May 10, 2023

Trapped in the Low-Wage Cycle: A Shot at Building a Better Life

Trapped in the Low-Wage Cycle: A Shot at Building a Better Life

How far does $10.22/hour go in the US?

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I’m so proud of the work the team did to develop and produce this episode. Typical personal finance advice works particularly well for people in a certain position (with good salaries, education, or inheritances), but it’s mostly useless if you’re not earning enough to make ends meet. To make matters more complex, the way some government assistance programs currently work can paradoxically make it harder to get ahead in the long term.

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Katie:Welcome back toThe Money with Katie Show, Rich Girls and Boys. I am your host, Katie Gatti Tassin. According to a recent study from Oxfam America, an anti-poverty advocacy group, 52 million Americans, which represents one-third of the American workforce, earn less than $15 per hour. Annualized, if you work 40 hours per week all year long, you don't take any breaks, no days off, that's a salary of around $31,000. 13 million of these low-wage workers are raising children on these wages.

That is to say, 33% of the American workforce earns wages that put them around the poverty line, and this group is disproportionately women and disproportionately non-white. When the pandemic laid bare the fact that our economy functioned on the backbone of a low-wage workforce, aka the essential workers, a truth that had been known to this workforce all along, it became difficult to ignore the irony of those labeled “essential” being the lowest-paid among us. 

If price equals value, the thinking goes, we can rationalize whom we pay very little, and whom we pay extravagantly. Covid made it clear that our economic system’s quantification of value was not only distorted, but that it had much farther-reaching impacts that we are still figuring out today. Moreover, it took a hacksaw to the already-wobbly scaffolding of our childcare system—yes, “system” is in air quotes—here in the United States, and women's workforce participation dropped to 57%—which is the lowest rate since 1988—nearly overnight, undoing 33 years of progress in just mere months. Care work, another almost entirely female occupation—97% of US childcare workers are women—was thrust into the spotlight as it became nearly impossible to secure. According to the Center for American Progress, 51% of people in the US live in a childcare desert, which is defined by a census tract with more than 50 children under age five that contains either no childcare providers, or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed childcare slots.

For many professional women that were raising a family, this was a major career setback, and that was the part of the story that most of us, me included, focused on. The other half of this story, the low-wage workers who provide society's most essential service—care—largely went ignored, but I'd argue you can trace most of our other problems back to the lack of socioeconomic advancement for that one third of our country. 

It's important to me to cover this topic for a few reasons. First, the stories and situations we're gonna dig into today are unnervingly common in the United States, when we consider nearly one in three Americans have a lived experience that mirrors what we're gonna discuss today. Secondly, I grew up with immense socioeconomic privilege. I had two college-educated, married parents. My dad earned enough money that my mom could leave her job when I was young, to focus on me. I was sent to private schools. I was nurtured intensely with parental attention and resources. And I like to think of myself as hardworking, but my success as an adult is inextricable from the upbringing that I benefited from, one where school always came first and I never once worried if there would be food on the table. I benefited from a positive cycle. We'll be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode.

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Katie:Today I'm joined by the authors ofGetting Me Cheap: How Low Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty, Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dodson, whose research formed the basis for today's episode. And it feels important to start from the beginning, so to speak, and just pose the question: How do people, commonly women, end up trapped in a low-wage cycle with little opportunity for educational advancement?

Lisa and Amanda interviewed 250 low-income mothers across the country over a 10-year span in order to understand, and a clear pattern emerged. To quote Lisa and Amanda in their book, “Many of the women we interviewed who worked in low-wage retail service and care occupations traced a path that began in a working-poor family and led to a no-future job.” End quote. Many of these women in low-wage, dead-end work came from similar backgrounds. They became responsible for taking care of younger family members very early in life. Their own development and advancement took a back seat to meeting the basic needs of their struggling families.

And one particular story really stuck out to me as especially powerful. Here's Amanda and Lisa on one young woman they met, named Alania. 

