Who’s Sorry Now?

Joe Conason has written some good articles at Salon lately, but Conason’s most recent article actually made me cry.

Like most of their continental neighbors, the nations of the north [i.e., north Europe, esp. Scandinavia] provide free or highly subsidized, high-quality child care that begins as soon as new mothers return to work. Nearly every child between the ages of three and six is enrolled in the public child care system, because it is staffed by well-paid and well-trained workers overseen by the national ministry of education. The results include not only better socialization and education of young children, but far lower poverty rates, especially among single mothers. And the security of European families is enhanced as well by the universal provision of decent old-age pensions and health care, which relieves the financial burden of supporting elderly parents while trying to raise children. So does free or low-cost university education.

Having raised two kids by myself, I remember the juggling act I did for years as a long, grueling ordeal of exhaustion, work and worry. For example, what do you do when a child is too sick to go to school and you’re out of work sick days? What do you do when the boss wants you to work late and the day care arrangement absolutely positively ends at 6 pm? I also remember that an upcoming school holiday meant I was spending hours on the phone (while at work, of course) trying to find babysitting. The cost of my son’s day care before he was old enough for first grade (I couldn’t send him to public kindergarten because it was only half day) cost thousands of dollars at a time I could barely afford to keep the electricity turned on.

Extreme example: I remember many years ago there were news stories about a mother whose child care arrangements had evaporated, so she kept her child in her car while she was at work. Her employer noticed she kept going out to her car, and checked it out and found the child. So there was a big scandal and much clucking about what a bad mother she was. But her perspective was that if she didn’t go to work she wouldn’t be paid and could lose her job altogether, and then what was she supposed to do? Our culture says that single mothers who don’t show up for work are bad people who just want to be on welfare. What were her alternatives? Frankly, she didn’t have any alternatives other than put her child at risk or lose her job, and none of the news stories picked up on that.

I’m not saying that keeping one’s kids stashed in a car is a good choice. It’s very dangerous. But parents are perpetually being put into these no-win situations in which they have to choose between job and children. Two-parent households may be more resourceful about it, but it’s still a problem. For single-parent households, really bad compromises are a constant reality. So sick kids get left home alone or left with babysitters of dubious character, and parents steal time from employers to take care of parent duties. It’s not so much how will I best take care of this, but who’s going to get the short end of the stick this time?

Well, I’ve ranted about that. Let’s go on.

Right wingers always get things backward. They see statistics that show unmarried people, especially mothers, are more likely to live in poverty, and their solution is to encourage people to get married. Like just about any struggling single mother wouldn’t be thrilled if a decent man she could care about popped into her life and wanted to marry her.

But my understanding of the sociology of thing is the other way around — people are not poor because they are not married; they are not married because they are poor. People hanging on to the edge of the economy by their fingernails live exhausting, chaotic lives that do not support stable relationships. And there is copious data showing that good marriages can come apart when a couple’s financial support collapses.

The Bush Administration sank $750 million into a “healthy marriage initiative” that did nothing whatsoever to relieve anyone’s financial burdens. Typical.

Jordan Stancil writes at The Nation that “the big meaning of the [economic] crisis for Europeans is the vindication of their ideas about how to run an economy.”

“I remember the days when American economists came to Germany and told us we had to privatize our community banks, that our small, family-owned industrial companies were not a strength, that we had to move closer to the Anglo-Saxon way of doing business,” Jens van Scherpenberg, an economist at the University of Munich who for several years led the Americas unit at the quasi-governmental German Institute of International and Security Affairs, told me. “If someone came here and said that today, the response would be laughter–sarcastic laughter.”

Paul Krugman keeps saying that Germany has some major economic problems that it lacks the political will to address, so their cockiness is a little misplaced. However, the social support Europeans receive from their governments means that the economic crisis is causing much less individual pain for Europeans than it is for us here.

This bit from Stancil’s article is fascinating:

Werner Abelshauser, an economic historian at the University of Bielefeld in Germany and a leading expert on differences in transatlantic economic cultures … argued that this is not about social justice; it’s about protecting skilled workers–the source of Europe’s competitive strength. He said this is in contrast to the United States, which doesn’t have, and never did have, as many skilled workers. “Production systems developed differently in each country,” Abelshauser said. “German industrialism always depended on high skill levels–and that was one of the main reasons for the establishment of the first social programs in Germany. It was not just about politics or social justice–it was about taking care of the skilled workers because they were economically valuable.” The profile of the US workforce was different, so American industry developed different production processes, ones that were suited to a lack of skilled labor.

