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Monday, July 21st, 2014
The arrest of a South Carolina mom on charges that she left her 9-year-old daughter alone in the park while she went to work has sparked a furor over her decision and whether it was appropriate to arrest her for it. It’s far from the only instance of a parent doing something dangerous, even allegedly criminal, in order to go to work when there’s no childcare available. I wrote in December about a California woman who lost custody of her son—permanently—after leaving him alone in his crib one workday. And I am sure there are countless other parents facing similar dilemmas every day.
For women who need to work and don’t have reliable childcare, what are the options? Even Michelle Obama faced a similar dilemma in her past, recently making headlines for her recollections of bringing young Sasha along on a job interview.
That South Carolina mom, Deba Harrell, faced a no-win choice, as my colleague Lisa Milbrand wrote: “to let her daughter play in a park alone, leave her at home, or bring her to work, where she was forced to hang out for hours in McDonald’s with little to engage her. Debra picked the park.” Home seemed more dangerous and would also likely have led to Harrell’s arrest, while having a child at work all day seems like a recipe for getting fired for needing to care for her while on the job (and hardly seems like a healthy environment for a child).
A lot of the discussion about Harrell’s case has focused on how protective and hovering parents should be, and whether we as a society have gone too far in “criminalizing” parenthood, as Radley Balko of the Washington Post put it.
But as essential as that debate is, there is another, related issue that these cases raise, and that is the question of affordable childcare. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat begins to address this in his latest column, questioning a “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.” He concludes that “we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.”
But Douthat stops short of taking his argument to its natural conclusion. Affordable, reliable, and safe childcare is a necessary component of a functioning society, especially one that expects—requires, even—parents to work. And so we need to figure out a way to guarantee it to all working parents. In Europe, “all European countries offer government subsidies and regulation support to early childhood care,” according to the European Union’s website. “These measures include tax breaks, vouchers, subsidies paid to parents or to the care provider; and in several European countries, capping of childcare costs relative to household income, or by obliging employers to support childcare costs (for instance in the Netherlands).”
I don’t know what form this sort of policy should take here in the United States, but whether it’s tax breaks or subsidies or publicly funded day-care centers or something else entirely, without addressing this problem, we will see many more Debra Harrells.
I also don’t want to let the absent dads off the hook. While moms like Harrell are arrested and may lose custody of their children, nothing is asked of the dads. Granted, many are not in the picture at all; but where they are or can be found, I don’t know why they are not required to be part of the solution, financial or otherwise, or why they don’t share the blame for alleged neglect and other decisions.
Our public policy must recognize the realities of today’s families, especially the huge number of single parents (and the correlation between single parenthood and poverty). In addition, many families today lack the extensive familial and social networks that may have, in the past, provided (free) childcare so mom and/or dad could work. This is not just a problem for the very poor. There is nothing optional about working for most people trying to support their kids, and childcare could easily be beyond a single parent’s means. As parents, most of us have said things to our kids like, “I don’t have eyes in the back of my head,” or, “I can’t be in two places at once.” For the single moms who must be at work in order to feed their families but have no one else to supervise their children, these are not flippant throw-away lines; they are realities that we as a society must help fix.
Considering day care? Download our Daycare Center Checklist to help you evaluate your options.
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Wednesday, December 11th, 2013
Christmas is a time of giving and a time of magic, which is why I’ve made it a tradition to participate in the U.S. Post Office’s Operation Santa program where everyday people can help fulfill the holiday wishes of less-fortunate local kids. As far as I’ve been told, the letters that qualify for the program are selected by postal workers based on the return address on the envelope (think the projects, really poor neighborhoods)–so they really are coming from kids and families in need.
My favorite part of Operation Santa is that you get to read through as many kids’ letters as you like before choosing the ones you want to “adopt.” Some of these letters are flat-out funny. For instance, one little boy admitted to Santa that he actually hadn’t been good all year, and that he’d done a few naughty things, but that he tries to be good, and that he’d help out an old sick man “if his dad said yes.” Many are sweet and come from little ones wanting things like “doctor sets” so they can practice to be a doctor when they grow up. Others—the biggest tear-jerkers—come from older kids not asking for anything for themselves, but hoping that Santa can bring a toy or a warm coat for their little brother or sister.
And then . . . there are the Xbox letters—or, to be more accurate, they’re the Xbox Live, iPhone 5, iPad mini, laptop letters. As you can imagine, they go something like this: “Dear Santa, Please bring me an Xbox Live with these four games. I’ve been good all year.” Or, “Dear Santa, Please bring me an iPhone 5. I’ll leave cookies by the fireplace.”
If you’re like a lot of people, you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking these big-ticket letters are coming more from a place of greed than a place of need. But the truth is, that these kids aren’t asking for expensive things to try to work the system—they’re asking for them because they want to feel normal.
Most young kids—especially kids who have little to nothing at home—really don’t understand the difference in price between, say, a playset or doll that might cost $40 and the latest tablet that can cost hundreds of dollars. Why? Because their family likely can’t afford either. To that child, both are equally out of reach.
Plus, it’s only natural for a kid to want the things other kids at school have and talk about–and right now, a lot of those things (not all of them, though, thank heavens for Rainbow Loom, right?!) are seriously expensive. In a needy kid’s world, getting an Xbox Live or an iPhone 5 would take a work of magic—the kind of magic kids think only Santa Claus can provide.
TELL US: Do you give gifts to needy kids at the holidays? Would you be upset if an underprivileged kid asked for an expensive toy or gadget?
To learn more about Operation Santa (you don’t have to choose an Xbox letter unless you want to!) click here.
NEXT: Great last-minute gifts for kids
Image of Santa via Shutterstock.
