Private Cost, Public Gain
The U.S. spends very little public money on children, and a great deal of public money on older people. The reason for this has to do with our cultural attitudes towards privacy and the belief that raising children happens almost exclusively within the family. While that was likely true decades ago, most children now spend significant time in the care of other adults besides their parents because their parents need to support the family. I didn't start school until kindergarten. In contrast, the children in my neighborhood are in full day pre-K, regular pre-school or child care programs, while their parents are engaged in a range of full-time, part-time, telecommuting, or variable shift work.
All this change, however, is not reflected in our public spending, which is why child care costs more than college and women are paid less and work fewer years than men. The effects of our national spending are felt across our life spans, too. As Nancy Folbre writes recently in the New York Times Economix blog:
"Parents continue to bear most of the costs of rearing the next generation, while the elderly reap significant benefits — whether they have helped raise children or not. Children grow up to become working-age adults paying the taxes that help finance Social Security and Medicare."
There is something out of kilter when public investment in the early stages of life is so meager, and its long-term benefits could be so great. Think about Social Security and Medicare which are absolutely necessary and worthwhile federal programs. Without them, families would be supporting their parents and older relatives in addition to themselves and their children. If we had the foresight to address the issues of aging, why don’t we do the same for the early years of life? The lack of public investment in children and their care is felt by the children, certainly, and by their families. Also, it impacts on women much more than men, as women disproportionately cut their own earning power and future economic security to take care of the immediate needs of their children.
So, we can decide when our sons and daughters are ready for school, and where we want them to be looked after and by whom, and that is a good thing. But if we continue to limit child care to only those who can privately pay, and refuse to invest collectively in our children and their potential, we will continue to perpetuate mothers' economic dependency as well. Where is the public gain in that?
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