Lisa Dodson:I was interviewing her because she's a family childcare provider. I did it during Covid and we were talking to people who are providing childcare in that, you know, really extreme situation and she then mentioned, almost as a throwaway comment, she mentioned the fact that she had become a childcare provider because she had decided she had to switch from being a medical technologist, actually an ultrasound tech, because there were children in her family she needed to take care of.

And you know, when I pursued that point a little, she actually then said the children that she took in were actually, it was the child of her brother. And then she said, because she'd adopted her brother when he was 14. And then she mentioned, “and my sister too, who was 12.” And I said, how old were you when you adopted your brother and sister? And she was 19 at the time, and she didn't go into detail, but she said there was no one else; there was no one else to do it. And so she stepped up and she had taken care of her younger siblings working and going to school and wanting to become a medical technologist.

Katie:Lisa explained the way Alania recounted these events as though they were common, that she adopted her two teenage siblings when she was a teenager herself because nobody else in her family could take care of them. And then her responsibilities multiplied. 

Lisa Dodson:A couple years later, her brother actually had a baby with his girlfriend and they couldn't take care of the baby, who had a chronic illness. And so she had finished school, Alania had…she was a medical technologist. By the way, they make about $60,000 or $70,000 a year. She then took all these courses in order to open up a family daycare provider to put her nephew, her brother's baby, in, and actually ultimately some other children in the family. And you make about $30,000 a year doing that. But she had just come to the conclusion that there was no other way to protect her family. We don't provide childcare for all children who need it. So she couldn't turn to a kind of childcare for all, like school, public school. And she decided that even though she wanted to pursue another dream, this was what she needed to do to take care of the people who she felt this deep sense of obligation and love, and loved them. 

Amanda Freeman:Many of the women in our book that we spoke to turned to at-home childcare, not because it was their passion, not because it was what they were trying to pursue for a career, but just because outside childcare is so very expensive. And a few of them had talked about trying to get a job in a childcare center. I mean, nationally, the average wage for a childcare worker is between $12 and $13. And so they would go to inquire about a job and many of these places, we didn't have any of them that were gonna take their kids for a cost that they could afford. 

Katie:To put a finer point on it, in many of the cases that the authors uncovered in their research, the women had to drop out of school and therefore could not attend college becausetheyhad single mothers and they needed to participate in care work for the family, or immediately begin earning money to help their parent pay the bills. Lisa and Amanda noticed this theme in their interviews, that it was quite common for these children to be significant caregivers, spending some or much of their youth either caring for younger siblings or being cared for by older siblings.

Another interesting pattern emerged: The care work within a poor family was gendered. It became clear throughout their interviews that it often fell disproportionately on the female children. I asked them about how often they noticed this and the role this played in these girls' outcomes as they became women. 

Amanda:As a professor, I talked to my Sociology of the Family class about how, if you think about it, care work has been in the sphere of the family, this private sphere, especially in the United States where it had no value, right? It's seen as being free. And so when we take it out, we don't value it as much. And we still see this today, right? So if you think about all these care jobs in terms of, counseling, home health aide, elder care, childcare, really marginalized and low-paying positions, even though I think most of us would say care for our children, care for our parents, this is the most important labor for us. So there's a real disconnect there. And for the women that we spoke with, it's everything. So motherhood was really central to all of them. Globally, we know women are doing 78% of all care work, right? So that's like in communities, not just parenting, but taking care of community members, parents; it includes work around the house.

The not valuing of care is actually at the center of the problem for the women that we spoke with. And unless we address that, I don't really think we're gonna get anywhere. 

