Public Pre-K and Supporting Working Parents

Note: to some degree, this is a corollary post to my Daily Beast post on public investments in PreK and labor supply. The two can be read separately, but if you’re interested in skipping my personal narrative explaining why I care about that relationship, here’s a link to the Daily Beast post that dives right in.

I have two outrageously beautiful children. You’ve met cute kids before, I’m sure, and I know you’re discounting my parental bias even as you get to this point in my too-long sentence, but believe me when I tell you that my children are the best-looking creatures on God’s green earth. By some margin.

I could watch them goof around all day. And I used to. During the final two years of my PhD, I covered 100% of our family’s child care for my son and daughter. From 6AM until 8PM, I changed diapers, hit the zoo, goofed around at the playground, and so on and so forth. From 8PM on, I wrote dense, esoteric analysis of just what John Dewey really meant by “science.”

After successfully becoming a “doctor” (albeit one of the least useful within that rarefied tribe), things got more complicated. My return to the work world meant more money, personal dignity, and professional fulfillment, but it put our two-income household in a tough child care spot. For a while, we limped by on two flexible schedules: I covered 30 hours of the weekday child care and worked two days/week plus most nights between 8PM and 1AM. My wife worked four days in the office and covered 10 hours of the weekday child care (etc). We got a babysitter to cover one day of child care each week.

We sorta had it all—and I probably even had more of it all than my wife. I had three days with the world’s greatest kids each week, a solid salary with strong benefits, a rewarding job, etc.

But eventually having it all soon meant that I also had pneumonia. No sleep and lots of work make Conor a thoroughly ramshackle guy. Worse still, for a few weeks, I was too distracted to notice how bad things had gotten. First it was a chest cold, and I tried to take it a little easier, but I still had to spend a few (brutally cold) days in Chicago for work. By then, I couldn’t jog to and from work anymore, but I’d usually wake up feeling relatively decent. Thing was, I couldn’t do anything without risking incapacitating exhaustion. Every other day or so, I’d take a flight of stairs too fast and find that I needed to lay down for a half hour. When I finally got frustrated and saw my doctor, she told me that I was within “I’m trying to decide if you need to go to the hospital” range.

There’s a lot more to that story, but that’s another post.

For the time being, I include the details only to illustrate the insane balancing act required for working parents of modest means in 21st century America.

Of course, things could be easier. We could, for instance, pay someone else to raise our infant and toddler during the week. But we’ve run the numbers, and that’s probably incompatible with adequately saving for: 1) retirement, 2) the kids’ college, and/or 3) long-term real estate. In Washington, D.C., even slightly-regulated child care runs well upwards of $20K–$25K per year.

It’s not as though we’re living luxuriously. Our present is reasonably stable; the problem is that our long-term margin for error is pretty much nil.

Don’t get me wrong: between us, my wife and I have five post-secondary degrees. We’re steeped in privilege. We’re straight, married, heterosexual, cis, white, and hyper-educated. Our undergraduate student debt is manageable. Relative to the single mother down the street, our problems are negligible. They’re “problems.”

(Just to be safe: please read that last paragraph again.)

But our “problems” are further evidence that the rungs on the old ladder to the middle class are fragile—where they’re not already broken. If, like me, you come from modest means, you almost certainly know this already. You can climb to college, charge through graduate school, string together a steady diet of 55-hour (or more) workweeks, and still not quite see a path that gets you to stable membership in the middle class families club. Kids make this much more difficult.

There are a lot of things that could help. Reductions in the cost of college? Or (at least) better financial aid supports? Better public retirement benefits for seniors? Spend twice as much on schools in low- and middle-income neighborhoods as we spend on those in rich neighborhoods? Less regressive taxation? Universal Basic Income? The Christian eschaton? Appropriation of all public property? Cloning? Magic?

But let’s be real. There hasn’t been a party—or a sufficiently powerful movement—pushing back on social immobility and resource inequality in the United States for decades. We’ve dissolved much of our public safety net and ignored enormous disparities in how we deliver and distribute educational resources. I’m eager to be wrong about this, but I suspect that broad, structural responses to these problems are some years away (though I do believe that they’re coming).

That’s a cynical way to think about our situation, though. So I’ve been casting around for counterintuitive ways to get at the work + families problem that might be more politically feasible for the time being. Last month, the House and Senate introduced bills that would expand pre-K access for four-year-olds across the country—and the House bill attracted two GOP co-sponsors. Which, as you can imagine, is pretty weird from the get-go.

I noticed that the bill would require states that expand their pre-K to provide a full day of schooling. It occurred to me that this could help ease the pressure on working parents; if children enter the public PreK–12 system at age four, that would cut at least one year of balancing (or juggling?) child care against professional obligations. Right?

Well…not entirely.

The research is far from conclusive. First: the bill would save money for parents who would otherwise use child care. Second: it’s not clear what it would do for parents who would otherwise stay home with their child/children. That appears to vary with the number of weekly hours of pre-K/other early childhood programs provided. This bill would support programs of no less than 25 hours/week, but that isn’t nearly enough to get large numbers of parents back to work.

Disappointing as this was/is, the situation’s not hopeless. There are ample reasons to invest in early childhood education—including expanded parental labor supply. So I wrote up a more comprehensive account at the Daily Beast. Which you can read HERE.

Conor P. Williams on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Education.

Post image used under Creative Commons license. Posted to Flickr by the Kheel Center.
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