The Logical Conclusion of “Welfare Reform”
The big story yesterday on all my usual political blog stops was about a woman who was arrested because she let her 9-year old daughter play in the park alone. The woman was poor, black, and worked at McDonalds and did not seemingly have a personal social support network. From what I’ve read, she used to take her daughter to work and let the kid play with an Ipad but the the Ipad was stolen and the mom decided to send her daughter to play in the park while school was out instead.
Jonathan Chait called this the “convergence of helicopter parenting with America’s primitive childcare policy.” (1) I think he is absolutely right on the swipe against our family and childcare policies but go back and forth about helicopter parenting. Stories like this are unfortunately not too uncommon and when they happen, the internet is filled with stories and anecdotes about how children have lost the right to roam. Hundreds of thousands of outraged internet commentators talk about how when they were kids, they ran free like feral wolves. I am not sure how much of this is truth vs. rose-colored glasses.
I grew up in the 1980s. Both my parents worked but I was not a latch-key kid who came home and just watched TV. I went to an after-school program that was designed for kids with working parents until 3rd or 4th grade and then I started going to Hebrew School and Music Lessons. I do remember around the time I was 10 or 11, my parents would go out for date night and leave my brother and I alone in the house unsupervised. When I was 13, we were able to go to concerts without adult supervision. I remember my mom asking if we wanted to stay in the car while she ran errands and I usually picked staying in the car. I was not allowed to go into NYC by myself until I was 18 and a freshman in college. Older internet commentators talk about how they used to pick up packs of cigarettes and drinks for their parents when they were about 10, I am credulous on those stories but I guess they are plausible enough.
I remember going to a program on the weekends in elementary school and early middle school with arts and crafts type classes and stuff like go-karting and basic electronics. This seems rather activity packed like today’s kids.
Now all of this freedom might or might not be good and it depends on where you live. A lot of people talked about how they used to spend all day at the library and what was wrong with that. If you live in a well-to-do small town or suburb, that might be fine. However in many cities, libraries can often be filled with the homeless and other adults in needs of social services because it is the one place where they can go and not be harassed. The City Librarian often finds themselves as unofficial social workers (2). An urban library like this is not necessarily a great place for a kid to spend a lot of unsupervised time alone and I am sure that many librarians would also resent “defacto childcare” being added to their unlisted job responsibilities.
Many of my friends are starting to have children or have very young children. One thing I’ve noticed is that something about becoming a parent has caused a decline in their ability to reason at times. Every now and then my facebook feed is bombarded with Amber Alerts. It is futile to point out that Amber Alerts are almost certainly useless and when they are useful it is usually because of a custody dispute gone awry and the kids are not in real danger. The facebook posts usually ask people to repost the Amber Alert with an argument along the lines of “Come on, you would want people to post if it was your kid who was missing.” The narrative of stranger danger is strong in the United States (world?) and I am not sure what can break it.
The biggest problem though is that America has an absolutely abysmal child and family support system. We have summer camp but that is often very expensive. I went to summer camp that was organized by the town park district but I am sure that cost a good amount of money. Later on I went to something organized by the school district and then to sleep-a-way camp. None of these options seem available for parents with limited means except a lucky few who can get scholarships or some other benefactor to pay.
America needs to give up the fantasy of the two-parent home with one-parent working and the other as a full-time childcare person. We always had single parents and always will. Some or many of these single-parents are going to lack social support structures of their own and will need help with child care. I can see why letting a kid play alone for three days in the park might not be the best idea but it is the responsibility of government to help give affordable options like free or low-cost summer camp. This will mean raising taxes though so it is not going to happen.