Lisa:Yeah, and I think it's also really important to remember that when some care work began to go into the market and there always was some that was paid for, especially with more affluent families, but as more and more women entered the workforce and needed to have that labor substituted, disproportionately not only is it very gendered and invisible, but disproportionately it was women of color who ended up being hired to substitute. And that continues to be true today in terms of those care jobs that Amanda was talking about. You know, elder care, home care, the lowest-paid people in nursing home care, and then childcare and domestic labor in general. Altogether we're talking about millions and millions of jobs that really support the ability of the rest of us to do all the things that we need to do. And I think between gender and then really a way that this labor has been really racialized and that means that on both accounts it has just not gotten the attention it should. And you know, I also wanna add that it's often referred to as “unskilled.” That's the way they rationalize paying people literally poverty wages. 

Katie:This is a feminist issue that takes a back seat in the current women's rights movement, despite the evidence that early family demands are a predominant force shaping outcomes for young women. Amanda and Lisa's book says, “This working-class girl's life has captured much less attention than has the plight of higher-income, largely white girls whose well-documented struggles with self-esteem, body image, gender roles, and agency have dominated research on girls’ empowerment and gender equity.” End quote. 

And let me tell you, this is completely consistent with my own blind spots. Having your basic human needs met did not strike me as a particularly feminist charge until I understood the extent to which the low-wage workforce is really ensnaring for women, about half of whom are mothers. There wasn't much coverage during the pandemic of the way many of the low-wage female workers who worked as nannies often had to leave their own children behind during the day. In the belittling of care work in general, whether it's performed by a wealthy stay-at-home mom or a low-wage care worker who is almost always going to be female, contributes to the misguided view that this work is not valuable. The authors interviewed a woman named Jessie who performed care work for a wealthier family across town, and they said, quote, “Jessie's observation that women who stay home with their children are seen by many as doing nothing reflects the cultural denigration of gendered care work. Trivializing this labor that holds families and communities intact and functioning impacts society at all levels. But there's a profound difference between the lives of wealthy and poor mothers when staying home.” End quote. 

It's a bit of a catch 22. This is where I've heard a common line of suspicious questioning in the past that, hey, if the work's so bad, why don't you go do something else? Why don't you go to college? Why don't you get a better job? And over the 10 years that Lisa and Amanda interviewed and kept up with these women, it's true that they didn't meet any mothers who had moved out of the low-wage labor market without more educational attainment, certification, or job training. But it's not as simple as merely working more or pursuing more education, for two key reasons. The primary limiting factor many of these single mothers faced was childcare.

Lisa and Amanda heard story after story of the bureaucratic nightmare that is certification for childcare subsidies, because their wages, even while working full-time at an average of $10 an hour, are not high enough to pay for childcare so they can work. These women require government assistance, which comes with a host of regulations and rules about employment that require them to be consistently re-certified. 

Amanda:Many of the programs require you to have employment first. And Lisa and I uncovered a lot of the moms just saying, you know, listen, the job wants me to have childcare first. The childcare subsidy wants me to have a job first. So how does that really work out? It's generally a difficult process to apply and to also continue keeping your subsidy. Sometimes various states count some school as work, but you have to get that signed off on and verified, so it's very easy to get bumped out. We met several moms who had a childcare subsidy and then lost it. One mom in particular had gotten into nursing school, which we all know, it's very difficult to get a spot in a program. She had a spot for her child in daycare. So everybody has difficulty, or many American families have difficulty getting a spot in a daycare center. Subsidized spots are even more limited. And then she got the call that she had lost her subsidy because she hadn't submitted some verification paperwork. I remember this mom in particular was very organized, and I remember thinking at the time, much more so than myself, and she had kept copies of everything. And so through the nonprofit organization that we were working with, she was referred to a legal aid attorney and that legal aid attorney eventually did help her to get the subsidy reinstated, because it was in fact their mistake and not hers. But she lost a whole semester of school. So you know, the subsidy went away, and that can be really demoralizing, and what if you can't hold your spot in the program? So I think that's an example. But yes, almost all the women who had childcare subsidies reported some kind of problems using them. 

Katie:This woman's story was not unique. And Lisa pointed out another commonality between the low-wage workers that they interviewed. 

