The government is punishing some struggling parents, and it will backfire

By Amana Fontanella-Khan
July 28, 2014

RTX11YES.jpg

All parents worry about whether they’re doing a good job, but few would want Uncle Sam’s opinion on the matter.

The parenting skills of Debra Harrell, a single mother from South Carolina, were up for public scrutiny recently after she was arrested for letting her 9 year-old play in a park unattended while she worked her shift at McDonalds.  Harrell was charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail.  Her daughter was temporarily taken into the care of social services and, to top it off, McDonald’s has reportedly fired her. 

Harrell’s arrest provoked a national discussion about whether enough is being done to support families. Some have even gone so far as to accuse the government of “criminalizing parenthood.”

This is troubling for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the United States is on track for the slowest decade of population growth since the 1930s. Last year, there were 62.9 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, a historic low. Yes, the Great Recession has much to answer for, but lack of government support for families is making a difficult situation worse.

Most economists agree that population growth is one of the most important indicators of future economic health. When Standard & Poor’s downgraded Japan’s sovereign debt a few years back, one of the reasons it gave was the country’s low birth rate. Given the gravity of plateauing population growth, punishing struggling parents can only backfire. Harrell chose to have a child at a time when many did not. If anything, she should be rewarded.

There is a solution to the slowdown in America’s population growth and no, it’s not 50 Shades of Grey, the racy bestseller which some hoped would provoke a temporary uptick in fertilityAccording to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, taxpayer-funded childcare is a highly effective way of boosting sluggish birth rates.

Compared with other developed countries, America does very little to support parents with young children. The United States has the least paid maternity leave in the developed world (zero days) and is ranked one notch above former Communist states like Latvia and Lithuania when it comes to child well-being.

Most importantly, childcare is crushingly expensive. In 2013, families below the poverty line spent 30 percent of their monthly income on childcare, compared with 8 percent among families not classified as poor. What’s more, costs are rising. According to the Census Bureau, costs for childcare in families with working mothers rose by more than 70% between 1985 and 2011, when adjusted for inflation. Today, Americans spend between $5,476-$16,549 on childcare, depending on where they live. The typical annual salary at McDonald’s is around $34,200, making affordable childcare out of reach for workers like Harrell.

“Countries that do well on family outcomes devote about half of public spending on family benefits to in-kind services, including quality early childhood care and education services,” the OECD found. They also reported that affordable childcare correlates with greater labor force participation of parents, increased productivity and, you guessed it, happiness.

France, which provides subsidized childcare as well as tax breaks for families, boasts the second-highest birthrate in the European Union after contraception-shy Ireland. The United States does not have to embrace all of the pro-fertility policies that France has in order to see an improvement, though. Increasing affordable childcare would be enough to help ease the pressure on parents significantly.

Affordable childcare would also do much to stem the number of women leaving the workplace to care for their children. According to a 2012 Pew study, the percentage of stay-at-home mothers rose from 24 percent at the turn of the century to 29 percent in 2012. Of course, this is not an option for many mothers, including those raising their children alone, like Harrell. With population growth grinding to a halt, we cannot afford to have healthy adults leave their jobs in order to save on childcare costs.

At a time when many are thinking twice about having a child, it will backfire to if we punish—and not support— struggling parents.

The controversial arrest of Harrell’s compelled some to step in and help her. An online fundraising campaign for Harrell’s legal fees has raised just over $31,745. That’s enough to cover the annual child care of around 6 children in the state of South Carolina. 

Now, who is going to pick up the tab for the rest of America’s parents?

PHOTO: Germany is one of many European countries that provides at least some financial support for childcare. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

10 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

“All parents worry about whether they’re doing a good job”. No, that’s not true. Most care only that their children accept the same slavery as they (the parents) have.

Population growth is completely unnecessary, except for political, religious and corporate leaders, who need more victims to manipulate and use to generate more wealth and power for themselves.

Most parents do a horrible job of allowing their children to be brainwashed by television and video games and religion and politics. They are just creating a culture of followers.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

This is great – we can’t even help the native American population take care of its own kids and we are going to let all the non-native come across the border. Yes – makes perfect sense to me…. NOT.

Posted by Subwavelength | Report as abusive

Whatever happened to the extended family where the grandparents took care of the kids while the parents went to work? In fact, whatever happened to the two parent family? This news article starts with the case of a single parent mother. Maybe the thing that needs correcting is the social breakdown?

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

the break down of the family which has been a long time coming will lead to a break down of society

Posted by agentinsure | Report as abusive

If those are to blame the family break down, and that of the extended family, let us blame corporations, transportation, and easy access to mobility throughout America and the world.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

If those are to blame the family break down, and that of the extended family, let us blame corporations, transportation, and easy access to mobility throughout America and the world.

I am the oldest of seven, and we are all over the country.

This is a new age that community support is necessary

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Why does government have to constantly give support to families who cannot afford their children? Having a child is a choice, not a command. Brotherkenny4 is absolutely correct. I will add that, even though the US may have experienced a record low birth rate for the past several years(who knows for sure because government records are always skewed), they are bringing in illegal aliens by the tens of thousands. Surely, that will make up the difference and the politicians will be happy because they know they have assured the power of their political party for the future. And, we will support them, too. So what parents are really doing is acting irresponsibly by not supporting their own children and expecting the rest of the community to their job for them.

Posted by alwayslearning | Report as abusive

Ex-spouses defaulting on child support payments should be mentioned here. It’s always the mother who is to blame. First for getting pregnant, then for being poor. I never read where the father is, and whether or not he’s keeping up with child support.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

As a UK citizen well aware that this country is not perfect I still pity everyone who lives in the USA. They just don’t seem to care about foundations, what is society built on?

Posted by lizmw | Report as abusive

A strong society is built upon strong morals and responsible behavior.

It is not responsible to go out and get pregnant leaving yourself unable to care for yourself or your child.

It’s not ok for the government to be helping with child care – who in the world would want their child raised by a bureacracy?

Population growth for growth sake is ridiculous. There are too many people in this world already.

If you want a child – you better be ready and able to raise that child. If not – you should wait or you are in for a lot of pain.

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive