The XX Factor

Working-Class Parents’ Investment in “Self-Reliance” Is Working Against Their Best Interests

Donald Trump greets the crowd at a campaign rally on Oct. 27 in Springfield, Ohio.

Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

In its new report “The Parent Trap,” progressive think tank Demos examines the financial squeeze experienced by parents of young children today. Relying on data collected by the census for the Current Population Survey, it found that families with children under 5 have substantially lower incomes than households without children. This remained true even after controlling for differences in age, partnership status, education, and race. Households with two adults experience an annual income drop of, on average, $14,850, and single women lose around $16,610 per year in earnings. Families tend to see some relief when their child turns 5 and can go to public school. Around that age households with two adults make, on average, $30,440 more per year. Single mothers also experience a boost around this time, albeit much smaller, of $9,980 more per year.

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The report attributes this pre-5 pinch as a consequence of, among other factors, our lousy paid leave policies, unstable work schedules, low wages, and a lack of affordable and reliable child care. As it happens, the same issues were the subject of a recent conversation led by a team from the conservative-leaning Institute of Family Studies with a group of working parents in Ohio, conducted three weeks after the election. The 10 participants were all white, high school–educated millennials with working-class jobs. Most of them are feeling pinched by the forces highlighted in the Demos report. And most of them voted for Donald Trump.

For the discussion, focus group leaders Amber and David Lapp showed them each candidate’s plan for the aforementioned issues but did not tell them which plan belonged to which candidate. The group complained about having to live paycheck to paycheck and the high cost of rent, and they agreed life would be better if they had access to paid leave and if child care cost less. Sounds like they should have voted for Hillary Clinton, right? Here’s why they didn’t: Again and again, they expressed reluctance to appear “greedy” and longed for a future where they could consider themselves self-reliant and economically independent. “Just let us run our own lives with less taxes,” one said about public assistance. “And we don’t want to live off the state, either,” added a stay-at-home mom in response to a conversation on subsidized child care. “We want to do it honestly.”

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A few of the participants were wary of child care centers and didn’t trust that their children would be safe or properly stimulated at one. Most of women in the group said that, ideally, they would prefer to be a stay-at-home mom, work part-time away from the home, or work from home with their kids. There was one outlier who said she likes working full time but thought that expressing so “sounds really horrible.” Others responded by insisting that it did not.

As for paid leave, the majority of the participants (like the majority of Americans) were eager to get something, but only two expressed enthusiasm for Clinton’s plan guaranteeing 12 weeks paid leave for both parents, compared with Trump’s promise to give six weeks to only birth mothers. Some thought that 12 weeks sounded extravagant considering they had nothing now and that six weeks would be plenty. One said that her husband didn’t need leave, as he didn’t like taking care of babies. “Not until they’re 1 or 2 years old, that’s his preference. Which is fine with me,” she explained. Another woman disagreed, explaining that paid parental leave “seems the most beneficial to the family as a whole because it allows the father time off to bond with a new child.” By the end of the conversation, the whole group agreed that they would like to see Congress pass paid parental leave legislation, even if they disagreed on what the terms should be.

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One important takeaway from this conversation, especially in light of the Demos report, is the ongoing need to keep working to change the optics on child care and paid leave. We need to keep moving away from a long tradition of framing it as a benefit for the poor or unnecessary government intervention and toward presenting it as a culturally acceptable, universal right. As long as working-class parents like these Ohioans continue to see it as mooching off the state—instead of a indispensable aspect of a functioning society like schools or safe roads—they will carry on viewing efforts to expand help to families with skepticism. Child care is, above all, an infrastructure issue with widescale economic implications. We’ve got to keep talking about it that way.

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