The Book Club

The Economic Value of Child-Rearing

Dear Barbara,

Well, now I feel bad that I raised all those questions in my last entry. It preempted your discussion of child-centered liberalism, which I was truly looking forward to reading. (And picking up on your other comment, I am also feeling just a tad guilty over all my criticisms of the Deutsch book, which, for all of its flaws, does make several important contributions to our understanding of how more equitable parenting can work.)

One topic I hope you will cover in your discussion of child-liberalism is society’s failure to recognize the economic value of child-rearing, long one of my pet obsessions. While I understand how the market dynamics in this area work, I remain mystified by the fact that we pay caregivers (whether you’re talking about day care workers or schoolteachers) so poorly. The good news is that this is one area in which the government can make a difference. Government can set a higher minimum wage, which would exert some upward pressure on the wages of day-care workers. (And if the AFL-CIO can exert some upward pressure on the Republican Congress in the next few months, it could actually happen.) Government can also find ways to subsidize salaries for people who work with children. I know that one state (was it Massachusetts?) recently had great success with a program to offer one-time “signing bonuses” to new teachers. Why not do the same for day-care workers, perhaps coupled with tighter quality regulation of day care generally? And, finally, government can improve living standards for those who are really struggling, through programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, thus giving these people some of the flexibility that others enjoy–and creating opportunities for more children to spend more time with their parents.

I know, I know, I’m starting to sound awfully preachy. And rest assured I’m not looking for government to solve all of the problems on our plate in this forum. A more activist state can help on the economics of the situation, but as I think we both realize, the devaluation of child-rearing is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon.

I know that a lot of people trace our trouble back to the individualist ethos of the ‘60s. (And, unless I’m mistaken, that describes your position, too, with certain important caveats.) Well, I’ll concede the ‘60s helped the process along. But it’s easy to overlook the positive effects of ‘60s individualism, as well, particularly when it comes to the broad conceptions of women’s role in society. One unfortunate (if not always intended) effect of the Tender Years era was that it turned women into parenting machines who were merely tools in a process–in effect, the culture devalued them. The reaction to this was bound to overreach. Doesn’t it always happen that way? Yet while I’m not particularly happy about that, it also makes me optimistic that we can still get to a place where we have both gender equality and a renewed recognition of the needs of children.

That may be happening already, in fact. For some time, slick entrepreneurial magazines like Fast Company have been heralding the rise of a new generation of “free agents” who prefer time with family to salary increases; Generation X hucksters have been equally insistent that young people, scarred by their experiences as latchkey kids and the children of broken homes, are determined to give family more emphasis in their lives as adults. I have no idea whether any of this is actually true. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like a conversation among the yuppie wannabe types who write for these magazines and the yuppie wannabe types who buy them. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if, indeed, this process were already under way somewhere. Maybe that’d be a good topic for some sociological research. (Perhaps your research program at Rutgers could look into that?)

I guess I’ll sign off with that thought–and a note of thanks to you. I’ve enjoyed our exchange immensely, and learned quite a bit, as well. I admire and share your concern for children, and sincerely hope our paths cross again.

With high regards,