(WOMENSENEWS)—Kristy Umfleet knows both sides of the child care crisis.
With a bachelor’s degree in hand, Umfleet has kept her pre-K teaching job for the past decade at a child care education program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is dedicated to teaching children aged 3 to 5.
Pre-K teachers, she believes, are teaching children skills and values they will sustain throughout their lives. She loves her work because there is more time for free-flowing conversations and interactions than in later years, when teachers face heavier workloads and time constraints.
But passion, she says, “doesn’t pay the bills.”
Umfleet and her husband have two small children and the costs of supporting the family, struggling with accumulated debt and maintaining reliable cars all mean they live paycheck to paycheck. They cannot afford child care so that responsibility falls heavily on Umfleet’s mother.
Umfleet has thought about moving on to elementary school or higher education for higher pay, but so far she has backed out of applying every time. “I know I won’t be happy.”
What if the resolution to this much-talked about child care crisis lies with a low-profile group of thinkers called “care economists?”
Care economists are trying to change the way we think about the provision of caring services for everyone; children, elderly, people with disabilities and people with medical problems. Instead of thinking of these services as a drain, exponents see them as the keys to the economic engine. Invest in human capacity first and economic strength will follow, goes the premise.
A national budget built on the principles of a caring economy would prioritize such things as early care for children, fair pay and increased benefits for workers, high quality and affordable education, sustainable natural resources and a green environment, along with job creation in the business and private sectors.
In a policy proposal to invest in a caring economy, Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign proposes tax relief for families to care for ailing members, implement training programs for care workers, expanding workers’ benefits and allocating more funding for a program that helps caretakers take breaks from work. The campaign also touches upon the often neglected domain of unpaid care, mentioning an estimate of its worth at $470 billion in 2013.
Search Outside the U.S.
These ideas are not new. For a couple decades now care advocates have been searching for models outside the U.S., in Norway, Sweden and France.
In 1989, Clinton joined a delegation on a trip to France to examine the French child care system while she was a lawyer and chair of the Children’s Defense Fund. Following the visit, she wrote a New York Times op-ed article calling for a number of specifics, including better pay for early child care providers such as Umfleet.
“To do our children and our country justice, we need to develop a nationwide consensus on how to best nurture our children, and, through that nurturing, prevent the personal and social costs we all pay when children’s needs are not met,” Clinton wrote years ago.
Some of the social costs of not meeting the care needs of children—or anyone—are paid by those who provide care to family members without any remuneration. For women, the unmet care needs of family members can often mean exiting paid employment, losing income and winding up, as older people, with lower Social Security income.
While much has been written about the problems of caretakers, the national consensus that Clinton called for decades ago has been slow to develop.
For the most part the different principles of caring economists are proceeding piecemeal and on a partisan basis, typically backed by Democrats. Usually the push for the government to take more responsibility for caretaking meets critics on the right rejecting the notion of a “nanny state.”
One sign of broadening support, however, came on Aug. 15, when the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, introduced a concrete proposal for paid parental leave.
A prominent proponent of caring economics is Riane Eisler, an Austrian-born educator, author and speaker who is also the president of the Center for Partnership Studies, based in Pacific Groove, California. Under Eisler’s direction, the center is steadily promoting the ideas of caring economics through awareness efforts.
In 2014 the Center for Partnership Studies also worked with advocates from a number of schools and universities to launch the Social Wealth Economic Indicators, or SWEIs, to show how investment in care programs can build long-term social stability.
According to the launch report, SWEIs aim to show policymakers, social activists and professors the economic value of care work and early childhood education, which are considered pivotal to developing high-quality human capital.
Take child care for example. Authors of the indicators highlight a 35-year study of a Michigan preschool program where participants were “15 percent less likely to commit a violent crime, 20 percent more likely to earn a living wage and 16 percent more likely to have a savings account.”
Forging a National Consensus
Tara Cookson, a specialist in care economy based in Seattle, highlights the need to forge a national consensus about links between generous caregiving policies, a thriving society and a strong economy.
Cookson, who spoke recently by phone, says that would require a lot of public outreach. Discussions, she believes, need to be framed in multiple, multicultural ways to reach people of all ages and backgrounds.
For now, however, the ideas of caring economists are moving piecemeal by individual politicians and campaigns. Overall, the holistic idea of reshaping the national budget around the needs of people such as Umfleet is still far from central national discourse.
And while care economists clamor for more national attention, there may simply not be enough of them to raise the volume. For a week, emails to Eisler, asking about her plans to engage with the 2016 elections, went unanswered.
Perhaps the closest voice to it is that of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his call, during his presidential campaign, for a “national revolution.”
Umfleet, meanwhile, says progress in her particular area of the caring economy begins with change in the long-established stereotypes about care.
“Society has this idea around early childhood that it is not education and more like babysitting, and that is not true,” she says.
As a member of the North Carolina Child Care Coalition in Raleigh, a grassroots organization, Umfleet and others are trying to change that. “In Guilford County, beside wages campaign, we’re working to collaborate with the state and raise awareness that we’re educators, we have degrees and this is education,” Umfleet says.
Umfleet recently joined a press call about a national study of the low wages of early education providers.
She hopes more teachers will come together to make their care narratives widely known at the county, state and even national level. These stories, she believes, will help pull the principles of a caring economy ahead.