work at all. Lacie in Jeffersonville was a schoolteacher with a master’s degree when her son was in day care, and “all of one of my two paychecks a month” went to cover the cost. Angie in New Albany said: “The system is set up for us to fail. If I had taken any old minimum wage job, we no longer would have qualified for food stamps and Medicaid. Food and healthcare cost more than most jobs pay a person whose most recent work experience amounts to changing diapers and washing dishes.” Add child care payments on top of that, and it’s either work three jobs and never see your children, or stay home. “There was no incentive to go back to work, and I would have lost money doing so.” Only when her spouse was approved for disability benefits connected with his military service was she able to, as she puts it, “claw her way out of poverty.”

Amy in Bloomington has a preschooler with autism. “Preschool is only a half day, and we can’t afford to pay anyone for the other half who can get him to school.” The process from diagnosis to Medicaid waiver, which would provide him with much-needed services, takes about 18 months. “Because of this, I’m not working now at all. If we had affordable childcare, I could work full-time, which would, in turn, pay for more therapy for my son, which we currently can’t afford.”

A system that pulls us away from our children, whether we want it or not, for the brightest hours of our days and the sweetest years of their lives, is a system that should be questioned. And yet, even if we accept this tearing away as the only conceivable manner in which to raise children, ought we be driven into poverty or worked to death or both, on top of it?

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American child care is a stark example of how leaving basic public health issues to the whims of private enterprise tears at the underbelly of society. Not only does our collective inattention to families keep otherwise productive people from working, but it keeps otherwise reproductive people from having children at all — a story I heard from many working women and men. Worst of all, it dodges what is perhaps the most compelling reason for quality, affordable child care — it makes our kids smarter, happier, less prone to addiction and less likely to end up in jail or worse. Short-term, minimal investments in early child care can reap enormous social benefits in decades to come.

The picture this paints for the future of the Midwest — declining jobs, declining birth rates, more broke and broken people — is a bleak one.

There are two conceivable ways to fix it.

One is to do it through the machinations of government — build better facilities, increase standards of care, pay workers more and generously subsidize child care. The other is to build parenting co-ops. The former method is almost unimaginable with the penny wise, pound foolish legislators now at the helm. Few people and organizations are even lobbying for meaningful reform, probably because this is an unfathomable leviathan of a problem. The latter option, while eliminating or dramatically reducing the cost to parents, is not without challenges.

Emily Pike, executive director of New Hope for Families in Bloomington, is on the verge of experimenting with co-op models to provide housing for homeless and impoverished families. “We recognized that lack of access to child care was causing family homelessness and posing a huge impediment to families achieving stability.” Her program has been resoundingly successful on a small scale, and she believes it could be expanded, made cooperative and replicated elsewhere. Pike describes both a “full cooperative” and a “mixed cooperative model.” In the full cooperative version, the parents are all the employees, which can be problematic if none of the parents are child-care professionals or able to keep up with the substantial administrative work that a licensed facility requires.

In the mixed cooperative model, experienced child care and administrative professionals captain the ship, and parents, who pay an income-based fee, do everything else. For now, these only seem to exist around educated urban or suburban areas and not anywhere that I could find in Indiana or Kentucky (though resources for startups are readily available online). Even in its ideal form, this model still has parents paying around 15 percent of their incomes. Better than 23 percent or more, but still a painful portion.

The co-op models need further development. In the meantime, there is desperate need for organized, grassroots efforts to bring this issue to lawmakers’ desks.  It may seem a low priority when we are potentially on the brink of civil war, economic collapse and watching the world go underwater.

But if our children are not prepared to solve problems (universal and otherwise), and we cannot be there to help them navigate through the thousands on thousands of sharks waiting to devour them, there is little hope of salvaging any of our fat, flesh or bones.

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