Education vs. Childcare vs. Public Goods

Education vs. Childcare vs. Public Goods July 10, 2020

One of the early outcries as COVID-19 raged through nursing homes was, “The way we care for our elderly is deplorable!”  Well let me tell you, I am sold on the value of professional nursing care.  I’ve recently been on the front row as a beloved family member has struggled with health problems that we, her extended family, simply are not equipped to adequately treat in the home.  Since she began receiving around-the-clock professional care from a team of competent nursing staff, she’s happier. She feels better.

Would it be even better if our relative could receive this care in her own home?  Probably, though I think the steady flow of new faces is, for her, part of the reason she’s so happy — extroverts don’t do homebound quite so well.  Do I desperately wish that we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic and it were easier for her husband, children, and grandchildren, to visit freely?  Yes I do.  Absolutely. I also recognize that nursing facilities are the most dangerous place for COVID-19, and there are no simple solutions for dealing with that reality.

Now let’s face a fact: Nursing care is expensive.  Insanely expensive.  You just can’t provide skilled professional care for cheap, because every single person from the janitor and the cafeteria staff to the pros with the masters and doctoral degrees all need to live.  They have families of their own to support.  When we were informed that the US government could cover the bill, but only on condition that we forgo any claim to inherit our relative’s modest home? Bargain.  Yes.  Have the house.  If you can keep up the exhausting 24/7 work of providing highly-skilled medical care on a delicate body, so that our relative suffers as little as possible in her final days, months, or years?  House. is. yours.  Please. Take it.


Another thing COVID-19 has caused us to discover as a society is that childcare is work.

For years I’ve quietly blown a gasket every time someone gripes that daycare is expensive. Yes!  It’s expensive! What do you think the people watching your children do at night? Curl up in their pods and hibernate until you need them again in the morning?  My longstanding gripe with a certain strain of feminist (not all) is those who describe childcare and housework as demeaning, mind-numbing labor that women need to be freed from in order to pursue their dreams and finally make something of their lives, and the way this gets done is . . . by paying other women as little as possible to do all that “demeaning” stuff so you can “have it all.”

No.  The people who clean houses and cook meals and care for children are doing good, worthy, necessary work, and they, too, deserve to be able to pay their bills and raise a family on that salary.

And thus we come to our country’s dramatic clash over the re-opening of schools:

  • Dual-income, professional parents need full-time childcare in order to go back to making gobs of money doing glamorous things.  They can pay for a nanny, though, if it comes to it.
  • Dual-income just-getting-by parents need full-time childcare in order to to go back to work, and they cannot pay for a nanny, and cannot simply have one spouse give up a career in order to be a stay-at-home parent because these couples are depending on both incomes.
  • Single parents need full-time childcare in order to go back to work, and although there are some out there making enough money to pay that nanny, most do not.  Widowhood and its analogous kin are miserable, whether it be the result of an actual physical death or some other circumstance that creates similar conditions.

As a society, we’ve used our education system to fill in much of the needed childcare gap.  If you are wondering how single-parents and struggling-parents managed to work through school holidays, children’s illnesses, and summer vacation, the answer is: It’s a battle.  Parents who don’t have a stay-at-home caregiver pay a brutal price on their career prospects.

Because of these harsh economic realities, there is tremendous pressure for schools to open back up, full-time as-per-usual.  Parents need the low-tuition* childcare that schools provide, and to not provide that care is to leave parents in a serious bind.

Catholic social teaching has a different answer, and yes I know when I say it most people will swear it’s preposterous, but here me out below.  There’s another way, and its worth considering.

Just Wages and Loving Marriages

just wage takes into account a wide variety of factors, but comes down to one thing: In a well-ordered society, it should be normal for adults to be able to support a family on a single income.

By normal we don’t mean “only the top 20% of earners” or “only people with advanced degrees.”  By the time an ordinary young man or woman is old enough to get married (call it eighteen or twenty), that person should be able to get a job that will support a young family living frugally.  As the family grows, the adult’s increasing experience and skill and maturity correspond to enough increase in wages to continue to support more children — welcoming additional children to the marriage being the default if-all-goes-well mode of married life.

