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.