Friday, July 27, 2012

Falling Short

Over the week that I was camping, I read a NY Times front page story about two women named Jessica and Chris.  Both are working moms employed as childcare workers in middle America.  The story was billed as a tale of the troubles of single moms and in many respects, it was about how hard it is to be a single working mom.  Fair enough, it is hard to be a single mom.  

The comparison between Jessica, a single mom of three children and Chris, a married mom with two kids, was really about how awesome it is to be Chris, a woman with a working husband and the family income that comes from that relationship.  Jessica, divorced and with a slacker ex who pays no child support, is not as well off as Chris.  Duh.  The story's author, Jason DeParle, posited that the difference between the two women was a husband.  With apologies to Chris's husband Kevin, who sounds like a nice man and a decent dad, I don't think that the author really understood the crux of the distinction between the two women.    So let me clear it up, Mr. DeParle.  The difference, pal, isn't just a husband.  The difference is about decent wages for women, decent schools and support services for families, and about what matters in a nation who cares a hell of a lot about the 1% but not much for the 34% of us who are raising children as single mamas.

I found the story deeply affecting, if only because the frailty and anxiety of being a single mom are feelings deeply familiar to me.  Unlike single mom Jessica, who earns less that $26,000 a year, I make more money and have had the support of my family in my journey to make it on my own (so, really, I'm not on my own at all).  And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that a woman with nine years of higher education is likely to be better off than a woman with just two years of college under her belt.  Even so, I know how long Jessica's days are; I know how vulnerable she feels.

In her response to the Times' article, Katha Pollitt sums up the distinctions between the women far better than I can.  You should read Pollitt's entire response.  I did and I can't stop getting this part out of my head:

"Her son [Jessica's] has Asperger’s—where are the programs for him? Kids’ extracurriculars and camps cost too much for her, although we know they help learning and development—why aren’t they free? If she leaves her too-expensive neighborhood, her kids will be in a worse school—why? Believe it or not, most Western industrialized countries do a far better job than we do of giving kids a decent childhood and of sustaining their mother too. It does not have to be that if you can’t afford to live in the right neighborhood, your children get a bad education. That is a social and political decision that we have made.

And then there is Jessica’s job. Although she earned a degree from community college and is a highly regarded employee, she is still on an hourly wage of only $12.35. She punches in and out, and she gets no paid days off—even when she was recovering from an operation for cervical cancer. When she took a day off to chaperon a school field day, she lost a day’s pay. Message to Anne-Marie Slaughter: this is how we treat “family balance” in the regular world of work, and this is how we treat skilled, experienced management-level employees in the childcare field. Taking care of children is women’s work, after all, and women are supposed to have Kevins, not family-size paychecks. Why does it seem like a reasonable policy suggestion to tell Jessica she needs a husband, and pie in the sky to say she needs a union? Or a national day care system like the one in France, where teachers are well-paid, with benefits?

Jessica Schairer is doing the best she can. In fact, she is pretty heroic. It’s the rest of us that are falling short."

It must be noted that Pollitt does a terrific job of summing up her anger about the situation of America's single moms without ever losing her head.  I'm afraid that I can't be that decent.  It makes me so fucking angry to hear that rich people need tax cuts; that we needn't raise the minimum wage, that poor folks should just get a job to have healthcare, that we can't possibly curb military spending even though 20% of American children live in poverty.  Why can't all American families be sure of access to quality childcare and after-school activities for our children, decent healthcare, and paid sick leave?  Maybe throw in a little paid vacation time? Is that really too much to ask?

America, it's time for some class warfare.  I'd be happy to lead the charge.

1 comment:

Nichole said...

I love Katha Pollitt. And I love you! Two parent homes are amazing, and I am immeasurably blessed to be half of one. I see a BIG GAPING HOLE in America's ability and willingness to force men to care for the babies they make. I see rich people playing the victim instead of being grateful that their place in life allows them to contribute so much to the social contract. I see access to birth control and abortion being choked to death. I also wonder if Jessica from the story got the testing and/or care for her cervical cancer from Planned Parenthood, you know?? I will be happy to join the fight, and I only wish I had the money to make it a fair fight.