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Monday, November 25th, 2013
Thanksgiving is almost here and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m looking forward to unhealthy amounts of reality TV, my grandmother’s sausage stuffing, and a slice of pumpkin pie. But I won’t help prepare my family’s Thanksgiving dinner before dashing off to the grocery store for another family first. Here’s why.
Adopting a family for Thanksgiving was one of my favorite activities in my high school peer leadership group, and also one of the most heartwarming. The social services department in my town provided us with lists of each family’s requests, which we needed to fulfill before the holiday. Most families wanted the basics for Thanksgiving, but others didn’t even want extras like pie. (Who turns down pie?!) All they wrote down was food to get them through Thanksgiving and beyond.
I didn’t think I would need to shop for a family like that in 2008, but I did. It was the height of the recession. Friends I knew since kindergarten suddenly had their parents out of work, and the town paper urged the community to donate to the food pantry.
I’ll never forget the last time I adopted a family in need. I laughed when the two young boys found soup ladles and used them as light sabers. I held back tears when the mother embraced me and said she was so happy her kids wouldn’t go hungry this year (we turned her pantry into a food fortress). I didn’t do it to feel good about myself, and it certainly didn’t feel like a chore. Their gratitude made me think differently about poverty in my town, something that rarely crossed my mind in my hectic day-to-day of school, sports, and college applications.
It’s nice to be home after four years away at college and do a good deed for someone else this Thanksgiving. When I sit down to feast with my family, I’ll feel good knowing that another family is doing the same in their home.
Image: Thanksgiving dinner via Shutterstock
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Monday, November 11th, 2013
I’ve been engaged in an informal experiment lately that has been eye-opening (to me and perhaps some others) so I’m going to blow my cover and encourage you to try it too. After Parents published this story about child poverty in the U.S., I decided to make it a point to bring up the most noteworthy statistic from the piece as often as I could in casual conversation: One in five children in this country now live in a family where the total annual household income is below the federal poverty level of $23,550. One in five. In New York City, where I live, the number is actually closer to one in three. Which might explain why some people hardly blink when I share the fact. Others, however, are shocked.
It can be very easy to get nose-down in our own little world and lose track of the larger one. But for all of us—and for our children–the future is at stake. Children living in poverty are at risk of troubles both physical and academic, starting with impaired brain growth and weak acquisition of language as babies and progressing right through to higher dropout rates, increased risk of both hunger and obesity and, eventually, diabetes and heart disease. Dr. Perri Klass, one of my all-time favorite writing doctors, makes the cost of childhood poverty upsettingly clear here.
We can’t change a problem if we’re not aware of it, of course. So as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I challenge you to help raise awareness by also sharing the one-in-five fact. And then to look for ways to make a difference. In my case, our family lives close to the Harlem Children’s Zone, so we both see what poverty looks like and help fight it by donating to the organization. And no matter how much or how little your own family has to give, we can all teach our kids how to appreciate what they do have–it’s the first step to learning how to share our blessings with others.
Use our worksheet to figure out how to make room in your family budget for charitable contributions.
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Friday, November 1st, 2013
Today, just in time for the upcoming holidays, millions of parents are going to find themselves having to find a way to feed their kids on less than the little they already had. You’ve probably read the news yourself: Substantial cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, go into effect today.
Whatever impression you may have of food stamps and those who use them, think about this statistic: One in seven Americans currently uses food stamps. Most of those affected are seniors, people with disabilities—and families with children. As Parents reported in our story “The Hunger Crisis,” one in four American kids live in households that are “food insecure,” meaning on any given day, there’s uncertainty that there will be enough food to go around.
Critics of food stamps are quick to point out that they can be used to buy “fancy” food items. Take this quote that went viral on Facebook:
Food stamps cover lobster, filet mignon, ribeye, caviar, and other luxury foods for free….
Meanwhile, the middle class is suffering.
“Share” this if you think that is wrong.
Here’s a reality check: The average SNAP recipient gets $4.50 in benefits per day. I don’t know about where you live, but $4.50 a day doesn’t buy a lot of caviar near me. And if I’m working with a $4.50 budget per child, chances are I’m not buying “luxury foods,” or lattes at Starbucks. The truth is millions of families are already making very difficult compromises to barely get by, even before today’s cuts, or we wouldn’t be reading headlines like this one: “Parents Who Can’t Afford Diapers Are Reusing Dirty Ones.” (If you were wondering, food stamps don’t cover those.)
Who uses food stamps? My family did. When I was a child, my schoolteacher father got sick, lost his job, and our family’s financial situation quickly nosedived. So for awhile, my mother pulled food stamps out of her wallet at the supermarket checkout line, a necessary and helpful solution, one that nonetheless brought her great shame. The few times I’ve mentioned my childhood experience with food stamps, I’ve always learned about someone else I personally know who also relied on food stamps at one time or another. The friend getting through the financial fallout from her divorce. The professional couple who unexpectedly found themselves out of work for months. Food stamps are a part of more lives than many might think. (And I like to believe that many who hit the “share” button on posts like the viral message above don’t have all the facts, rather than that they’re completely lacking compassion. After all, someone on their own friends list has probably used food stamps, too.) Statistics show that roughly half of all U.S. children go on food stamps sometime during their childhood, and half of all adults are on them sometime between the ages of 18 and 65.
Food stamps are a good program. They’ve helped keep millions of Americans from hunger. So before focusing on abuses of the system, let’s keep in mind the people who will be fighting even harder to eat, and commend those—anyone—who does something to make a difference, rather than criticize people who are already feeling shaky and vulnerable. Last year, I attended a holiday party where in lieu of gifts, every guest brought a donation to the local food pantry, for instance.
Such gestures may make only a minor dent in struggling people’s lives. But a little kindness, at least, seems like a good place to start.
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