This doesn’t mean the other spouse “isn’t working”.  The desperate cries for schools to re-open are a reminder that childcare is work.  In fact it is very demanding work.  Just social structures — which it is the role of governments to ensure — are ones which result in married couples, working as a pair, being able to both provide for their family and care for their own children.

–> Very obviously there are situations where both spouses possess such immense skill or civic responsibility that they might reasonably choose to hire someone to provide childcare so that both spouses can devote themselves accordingly, but this is not a norm.  The bulk of the jobs that normal people do simply are not more important than child-rearing.  Other economic work needs to be done, it’s valuable and possesses inherent dignity regardless of how humble or exalted the task, but it isn’t more valuable than childcare.

Loving marriages are the foundational social structure that makes all this work.  Just wages alone don’t create happy homes for rearing children.  By “loving” we don’t mean “perfect” marriages — but we do mean both spouses are committed to a lifetime of trying to be kind to one another, and committed to doing their best to make the marriage pretty good.  This is hard, and it’s not something that one spouse can cause if the other spouse is unwilling. But it is by no means impossible or beyond the reach of all but an elite few.

Can we have just wages and loving marriages right now?

The practical cynic will point out that we already have school systems, but we don’t have enough just wages or loving marriages, and so we have to do what we can.

Well, to certain extent this is true.  I know, for example, that in many states certain jobs’ salaries are mandated by law, and it would take new laws to raise those wages, where needed, to a level adequate to support a family.  Additionally, problems such as exorbitant housing costs in some regions need to be dealt with directly, rather than hoping wage-hikes will somehow make everyone millionaires.  Although the recent court victory upholding pricing transparency for hospital costs is hopeful, we are very, very far from a healthcare system that benefits from the lower costs of free market.

Likewise, we can’t instantly cause every parent to land in a loving marriage by tomorrow afternoon.

We can, however, begin to make these needed changes.  Employers who have the legal right to do so (most) can start paying lower-tier employees better wages.  People who are presently sexually active outside of marriage — even perhaps actively seeking to conceive outside of marriage — can rethink that decision.  Public health campaigns could switch focus from brainstorming ways to enable extra-marital sex to brainstorming ways to enable stronger, healthier marriages.

None of that is quick, easy, or guaranteed to bring us heaven-on-earth.  We will still have widows.  We will still have innocent victims of abusive relationships. We will still have adults who don’t have the capacity to support themselves, let alone a family, even when employers are paying ordinary workers fair wages.

Still, the more loving marriages and adequately-paid jobs our society has, the better we are able to help those who need extra support.

What about the schools?

Using the local public school as a free childcare center has never been a very good solution.  Stark disparities in public school quality indicate this “solution” works out especially badly for students whose families need childcare help the most.

So perhaps, in the face of the present pandemic, what we need to do is re-open schools selectively.  Parents who earn enough to pay for their own childcare and education should do so.  Couples who are able to care for and educate their children at home (or in the home of a friend or family member) should do so.  The reduction in enrollment would allow teachers in high-risk groups to continue staying out of the classroom, perhaps working online to provide skilled assistance to the parents who desire that help.  And then our very best public schools can be opened to only the most vulnerable families, and those families can have a turn getting a good public education for a change.

Sunlight streaming through fog in the New Zealand forest

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.  If you get a chance to send your child to a school that looks like this, do it.

*Public schools these days are rarely free, though they certainly are heavily subsidized, and far cheaper to the parent than private school tuition. All the nickle-and-dime public schooling fees are an annoyance — perhaps even a perk in the form of “extras” they represent — for affluent parents, but are just one more state-mandated tax on the backs of the poor.  And yes, you can literally lose your children for failing to send them to the school the government declares they must attend, for exactly the amount of time and on exactly the days the government declares are mandatory.  We are used to this, but it is an extreme form of coercion, and in the case of unsafe schools, it is outright violence against the children forced to attend.



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