A New Century, But the Same Old Question: How to Balance Work and Family

Read it here.

SupergirlThe “modern woman” is “not altogether satisfied with love, marriage, and a purely domestic career….She wants work of her own. She wants some means of self-expression, perhaps, some way of satisfying her personal ambitions. But she wants a husband, home and children, too. How to reconcile these two desires in real life, that is the question.”

Update the language, and this quote could have come from one of any number of articles written today about work-family balance. It could have come from the dozens of blog posts and Facebook updates I see on a daily basis by friends who, like me, are working and raising young kids.

But this statement was not written in 2015. It was written nearly a century ago by journalist and feminist, Crystal Eastman, in the mid-1920s (and is quoted in a wonderful book by Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.) That was shortly after women won the battle for the right to vote. Shortly after public schools issued rules for female teachers with dictates like “You are not to keep company with men,” “You may not loiter downtown in any of the ice cream stores,” “You may under no circumstances dye your hair,” and “You must wear at least 2 petticoats.”

Almost a hundred years later, we’ve made substantial progress as far as working women’s freedom to loiter at the ice cream store and wear fewer than two petticoats. But Eastman’s quote above serves as a vivid reminder of the old proverb: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 2015, we are still struggling with how to balance work and family, both as a nation and as individuals. And in many ways, one of the key obstacles in 2015 is the same as it was in 1925: we have not yet figured out a way to provide good, flexible, affordable childcare for the working parents who need it. As a result, too many parents (particularly low-income and single-parents) are forced to choose between not working and leaving their kids in poor-quality or unaffordable care.

A few weeks ago, President Obama unveiled plans to try to address that problem by increasing federal support of affordable childcare for infants and preschoolers.

Mr. Obama’s proposed plan would increase the maximum child-care tax credit for children under 4 by nearly three-fold, to $3,000 per child. (That’s still far less than the average cost of full-time infant daycare, which ranges from about $5,000 per child in Alabama to more than $20,000 in Washington DC. Maine is in the middle with an average cost of just under $10,000).. The plan would also nearly double funding for a federal program that provides child-care subsidies to low and middle-income families with children under four. Mr. Obama’s proposed 2016 budget also includes a new push for universal preschool, including $750 million in grants to help states create or broaden high-quality pre-kindergarten programs. Although these dollar figures might seem high at first glance, studies have repeatedly shown that early investment in childcare and preschool yield high returns on investment. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the economically smart thing to do.

In announcing his priorities for affordable childcare, Mr. Obama said, “It is time that we stop treating child care as a side issue or a, quote-unquote ‘women’s issue.’ This is a family issue, this is a national economic priority for all of us.”

It is time that we make good affordable childcare a priority. I only hope my grandchildren and great-grandchildren won’t still be expressing that sentiment another century from now.