Today, the New York Times published the results of a survey that confirms what is obvious to anyone in the vicinity of a person with a child: Even in a pandemic, when both lives and the strength of the economy depend on access to safe, affordable childcare, that benefit is largely only available to educated, high-wage workers. This is what happens when a country insists, in opposition to every other wealthy nation, on tying the building blocks of social good to employment. It’s what happens when the basics of survival are offered, along with catered lunches and gym reimbursement programs, as employment-dependent “perks.”
According to the paper, more than three-quarters of working parents say their bosses haven’t provided additional time off or money for childcare since the pandemic shuttered physical schools and either temporarily or permanently hobbled childcare centers. As a reminder, the average cost of childcare reached almost $10,000 annually pre-pandemic, a number that one analysis found represents 85% of the monthly median cost of rent nationally. The current lack of childcare is a national emergency, forcing professionals from teachers to executives to balance an impossible set of constraints as children stay home and still Americans are required—if they’re lucky—to keep going to work. To take one representative and completely foreseeable statistic, one in four women have reported leaving a job since March because they couldn’t both hold down a job and care for a child. (Needless to say, this number is lower for men.)
But, as the Times found in its survey of 1,000-odd parents, as with most grave circumstances, these problems are overwhelmingly being foisted on people already living precariously. Among the only populations to be granted significant childcare benefits by their companies are those with more education, higher salaries, and more generous time-off policies to begin with. As fewer than 10 percent of employers nationally are offering childcare subsidies, workers at fancy firms of boutique white-collar offices are getting more than just a generous infusion of cash: They’re getting, according to the paper, online camps for their kids, home office supply stipends, cash infusions for home exercise equipment, and specialized parental support groups. One Portland, Oregon design firm hired a teacher and set up a school for the children of employees in its now-empty office space.
The Times report, incidentally, contains this miraculous quote from a vice president at Upwork, one of the latest platforms to wring a profit out of the hustle of the creative gig economy:
“Something that stood out in our internal research is parents really want to keep working,” said Ms. Thomas, who has a Ph.D. in social psychology and focuses on diversity in corporate culture. “I was expecting to hear more, ‘I need a break or to tap out.’ Instead, they are basically saying, ‘How can I hack human biology to serve in three different jobs and never have to sleep?’”
Frankly, I doubt that this was basically what employees were saying, though it’s possible that the gospel of the grind has permeated working culture so thoroughly it’s easier to imagine evolving into another form of sentient life than creating the political will to give a shit about working parents. In any case, with millions out of a job entirely, it’s beginning to look like we’re cruising towards a future in which a few hundred thousand American workers will enjoy their employer-sponsored nurseries and employer-sponsored clinics while everyone else fights over paltry and mostly symbolic displays of state support.