So I’ve obviously been thinking a lot lately about economic insecurity.
And I spend a lot of time at the park with my kids, so I’ve noticed many signs of the impact of this insecurity on young families, like mine.
And that’s got me thinking about kids and working parents and economic policy and what it would take to build a structure of economic security, and what that would look like from my perch on the edge of the sandbox, listening to kids shout “Mommy, watch me!” in English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish.
I see more fathers at the park these days, and they’re not there spending a day off with their kids–they’re unemployed, or working only part-time, or handing out business cards to other parents, trying to get customers for a remodeling business or website design or software consulting. And I wonder what’s happening to their savings accounts, and to their mental health.
I hear moms talking about sales and coupons and how to save money, a lot more than I used to. And many “stay-at-home” moms really aren’t, totally. Many families, like my own, are balancing shifts of sorts, with both parents earning and both caring for children, in order to reduce costs and increase income. One mom brings the jewelry that she makes to the park to sell. I get at least 3 invitations a month to some ‘party’ where a mom is trying to earn extra income by selling stamps or housewares or clothing.
And then there’s the strain. Certainly some of the parents that I see and hear snapping at their children or staring absently into space are comparatively economically secure, but I wonder, especially now, how much of the stress that manifests itself in difficult interactions between parents and kids stems from the underlying pressures of trying to raise those children–the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates raising a single child to age 18 will cost a middle-income family almost $237,000, or 37% of income per year, in addition to reducing income as one caregiver reduces hours or changes schedules to meet childcare demands.
As Hacker concludes his chapter on “Risky Families”, “when Americans build strong families, it has profound benefits for society as a whole: stronger neighborhoods, more productive workers…(the costs) are paid for through the sacrifices that families must make, the risks that families must bear, usually without much compensation or assistance” (108).
And that’s what I see most, from my spot under the tree, watching my daughter stuff sand in her pants and my sons race the dump trucks–families trying their best, to do the hard work of parenting so that their kids will grow up happy and healthy and a credit to their families and an asset to the world.
And, as any parent knows, there’s a lot of insecurity in the business of raising kids even under the best circumstances: will my son make it through quiet rest at school? Will my daughter’s language development pick up? Will my kids survive high school with the embarrassment of their mom’s letters to the editor appearing in the paper every month? (all of these are, um, obviously just hypothetical)
We can’t legislate all of those potentialities away–that’s part of what we sign on for when we become, through whatever path, “parents”. But we can, and should, and must, do something about the other. Because working parents should be able to plan for the future, with some guarantee against devastating income plunges. And every family should have health care. And disabilities shouldn’t bankrupt. And, after working hard at both “jobs”–paid work and unpaid parenting–for decades, everyone deserves to retire.
With that kind of foundation, imagine the sand castles we could build to the sky.