“Taking care of kids is work,” wrote economist Nancy Folbre last month on Twitter. Rather than saying parents cannot work we should say “parents can’t make money” because they are at home with children as schools close due to rising rates of COVID infection.
If there is anything this pandemic has revealed about Americans, it is surely the extent to which we do not want to be responsible for one another. There is no coherent national plan to deal with the COVID pandemic as we head into the winter months. People are worried, of course, but it is understood that any plan of action will be met with resistance.
When Gov. JB Pritzker issued executive orders mandating public health measures in schools, his administration was taken to court by parents charging that such orders required action by the state Legislature. Pritzker’s orders were upheld in court, but the response of parents reflects the difficult position they have been put in by the pandemic. Very little has been done to support parents during the unfolding crisis.
Once upon a time, the Federal government had a program to help families in need: Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), popularly known as “welfare,” which provided direct cash assistance. Many Americans felt the cash assistance encouraged a poor work ethic in recipients. The program was replaced in 1997 by Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) as part of welfare reform aimed at getting more people into the formal workforce. “The era of big government is over,” remarked President Bill Clinton at the time, “but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”
It appears that we can indeed return to such a time. Cash assistance to families has gradually fallen over the past 20 years and there does not appear to be any plan to change that, even in the face of a recession and a public health crisis.
Even before the crisis, there was a kind of resignation among American mothers. Caitlyn Collins, in her recent book "Making Motherhood Work," writes of women who blame themselves for falling short in their responsibilities to work while raising a family rather than asking for support from employers or the government. “I’m doing everything subpar,” said one mother interviewed for the book. And that was before the crisis.
Although we should be encouraged by progress being made towards a vaccine, we will not emerge unscathed from the pandemic. Besides the obvious losses in health, education, and employment, the unwillingness of Americans to get behind a national effort to meet the pandemic’s challenges will leave us worse off. When we could have done more, we did not. In a moment for coming together, we remained as divided as ever.
The failure of the progressive income tax proposal means the state of Illinois faces a large budget shortfall, and health and education services will face cuts in the coming year. Even if we return to something approaching normal next year, our lives will not be the same. We will be sicker, poorer, and less well educated. And yet this is the path we have chosen.
• Samuel Barbour lives in Ottawa and teaches economics to community college students.