by Christopher Dodson
North Dakota Catholic Conference
North Dakota, like many states, faces a child care shortage. Looking at the causes of the crisis might help us find solutions.
While parents look for affordable quality child care, business and government leaders struggle to respond to the demand. Questions arise about who is responsible. Who is responsible for dealing with the child care shortage? Is it the local government, the state government, the federal government, local businesses, or all of them? Should parents, businesses, or government pay to encourage more child care opportunities?
Child care raises particularly difficult questions for Catholics. On the one hand, in ideal environment where one spouse provided all a family’s needed income, child care would not be needed. On the other hand, that environment rarely exists today and our Catholic values compel us to respond to the child’s needs.
When looking for causes, we should avoid broadly characterizing and judging families with regards to their need for child care. Some families do not need child care and do not use it. Some families do not need child care, but use still use it in order to maintain a chosen lifestyle. Some families need child care, but would rather not have to use it. It is very difficult and to judge another family’s actual need for child care. Moreover, whatever the family’s situation, the child’s needs are paramount.
One source of the present child care crisis goes back several decades to when women first began moving into the workforce. No - I am not blaming working mothers for creating the child care problem. Instead, I am noting an historical economic development. As both spouses entered the workforce, wages -- especially their buying power -- diminished. Whether this was a conscious response by employers a function of the market is something about which economists and philosophers can argue. What is important for this discussion is that the economy began to be shaped around a system with both parents working for an overall less valuable wage. In other words, just as the need for child care was created the ability of parents to afford it diminished.
The next trend was the divorce culture that tragically created too many families who truly needed child care. At the same time, a decrease in the number of extended families and an increase in the number of older workers (grandparents) contributed to greater demand for child care. Growing professionalization and regulation over child care options helped better ensure quality child care, but may have contributed to an inability of communities to quickly respond to new child care needs.
With all these trends, the present child care crisis may have seemed inevitable. However, more recent trends exacerbated the problem and are particularly relevant to the search for a solution.
Contrary to what many people think, the welfare reform effort started in 1996 was not designed to get people out of poverty. Instead, with very few exceptions, the entire effort was designed to get people working. For example, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program requires a single mother to work once an infant turns 5 months old. The program has been successful at getting people into the workforce, but the verdict is out as to whether it has helped lift people out of poverty. One thing it has undoubtedly done is create more demand for child care. To some extent, the federal government tried to respond to the problem by providing additional funding for child care. The funding, however, has not been adequate and is not necessarily permanent.
The other recent trend, particularly in North Dakota, that has exacerbated the problem is the use of economic incentive programs to recruit industries and businesses to locate in the state. Many of the jobs resulting from these government-sponsored recruiting efforts -- such as food and ethanol processors, call centers, and manufacturers -- require non-traditional work hours. Child care is already in short supply. Child care for weekends and nights is even harder to find.
Some of the child care crisis, therefore, comes as a result of decisions made by government and business leaders. The Catholic Catechism reminds us that business and political leaders are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Some foresight and a commitment to the common good might help ensure that children do not pay the price for progress and economic development.