by Ryan Tibbens
More school. That is Senator Kamala Harris’s suggestion to help working class families struggling with childcare bills. Harris, who built her career by putting more people into more government institutions for more time, is now vying for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, and as her campaign loses steam, she panders harder and harder to her base’s concerns. Unfortunately, Harris does not share many of those concerns, and when she does, she is so far removed from experiencing the problem on a personal level that her solutions seem tone deaf.
A few weeks ago, Harris suggested that, as a measure to ease childcare costs for working class families who pay for after-school care, we should keep public schools open for three additional hours each day, approximately 8am through 6pm. The senator, previously a successful lawyer, married for the first time at the age of 50 and now has two step-children. Regarding the difficulties of raising children on a budget, Harris shared personal experiences from her own childhood: “My mother raised my sister and me while working demanding, long hours, so I know firsthand that, for many working parents, juggling between school schedules and work schedules is a common cause of stress and financial hardship.” Interestingly, after somewhat-almost-kind of-supporting universal basic income, Harris now promotes a supposed working-class measure that actually benefits businesses. It is astonishing that, reflecting upon her own family’s situation through a child’s eyes, her solution is to make childcare cheaper, not to make parents get home sooner.
If America’s leaders are concerned about burdens on families, why not try to reduce the work day rather than lengthen the school day? School's primary purpose is not childcare, but politicians, parents, and social reformers conveniently forget that, again and again. Children need more free time, not more school; parents need more time with their children, not more time at work. Harris's bill is yet another example of how America's priorities are misaligned and of how good intentions in school legislation too often yield bad outcomes. While some companies and school systems are having success experimenting with a four day work week, others (and others and others and others) are finding benefits in a shorter work day. Given low unemployment rates and historically low birth rates, plus the oncoming wave of automation, modern economies will soon need to come to terms with the fact that few employers and fewer employees benefit from a long work week. But here we are – a serious presidential candidate for a major party “helping workers” by misusing schools as daycares so that employers can continue archaic eight-hour expectations.
The very real, very current problem is that she says she's helping young, working class families, but what she's really doing is subsidizing employers who don't pay their employees enough to afford decent childcare or those who require impractical, inconvenient work schedules. It's like how Walmart and McDonald's pay many of their workers far below the wages necessary for quality, independent living, but they get away with it because taxpayers pick up the deficit through a variety of housing, food, and healthcare assistance programs. Those programs are generally good, but we should oppose offering too much assistance to someone who has a real job because we're really transferring money from taxpayers to the corporate stockholders, using that underpaid worker to mask the transaction. If we want to help those workers, we should find ways to increase their wages rather than subsidize their employers.
Educationally and developmentally, most young people need more free time, more independent play and inquiry, not more time in the classroom -- particularly the elementary school-aged children that this program would target (high school kids don't go to babysitters after school). Plus, we already can't adequately staff our schools, so why on earth would it be a good idea to extend the hours and hire more people, further diluting the quality of the candidate/worker pool everywhere? Families need more time together, not more time working or being housed in government facilities. If you want to help working families, give them more time together, not a cheaper way to spend time apart.
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