Childcare – Who Pays?

“I’d love to work, but I’d barely make enough to pay for childcare,” says my friend, a mother of three. And I’ve heard this explanation from many stay-at-home-moms, heck, it was my reasoning for a long time as well. But assessing the cost of childcare solely to the mother’s income doesn’t make sense, says Joan Williams, author of Re-Shaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Instead, couples should view the cost of childcare as a cost of “protecting the economic future of the entire family, and specifically the children” and should share it.

According to Williams, who was interviewed last week on Michael Krasny’s Forum, mothers who take a year off to care for kids sacrifice 20% of their lifetime earnings and those who take two or more years off give up 30%. Ouch. This loss of earnings represents a real economic cost to the family and to the children, particularly if the parents should ever divorce.

The benefit of gainful employment is not just the current income earned, but also retirement savings and the longer-term benefit of remaining current in the workforce. But there is also another reason not to charge the cost of childcare solely against the mother’s income – because both parents have an interest in and obligation to the children, and because both partners’ ability to work outside the home depends on having someone care for their children. Childcare is not just “women’s work,” any more than breadwinning is just men’s work. In fact, according to Williams’ study, men now report a higher incidence of work-family conflict than women do. It’s in everyone’s interest that we expand the workplace family policy debate to include men as well as women.

P.S. The decision to stay in the workforce, take time off, or return to the work is a distinctly individual one and depends on each family’s needs and desires. Calculation of the costs and benefits is infinitely more complicated than outlined above, as it involves more than finances.