The pandemic has heightened awareness of a number of social problems in the United States.
One revolves around the care and education of children. Political and business leadership often spout platitudes about how important children are and how much they care about them, but they seldom back up their words with meaningful policies that help children and the people who love, care for, and educate them.
Before the pandemic, American families often cobbled together child care with parent(s), school, relatives, neighbors, and paid caregivers, who often had to charge more than the family could afford to pay even though their own salaries were so low it was hard for them to get by. When schools and most day-care centers closed due to the pandemic, parents were suddenly trying to do paid work themselves from home while simultaneously trying to care for and educate their children or were forced to quit a job outside the home to be at home for their children.
It’s not a sustainable situation for many families.
There is a big push by the president and some state and national leaders to re-open schools full-time and full-capacity in the fall, even though that is against the recommendations of public health experts, in order for adults to return to jobs outside the home or so they can work from home without interruptions, but, besides being a huge health risk for children and adults, it fails to address the root of the issue.
Somehow, caring for children in exchange for a salary is considered “work” but caring for children without a salary is not considered work. Hazel Henderson calls this non-monetized part of our system the “love economy.”
The United States lags far behind other countries with advanced economies in acknowledging the love economy. We don’t offer mandatory paid sick leave, parental leave, or caregiving leave. People who do get paid as caregivers, whether for children, elders, or other vulnerable people, often earn shockingly low wages. For that matter, many people working in other kinds of jobs also don’t make a living wage, making it impossible to fully care for their family. Other countries also have a must more robust system of social services, so that people have access to adequate clothes, shelter, food, medical care, and education regardless of their income level.
As part of our efforts to #BuildBackBetter, the United States should reform our economic, health, educational, and social systems so that every person has adequate resources to lead a life of dignity. Some components of such a system that have proven successful in other countries have been single-payer universal health care, required living wages for workers, a graduated tax system that raises enough revenue from the top of the income spectrum that those in the lower end can afford their tax bill without compromising the needs of their household, free public education, paid leave for sickness, caregiving, and vacation, and a robust social safety net so that no one goes without food, housing, and other basic necessities. I would also like to see more social recognition and financial support for caretaking that is currently part of the “love economy.” A possible way to address this would be through a program of universal basic income or a stipend for those caring for a child, elder, or person with a long-term illness or disabling condition.
Obviously, crafting systemic change will take time and new national leadership. For the moment, I think it is foolish to implement a national school opening policy. Historically, education has been the province of local districts within the framework of state policy, allowing the system to adapt to local conditions. The wisdom of that flexibility is even more evident during the pandemic. Areas with low rates of illness may plan to implement hybrid systems where students attend in person part-time and online part-time so that physical distancing can be used to keep the virus in check. Areas with very high infection rates may need to keep students at home learning virtually until their infection rate is under control, when they could begin to phase in in-person attendance. All schools will need plans for dealing with changing circumstances; as there have been school closing plans to deal with severe flu outbreaks or natural disasters, there will need to be COVID plans to try to keep the school community and the general public as protected as possible.
Everyone wants students to be back to in-person classrooms, but only if it is safe for them, the school staff, their families, and the community. Pretending we can go back to the pre-pandemic system without grave public health consequences is foolhardy. Instead of wishful thinking, we need to use data, science, expertise, care, and intelligence to adapt to our changed and changing circumstances.
It’s what our children and youth need and deserve.