Lisa:We were amazed at the tenacity of so many of the moms we interviewed to go back to school, to try…some were trying in an apprenticeship program to become electricians or to become…and I don't think I interviewed a single woman that it was her first try. It was always the second, the third, the fourth. I think one woman I interviewed, it was her sixth effort to get through a college program to get a degree. And largely the issue would be these regulations weresonot about supporting that progress. They were about regulating, making sure you're not getting away with anything. You know, are you getting away with a support you shouldn't be getting? Are you getting too many hours of childcare? You know, if you're only doing these many hours of school and these many hours of work. The whole philosophy or the approach that we just hear again and again and again is trying to sort of like, “Gotcha! We caught you, and now we're gonna pull it away.” And they did. They lost again and again. We heard these stories of women losing their childcare or losing their opportunity to go to college.

Katie:In many cases, these working mothers were required to provide proof of at least 20 hours per week of paid labor to qualify. That often meant women who were attempting to work while getting a degree and taking care of their kids were sleeping as little as four hours per night and piecing together convoluted care arrangements. Since most daycare centers don't provide care in the evenings or overnight, when many of these women were working their second jobs, and as any working parent can tell you, childcare is often not something that you can buy a la carte. You have to pay a full rate regardless of how much you're using it, in order to keep your spot. Because low-wage work is often characterized by unpredictability and last-minute scheduling, a mother might secure and pay for childcare that she can't use.

Lisa and Amanda met women who left their kids in situations that were potentially unsafe because they didn't have any other options. If they wanted to be able to go to work, it was either that or go without pay and get evicted. We'll be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode. 

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Katie:Another common line of questioning Amanda and Lisa said they frequently encounter from critics of their work is, well, why would you bring a child into a situation when you don't have any money? I wanted to know what they thought about this, as they knew 250 low-income mothers who were struggling to get by. 

Lisa:The women we've talked to, you know, for years, the reasons that they wanted to have a child are the reasons everybody who decides they wanna have a child, you know, that that's part of their dream about their lives. All of the women we've spoken to, they had this idea if they worked really hard, if they were very committed, if they went back to school, if they did their jobs well, that they would make some progress. And that those dreams were above all for their children, the future of their children. So it's a very typical kind of thinking that is part of the narrative of our country is that if you do those things, you will move forward and your life will get better.

So I think the sort of common ground I'd like to just claim, rather than do what traditionally happens a lot for poor women, particularly poor women of color, is that their decisions are somehow different. That there's something non-normative about those dreams and desires. Most of the women we talk to are very connected with their families, family life, and their children is very much a part of their identity. Also, you know, dreams they had for work as well, and jobs and careers. “Why would you have a child under these circumstances? I mean, why would you do that?” And you know, I like to really interrogate the question, too. It's kind of like, so you're saying that, given we pay people poverty wages in this country who are doing these incredibly important jobs we all rely upon, and given we don't provide childcare, I mean most nations all around the world do, the question is suggesting that given that we're treating these structural issues, we're treating people this way, they should also just submit to, “Okay, I can't have children either?”  And the issue is really how we're treating these working parents. We have that tendency to wanna turn something into an individual choice matter. 

Katie:In other words, we treat trying to support children while making minimum wage like it's a personal failing or an individual choice gone wrong. But what we ignore when we pass that judgment is the fact that when one third of American laborers find themselves in this position, something of this magnitude is the result of large-scale systems and policy choices. Not 13 million Americans individually failing, even if personal or individual problems exacerbate their circumstances. 

Lisa:The low-income women we spoke with run into enormous problems. I mean, certainly some relationships ended, jobs that they thought were gonna continue didn't. But the main problem that they ran into throughout their lives and in terms of being moms was that they make poverty wages, and we don't provide them with the supports to help them keep their families healthy and safe. 