It says a lot about our “every man for himself” mentality that we as a nation actually make it difficult for people to get job training and education beyond high school. You’re on your own to find the money and the time. I understand that in Europe there is much more support of apprenticeship programs that allow workers to learn advanced skills. Here, there are some vocational school-to-work programs, but they are always underfunded and mostly not taken seriously by either the education system or employers. Employers here may want skilled workers, but they don’t want to invest the money into training anyone. There are good apprenticeship programs run by the unions, but of course the Right has worked day and night to destroy the unions.

I’ve argued in the past that the Reaganomics-style, “free market,” unregulated economy we’ve been moving toward is unsustainable, and the only reason we haven’t crashed and burned a lot sooner is that the social/economic foundations laid by the New Deal and post-World War II programs kept us propped up. But now those props are just about burned.

For years the Right has predicted the European economies would collapse under the weight of “entitlement” programs like national health care and subsidized child care. From Europe’s perspective, it’s our — I should say, the Right’s — economic system that is unsustainable and sinking us rapidly.

9 thoughts on “Who’s Sorry Now?

  1. These are such crucial topics for Americans to reconsider. Thanks for addressing them so well.

  2. I’m not sure if “reconsider” is the right term, Lynne, as I think most Americans have never considered them in the first place. It is hard to think outside the box when you have been raised with your brain configured to think that this (American way) is the only, the best, way of life. We’ve (middle and upper classes) grown up thinking this is how a life is made, like a ‘given’ that we plan and build our lives around.

    In my family, skilled work was such a base thing to do. Skilled workers were considered ignorant “ne’er-do-wells”. Because, as Maha has pointed out here, we could not see their value. As such, they’ve been thrown under the bus throughout their training and careers – so much so, that children of skilled workers have tried to escape their parents’ fate. The result has been that we produced less and less, and look where we are now.

    SO glad you posted this, Maha.

  3. How right you are, Maha.
    I think a good anology would to compare the Eurpoean countries to a family that supported tidy homes, education, and proper nutrition; versus America, a family that has a big house with leaky pipes , plenty of fast food,a pool full of pirhanas, a couple of pit bulls,and a kick-ass gun collection. Kinda like the Waltons vs the Addams family.

  4. There’s something I don’t understand (well, many many things I don’t understand, but I digress). It occurred to me when I read this excellent post and is tangentially related to it. The thinking on the Right is thus: because we’re America, by dangit, we’re not going to copy them Socialist sissies in Europe. Further, of course, one of the things they’ve been attempting to do (& slowly succeeding at) is to dismantle FDR’s social system that has worked so well & helped so many people. So my question is this: the Right does not want any sort of social net for regular people — no Social Security, no healthcare, no nothing. What is a sick but not yet dead person supposed to do? What happens if you’re injured and can’t work for a year or two years?

    I’ve never seen the Right address this issue with any sort of clarity or coherence. They just blather on about France and Socialism and BAD BAD BAD. But people — normal people that are middle class or slid slowly downward thanks to Republican rule — they’re terrified right now, knowing that they’re one little slip away from ruin. If America is so wonderful, why haven’t we addressed this problem?

  5. I don’t know how true this is anymore, but one of the contrasts I’ve read between Europe’s system and ours – which dovetails with the remarks about the high skill level of the German workforce – is what is sometimes termed the flexibility of the American workforce (to put it most euphemistically). I’ve read that people get trained early on in their careers in Europe – inexpensively – and that’s it. People aren’t expected to have multiple careers and go through major transitions to the extent they are here. It’s odd for someone in Europe to decide in midlife to embark on some new career, requiring new training – their system isn’t geared for this. This is a reflection of the two safety nets – in Europe the workforce has more rights and safety than America’s.

