I dropped my five-year-old and four-month-old at daycare the day it reopened the second week of June. The scene was dystopian, at best. I wasn’t allowed in the building. A stranger in a mask checked all of our temperatures and reached for my baby to bring him to a classroom I won’t see anytime soon, with teachers I might never meet. I’m going to work because I have to, not because I want to. I’m terrified of someone in our family getting sick; all of us getting sick at the same time; someone not making it. I worry about the negative impact on my infant, when his smiles are not reciprocated by his masked caregivers. He can’t see their mouths, but I doubt they’re smiling anyway; they, too, are working because they have to, not because they want to.
As schools all over the country prepare to adapt long-term distance learning programs or hybrids involving part-time in-person instruction with staggered schedules, the needs of working parents like me are being almost completely ignored. We keep hearing “school isn’t childcare.” The disturbing reality, however, is that school is childcare in the United States. In a country that already has a childcare problem, school closures will increase the existing need for financial support for families. To say we shouldn’t have had kids if we can’t afford them is not helpful at this point. We do have kids, and if we quit our jobs to take care of them, we’ll be homeless.
It’s not lost on me that there are women out there who can’t afford to work in the first place: as single parents, my mother and my grandmother were part of that demographic. I’m one of the lucky ones because I can afford daycare, but I can’t afford a nanny when the daycare inevitably closes again during COVID spikes. At present, the city I live in has announced that public schools will be virtual until at least November, but our daycare has not yet said whether or not it will accommodate school children all day, or how many openings they will have if they do.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) seems like a no-brainer, but no one is talking about it. Instead it seems like articles on the topic of pandemic childcare focus on the inequities of “the second shift” and how a woman will have trouble re-entering the workforce if she takes time off. What about parents who actually can’t afford to leave their jobs because their household depends on two checks? Being able to think about big-picture issues like career development during a global crisis is a privilege that many don’t have. I’ll gladly return to smashing the glass ceiling once I’m out of survival mode.
The op-eds about the school reopening debate seem to come entirely from wealthy white women who engage in freelance writing for fun, but clearly do not have a full-time job outside of the home that is keeping them from supervising their children. I’ve also seen many essays from teachers, begging parents to consider keeping their children home, even if it’s “inconvenient” or “difficult.” For white collar professionals with cushy work-from-home jobs, supervising their child’s virtual learning might be inconvenient, but for people like me, it isn’t even possible.
A common argument against UBI is that people will lose the incentive to work. During a pandemic where staying home is being recommended by health experts, we need people who are willing to be unemployed. People who are at a high risk for complications, those who are caring for elderly or sick family members, and parents of young children should be allowed to stay home if they want to or have to, without worrying about becoming destitute.
My husband and I are among the 78% of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. We are paying more than $500 a week for childcare: a monthly rate that’s higher than our student loan debt and our mortgage combined. Our house was not gifted to us, and we are not expecting an inheritance either. I grew up in poverty and neither of my parents ever owned anything. Articles about pandemic childcare often discuss the pros and cons of letting grandparents babysit when schools are closed, but that’s not even an option for us. Both of my parents are dead because people of lower socioeconomic statuses have a shorter life expectancy and they’d still be working if they were alive because the ability to retire is also a luxury in this country.
All of this is to say that people like me do not have a year’s salary saved up for emergencies, like rich people seem to think we should. With UBI, parents would be able to choose to leave their jobs and stay home, or put their UBI towards childcare if they are working. UBI could act as a safety net for unexpected pandemic costs. My husband had a salary reduction due to COVID-19, and I have no paid sick leave at the moment because I had to use it when I had a baby in February of this year.
Politicians appear overly excited about adding new caregiver jobs to the economy, but low wage jobs that come with a high likelihood of contracting COVID are not attractive to most people. My kids’ daycare teachers show up to expose themselves daily for less than $11 an hour because if they refuse work, they won’t be eligible for unemployment compensation.
While school closures will cause mostly financial turmoil for some, reopening them even partially will have disastrous health effects on families in lower income neighborhoods and on people of color. This is why we need to call for a complete shutting down of schools while providing UBI. Allow daycares to operate at reduced capacity for truly essential workers, like medical professionals and grocery store employees. Give all of these workers a wage they can live off of in their city or town, along with paid sick leave and UBI. Permit working from home when possible, with accommodations for parents who have to supervise young children, and give parents the choice to stay home when remote work is not feasible or desired. We are not just inconvenienced like many op-eds have suggested: we are struggling to stay alive and have our basic needs met.
The rich can stand to be taxed for UBI at least temporarily. After all, we can’t fix their economy if we’re bankrupt, and we certainly can’t fix it if we’re dead.
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