Katie:The other key reason is something known as the “benefits cliff.” Many of these low-wage workers subsisting on less than $20,000 per year receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP, for food. They receive childcare subsidies and rent assistance, but the thresholds for receiving such help have sharp cutoffs. Quote fromGetting Me Cheap: “If you cross an income eligibility line, it's like dominoes, they said. First, losing eligibility for subsidized childcare, for example, and then losing employment because you can't leave kids alone. And then worst of all, with no pay, facing the nightmare of eviction. Here's a clip from the Netflix seriesMaidthat encapsulates this well. 

Maid: “Still 42 on the list.” “No movement at all? Why the fuck does this county even offer Section 8 if it's a mythical unicorn that nobody ever gets?” “Well, wait lists are longer than usual right now. There's unprecedented homeless numbers.” “We need somewhere to live.” “We were lucky to get you into that last apartment.” “I'm on seven different types of government assistance right now and I'm working the maximum hours I can work without getting my benefits cut. But after food and gas and daycare copay, we have a total of $9 extra every week. That's a box of tampons. How am I ever supposed to afford rent, even subsidized rent, with $9 extra every week? How is this assistance assisting me?” 

Katie:Some women that Lisa and Amanda spoke with had to turn down raises because it would've nudged them over the income line. And a small wage increase meant a far larger loss in the form of childcare or food aid. One woman told the story of being offered a raise that would increase her income by $50 per month, but if she were to accept it, she'd lose $300 in SNAP benefits. They detailed the shame that accompanied such a situation. One woman said, “It makes you seem like you want to stay on welfare.” But for many, it's just a simple cost/benefit analysis. “If I take a $50 raise, I can't feed my kids.” Obviously that's not a course of action that most people with hungry kids are gonna choose. Plus, when you're working a low-wage job, you have very little choice in when and how you earn. 

Lisa:One of the things we really found, not only lack of money, lack of wages, and also lack of childcare, but employers are really free to schedule work for low-wage workers, kind of any way they want. And these are often in jobs where women have no paid time off. So you can be called while you're at work; the employer can come to you and say, “You have to stay another shift,” and you have two little kids at home and you barely scraped together some way for them to be watched for shift number one. 

Katie:Most of us, if we were asked to come in and work longer hours when we didn't have childcare or we had a medical issue, would be able to take time off, whether paid or unpaid. Low-wage workers do not have the same negotiating power. Saying no could mean losing your employment, which sets off a domino effect of losing subsidies and benefits that rely on said employment for recertification. Moreover, if you're working multiple part-time jobs to cobble together your income, it often zaps your leverage at any one employer who may not be able to offer you enough hours. 

Amanda:A lot of the women were negotiating multiple part-time jobs, and I think that happens because they're moms, right? So maybe you have one job early in the day before the kids get off the bus, and maybe you live with a roommate so you can work a late-night job, but usually they're not the same job. When you're trying to get benefits from your employer or you'd be interested in qualifying for them, that's going to work against you also. So we heard from many moms who were juggling more than one employer. And then I think that also if somebody is sick and you have to call out, it's kind of dealing with all these different systems. Something Lisa and I have been hearing lately is like, well, aren't there so many jobs now? And I think the thing to point out is just that they're crappy jobs. So yes, maybe it's easier to get another crappy job, but just-in-time scheduling, non-traditional hours, lack of benefits. I remember one mom saying to me—I was kind of going through and asking if she had sick time, parental leave. And she said, “If there was a job like that, I would never leave it. No, of course I don't have any of those things, and if you could sign me up, I would not leave that job.” 

Katie:Another woman noted that her share of the rent was $598 per month, and if her ability to pay went up to $599, the entire subsidy would be taken away. She said, “Just because I can now afford to pay $599 doesn't mean I can afford a $1,500-a-month apartment.” 

Amanda and Lisa astutely captured the crux of the issue as the system is designed today. Quote: “Small gains that could gradually stabilize a family become grounds for pulling out the rug.” End quote. I asked them what the biggest overarching issues are when the systems that are supposedly supporting families serve to disincentivize them from making incremental progress. 