    In America, the attitude is different about change and transition, and therefore the workforce is said to be more flexible (again, a euphemism). It isn’t free, but there is tons of training available in this country. With the advent of the internet and computer based training, it no longer even matters where you live – this is causing a whole revolution in the whole concept of what a school is.

    Someone from Europe, please update me, because I’m sure this opinion is dated.

    So my question is this: the Right does not want any sort of social net for regular people — no Social Security, no healthcare, no nothing. What is a sick but not yet dead person supposed to do? What happens if you’re injured and can’t work for a year or two years?

    If you’re rich, it doesn’t matter, and if you’re young, you don’t think about it. I’ve often said it will be interesting to see how the Reagan babies fare – those members of Gen X who animate the right wing in this country – when their hour of need appears. Will the “Me” generation realize they were wrong, when noone is there for them?

    Side note: I had a lot of time – well at least the 20 minutes or so it took to chow down some fast food – to think about these things, when I visited a fast food restaurant a few months ago, and saw some young kid hanging around the table area – and realized that this child belonged to one of the young mothers working at the counter.

  6. I keep hearing about right-winger’s going Galt (from that horrible novel “Atlas Shrugged”). I haven’t seen anyone do it, but I keep hearing screaching about it form Malkin, Beck and the other windbag’s on the right.
    I know financially it wouldn’t work out, but let me have some fun – The Galt Plans:

    The Galt Health Care Program:
    Let’s have single-payer for everyone, except for the Galter’s, who don’t have to participate. They can pay their own freight. If they need coverage, they can then pay for the procedure(s) needed, then triple-up any payments that they missed while, “Galting.” And then paying twice the amount every month as everyone else – just for being an asshole.

    The Galt child-care:
    You don’t have to do anything at all, while the rest have child-care at work. Again, if you need child-care in the future, you will pay triple the amount missed, and the twice the amount as everyone else – just for being an asshole.

    Galt unemployment:
    You don’t have to do anything at all, while the rest have unemployment. Again, if you need unemployment in the future, you will pay triple the amount missed, and the twice the amount as everyone else – just for being an asshole.

    Galt Social Security:
    You don’t have to do anything at all, while the rest pay SS. However, if your 401k dies, you lose your pension, your home loses value, or the market tanks, YOU GET NOTHING! Why? ‘CAUSE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!

  7. I had the chance to spend 2 weeks in Finland with a Finnish girl I met at a youth hostel a few years ago. It was quite an interesting time, she had a family of 18 brothers and sisters who shared a pretty small house (I would say they all stuck into 3 bedrooms + a master bedroom for mom and dad) and had a billiards table instead of a television in the living room.
    Over the course of a few days the young lady explained to me how the Finnish Government gives parents 400 Euros a month for each child until they were 18, at which point boys were conscripted to serve 18 months in the Finnish military and girls had to volunteer in some fashion for their community. If a young person chose to study at a University, they were given a stipend of 400 Euros per month to study! And oh yea – health care is free, public transportation is readily available and modestly expensive, and generally a Finnish citizen has fewer things to worry about in life than a US citizen does.
    Naturally I find this society to be superior to mine. One thing that could be mentioned more often is the fact that this 400 Euro monthly income is spent! With all this talk in the US about Government waste and self reliance, Finland’s economy grew by 4.5% in 2008 – down from 6% in 2007! And you know what else? Finland’s national taxation rate is comparable and maybe lower than the Federal and State rates we pay in the states.
    I will end with this question: what is the difference? Obviously one difference is Finland doesn’t have to pay for aircraft carriers all over the world. I think another difference is a deeper, cultural, and economic issue. People in the US rarely have conversations about groups, our conversations are only centered on remaining individualistic and enhancing our own interests. It was my impression that in other places more thought was given to the whole.

  8. My! My!, gone peeking to see how the civilized, cultured world lives. Careful about who is exposed to this, it will be hard to get them back on the farm after they’ve seen Paris, so it’s said.

    There is a price to pay:

    When buying only the least costly goods, quality, excellence and variety disappear.

    When credit is the foundation of wellbeing.

    When income becomes detached from production.

    When labour becomes disregarded.

    When myth overpowers fact.

    When belief replaces reality.

    When fraud displaces veracity for esteem.

    When illusion is preferred to substance.

    When ignorance becomes sovereign.

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