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