Lisa:My first approach to thinking about how we provide assistance to families, security for families so that they can thrive, so that the kids in them can thrive and become the people they long to become. I think that we have to think about, what does it take to take care of a family? What does it cost? What kind of time? And start from there. And then look at the different ways we either raise wages or provide better wages and subsidies. Look at it as how we are investing in our families and our future people. The way that we've been looking at it is different programs that are often siloed. They're very separate, and moms have to negotiate with each one of those. And also the way that public assistance for low-income families in this country has always been treated with that whole kind of mythology of the welfare queen who's trying to get away with getting all of this assistance. Even when you ever add up how much any poor woman actually was getting out of public assistance, it would be an amount of money nobody would wanna live on raising kids. But that mythology was very powerful, and we see it as very much a part of how these benefits cliffs are treated. It's a constant policing that we would never do with other people. You know, we don't do it with Social Security; we don't police people because they get Social Security. “How are you behaving? How are you spending that money?” So that benefits cliff, it is an approach to punishing people or regulating people in a way that we minimize anything that they could get, as opposed to investing in their security and investing in the security of the family.

Katie:One such time in recent history when regulations were loosened was during the outbreak of the pandemic. So programs like SNAP and child tax credits were expanded to help form a safety net for the most vulnerable. 

Lisa:We saw some of the impact of that moving away from a cliff effect, benefits being on the cliff all the time for people. And we moved into this investment, and child poverty went down during that period. We saw some actual measurements of improvements, but over the last year we've been clawing back those, we've been yanking those back, you know, child tax credit and now the SNAP program, the food assistance programs are being, once again, even school lunch programs were cut back. In the past year we've seen this cutback and a kind of reversion, you know, moving back to that cliff effect, that highly regulated disincentive, as you say, for people to try to increase their income a little bit because of the losses they take. So what we see is there has to be a real shift, and we have to look at public assistance as an investment in our families, which of course means an investment in our communities. It's an investment in ourselves. And that was happening a little bit under Covid. And that's part of what we're really focusing on, is can we expand those, can we continue those, universal childcare being the most important thing of all.

Amanda:We saw a lot of issues in terms of welfare benefits, in siloed approaches. So I think one of them in the book the people have brought up is, you know, moms being scheduled to, if they wanna receive cash assistance, they have to be in one part of the city to attend this mandatory meeting, which is at the same time as the child subsidy meeting across town. So I think there's not a lot of working together in terms of these government agencies, which makes almost no sense because they're serving the same families. And something similar happens in terms of even nonprofits, government agencies serving kids versus serving the parents.

So really just the need, or we would say, I think the call for these different organizations and even parts of the state government to work together in service of these families and not being crazy-making, which is really what it is. If you're told, okay, in order to get TANA, you have to be here; in order to get childcare subsidy, you have to be here,” and having to make that kind of impossible choice.
Katie:And this is what hustle rhetoric ignores, right? There are many impossible choices when your resources are so limited. The idea that people who are poor just don't want to do better for themselves or that they aren't working hard enough, when many of the women Amanda and Lisa spoke with were working so much, they were barely sleeping. If working hard was all it took to get rich, the majority of single mothers in America would be the richest people among us. So what do we do about it? 

I tried to imagine an alternate version of my own life, putting myself in their shoes. What would I have done if I was raising a child or a younger sibling and had to drop out of high school to help my mom, and then found myself in the same situation, through really no fault of my own? Amanda and Lisa did unearth a few bright spots of models for measures that can help. The first was Julie's Family Learning Program in South Boston. This center is designed to meet the needs of mom and child together. So it's a total care family approach that provides basic adult education, job and college counseling, tutoring for moms and kids, family counseling, and infant and toddler childcare with a Montessori preschool on site. This type of program helps break the cycle. It provides a way out. Julie's was founded in the 1970s by two Sisters of Notre Dame, and as a graduate from Notre Dame Academy, also headed up by Sisters of Notre Dame, I fist pumped at this finding, and it was a fan favorite of a lot of the women that they talk to. Here's a testimonial from their site. “Julie's helps me with budgeting, building my credit, and managing my daughter. This is the place you need to be. If you wanna better yourself for your family, you can work at your own pace. They don't judge; they have your back.” 

