f nothing else, this election put women’s issues to the fore. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to get down to real issues that matter to real women. First on my list of things that need to be fixed: The high price that women pay for caring.
At 56, I have leap-frogged past the Sandwich Generation and entered the Hero Sandwich Generation. I haven’t fully launched my millennial children yet, but my parents are aging and require considerable assistance. And did I mention that I also have two grandchildren who need their ZsaZsa?
I would be drowning in self-pity if it weren’t for the fact that I know so many women in the same caregiving boat. Instead, I’m just mad as hell. There are only two things common to the human experience – birth and death – and, at both ends of life, the burden of providing loving care is borne by women.
Twenty-seven years ago, I was at home with my newborn wondering how I was supposed to find safe, affordable child care in order to go back to work. I talked to every woman I knew about my dilemma before I was referred to someone only one week before the end of my maternity leave (yes, I was lucky enough to actually have maternity leave!). Although I was well-educated and well-paid, it was still a nightmare that continued through their preschool years.
Flash forward a quarter of a century. My daughter is now the mother of two little ones and, unimaginably, nothing has changed. Even though there are 439,000 children under the age of 6 in Michigan who potentially need daycare while their parents work, child care is still a hit-or-miss proposition. Good luck if you can find it. Even better luck if you can afford it.
In Michigan, child care for a single parent living at the poverty level with two children gobbles up a whopping 82 percent of household income, and about 70 percent for a similarly situated married couple, according to Childcare Aware. For these families, child care costs exceed the cost of rent and approach the cost of college tuition at a public university.
(By the way, subsidized care for low-income families is non-existent. In Wayne County alone, funding for subsidized child care has been reduced by 84 percent since 2008, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.)
Perhaps the exorbitant cost of child care could be justified if it was uniformly superior and the (mostly) women who take care of America’s most precious resource were highly paid. Instead, child care workers in Michigan earn an average of $22,000 a year.
That’s how little the United States cares about how human beings come into the world. And it doesn’t get any better for humans on their way out.
My parents are now in their 80s and need support in order to age with dignity. Once again, I’m finding that the public policy to help the aging is: “Find a woman to do it.” As a result, one in five women in the United States will become a family caregiver at an enormous personal cost.
In order to shoulder the overwhelming responsibility of eldercare, a third of these women will start working decreased hours. A third will pass up a promotion. Nearly one-quarter will take a leave of absence and one in five will switch from full-time to part-time (foregoing the benefits that come with full employment). Sixteen percent will quit their jobs and 13 percent will retire early.
At a time when they should be at the apex of their earning, middle-aged women thrust into caregiving experience a reduction in their income by 41 percent. According to the National Center on Caregiving, the average cost to female caregivers in terms of lost wages and Social Security benefits is $324,044.
That’s how the United States pays for end-of-life care – on the backs of women who do it for nothing.
If you total the sacrifices they make for bearing and raising children and caring for older loved ones, the average American woman is likely to spend an average of 12 years out of the workforce. This isn’t just expensive for women, but for society as a whole, in terms of lost productivity. It’s time for us to get serious about child care and caregiving. Taking care of the young, the aged and the infirm isn't just women’s work; it’s everyone’s job.