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What Happens When You Can't Afford Your Children?

A mommy class war is on the rise. Working-class women are missing from the discussion about how to "have it all."

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Growing class-based differences in the cognitive investment in young children make these differences not just a problem for the parents, but for the life chances of the children. Despite their greater work-force participation, high-income mothers report spending as much time with their children as the mothers of a generation ago, and the fathers spend more time. “Helicopter” parents closely script their children’s activities as they schedule soccer practice, piano lessons, tutoring, and other activities, and juggle nannies, car pools and two-parent chauffeuring.

In contrast, working-class children are more likely to be left on their own or in the care of an unreliable cast of friends and relatives. They are more subject to the negative influence of dangerous streets and poor role models, and more likely to attend inadequate schools where parent involvement is more critical to educational success. Princeton professor Sara McLanahan observed that the class-gap in resources that comes from differences in family stability, income and parental time spent with children has increased dramatically over the last 40 years.

So, too, has the achievement gap. As Harvard’s Robert Putnam (and author of Bowling Alone) recently pointed out at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2012, there is an increasing class gap for children in the time spent with parents as well as in enrichment expenditures, and he concluded that the “bottom line” shows “growing class gaps among American youth in all predictors of success in life.”  

Remaking workplaces to accommodate families should be the ideal, but in today’s marketplace such proposals are likely to exacerbate class disparities. Instead, we should rethink family support at the societal level. Separating health care from employment through Medicaid expansion or insurance exchanges would allow employers to be more flexible in designing part-time employment, and allow parents to cycle in and out of the job market without losing healthcare benefits. Redefining unemployment assistance to include parents temporarily out of work because of family obligations would make it easier for families to manage without placing additional burdens on marginal employers.

On a longer term basis, real solutions include extending state-funded pre-school education and affordable child care and better coordinating the school day with parent’s working hours. All three proposals have the added benefit of addressing the cognitive development of the most at-risk children.  

Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. She is the author of numerous books and law review articles on gender and family law. June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Cahn and Carbone are the co-authors of "Red Families v. Blue Families."