This successful model could be the basis for many more programs across the country, as it helps women lift themselves and their families out of poverty by providing them with the resources they need. The need for investment both at the public and private level in programs like these is huge. So we'll put a link in the show notes to donate to programs like Julie's. 

And it probably goes without saying, but it's worth examining why workers who labor for the largest, most profitable companies in America are being paid $10 an hour. Because if a government subsidy has to fill in the gaps so Walmart workers can afford to feed and shelter themselves, our tax dollars are subsidizing Walmart's profits. 

A study inGetting Me Cheapnoted that Kroger's profits during the pandemic soared. Its CEO got a pay bump that increased his annual income to more than $20 million. But a survey of the company's more than 10,000 frontline employees found that 75% of them have experienced food insecurity, and 14% had experienced recent homelessness. It's not right, and it needs to be rectified.

So what about another example, this time of a public policy measure. In 2020, a ballot measure in Multnomah County, Oregon, approved a 1.5% personal income tax on incomes above $125k for single filers and $200k for joint filers, and an additional one and a half percent on taxable incomes over $250k for individuals and $400k for joint filers. The tax then established a tuition-free preschool program. The program Preschool for All gives three- and four-year-olds in the county access to free, high-quality, developmentally appropriate education and childcare. The program is slated to grow over time, so it's gonna increase the number of children and families that it serves each year. And it allowed all families in Multnomah County to apply, though families who currently have the least access to high-quality preschool were prioritized for the first available slots. 

This is another example of leveling the playing field between children who come from working poor families and those who come from affluence. It not only gives their parents a chance to find meaningful employment without the stress of securing childcare subsidies for sometimes unreliable or unsafe care, but it also gives the kids a leg up early in life so their education gets off on the right foot, which makes a huge difference in their long-term development. According to Amanda and Lisa, this measure had widespread support in Multnomah County, as everyone recognized the importance of early childhood education and development.

According to The Oregonian, “Extensive research has shown children who attend pre-kindergarten have greater academic, health, and socioeconomic outcomes than children who don't take part. Preschoolers receive early exposure to reading and social-emotional learning, and are more likely to get help for developmental delays, best addressed early in a child's life.” 

Almost ironically, as the program was supposed to begin in late 2022, I checked to see if there were any updates in the Oregon papers about how it was going. And it turns out that about a third of the students who are supposed to benefit have not been able to, due to staffing shortages. And this highlights the interconnectedness of all of these issues. When childcare workers and early educators make poverty wages, it is very difficult to find said laborers. The article noted, however, that for the children who have been able to take part, the results have been “immersive, joyful, and brain-building.” We did a little bit of a deeper dive onto the Preschool for All program on the blog this week, so we will link that in at the show notes. 

And of course, there was a close call in Congress. President Biden attempted to include unprecedented funding for low- and middle-income children to access early childhood education in 2021, but the funding was stripped from the Inflation Reduction Act before it was passed. We're gonna link the full 27-page Department of Treasury report in the show notes if you need some light reading. But this part feels important to include: “The childcare plan will cut spending in half for most American families so that families do not have to spend more than 7% of their income on childcare for young children by creating subsidized care and extending the expanded child independent care tax credit.” That's what it was intended to provide. And public spending on childcare has twofold benefits. For starters, it allows parents of young children to productively contribute to the economy and make a solid living for themselves. And second, it ensures young children have the best shot at equal opportunity education, especially if they're already part of a hard-to-break cycle like Alania and the women like her.

The Treasury report also said, “A well-funded childcare sector will help us all achieve more of our economic potential.” End quote. Because as we've noted on this show before, the private market doesn't do a great job of providing childcare, as it's a bit of an economic conundrum: It costs more to provide than the vast majority of its consumers can bear to pay. And we see this borne out in workforce participation rates for prime aged working women dropping or staying flat since 2000, while other countries in the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, continued rising. Men in the United States experienced a similar drop in labor force participation relative to other countries. Quote: “Even for parents who remain in the labor force, many choose to reduce their hours, in some cases out of necessity because they lack full-time childcare. One third of working mothers and one quarter of working fathers reported that they needed to reduce their work hours.” So even if you're like, “Hey, I don't give a shit about poor people or their kids,” the point is, it's bad for everyone because it hurts the entire economy. I asked Amanda and Lisa for their final take on what needs to change. 

Amanda:Lisa and I have been talking more about…because we've heard, which is encouraging from a lot of people talking about the book, that they feel called to action but are unsure what to do. So we've been talking on these three levels, like individual level, then workplace, and then policy. So on the individual level, does someone help with childcare? Does someone help with domestic work? How do you pay them? How do you handle days off if you are sick, if they're sick? This came up also during Covid, of course. So really trying to think about the treatment of domestic workers. 

And then also shifting out to where you work. What are policies like for childcare, for parental leave, and how do they affect different people in your workplace? Like at the university where I teach, staff are eligible for different parental leave than faculty. So is there activism around that, kind of calling for fair treatment for all moms, or similar benefit packages for all moms. And I find even the awareness-raising of that, I think a lot of people, and I know that a lot of faculty just didn't know, so taking the extra step to find that out. Or Lisa was saying, if you send your child to a childcare center and you might feel like it's overwhelmingly expensive, what are the workers paid at that center? And maybe if you're shopping around, how is that different than in other places? What is the differential between the tuition or what they charge you, and then what the workers…what is their take-home pay?

And then we talked about some of the policy level, but certainly supporting public policies like universal childcare, paid parental leave, and with a close eye to how they impact childcare workers. 

Lisa:And I think a big umbrella for everything Amanda is saying is that this should be something we're talking about. There is a lot of silence on this. Many, many people, and particularly, we talk with women who are not poor, who are not working poor, it's not a conversation that's out there. Like how much of our lives actually is supported by the labor of other women who are struggling to feed their kids. And I think most of us are not happy to imagine that, because the things that many women, many of us have struggled in our own lives, to manage our lives, to move, to get some security to perhaps raise children. It's happening for other women, but it's much, much harder. And unless there's a kind of a sense of collective action, you know, that we need to work together. We need to stand up for her, not only ourselves, who do perhaps have a little bit more economically or professionally. We have a little more leverage. We need to share that leverage. 

Katie:And, dear audience, we can disagree about the best ways to solve these problems, but I think it's important that we're unified in our agreement that it's a problem worth solving. It's a feminist issue, it's a human rights issue, it's a socioeconomic issue that ultimately impacts everyone in our society, to some degree. Lisa, Amanda, and I were chatting after the interview ended about how it's kind of unbelievable that people have even been able to make the current state of affairs work to the extent that they have so far, because it's so obviously unsustainable and not a reasonable or acceptable situation for anyone to be in. In the richest country in the world, we can and should do better, because we can't all move to Norway.

Amanda:It is my hope, always trying to end on a hopeful note, that the disruption in the labor market caused by Covid makes employers create positions that are more sustainable, so that are better jobs, maybe with a pathway to college and a pathway to benefits that can accommodate parents. 

Katie:All right, y'all, that's all for this week. I will see you next week, same time, same place, onThe Money with Katie Show. Our show is a production of Morning Brew and is produced by Henah Velez and me, Katie Gatti Tassin, with our audio engineering and sound design from Nick Torres. Devin Emery is our chief content officer and additional fact checking comes from Kate Brandt.