Wednesday, January 21, 2015

President Obama: Childcare is a Must-Have

Left: President Obama in the middle of saying the word childcare, a word which would be greeted by a standing ovation, and which he would say a total of 7 times during his speech.  Right: Government taking an active role in subsidizing childcare in America is currently out-of-fashion, but it isn't a new idea.
I married into a family of State-of-the-Union watchers, and I have embraced the tradition of watching the address live. Yesterday, we managed to get the kids (mostly) in bed and (mostly) asleep by the 9pm start, and so my wife and I snuggled up to hear what the President had to say. 

Over the past decade, these addresses have been peppered with words like "terrorist", "war", "recession", and "unemployment". Then, just about 14 minutes in, I heard a different word: "childcare".

"Wait, what?" said Margaret. "Is this really happening?"

Then, yes, it happened. President Obama told us that childcare is a national economic priority:

"During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national security priority — so this country provided universal childcare. In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever. It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us. And that’s why my plan will make quality childcare more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America — by creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year."

It's fair to say that, at this point in the speech, the President had our attention. With four kids and two professional careers, childcare has been the issue. And the President's words hit the nail on the head: I am exhausted by employers and the government turning a blind eye to childcare needs, or treating it as a wishy-washy extra, instead of the difference between feeling great about our careers (and staying in them) -- or not. Full time childcare in Boston costs at least $15,000 per year. Yes, our family can afford that now, but can I look a junior colleague -- a graduate student, postdoc, or a junior professor -- in the eye and tell him or her honestly that he or she can afford it and not to worry?

As I have written about before here and here, as women in astronomy make their way up the ranks, many are confronted with a very clear choice between pursuing a career or being the primary caregiver for a young family. There is excellent evidence that these issues are a (arguably, the) dominant force driving women out of the sciences between the receipt of the PhD and the acquisition of tenure.

At this point, Margaret and I wondered what might come next. The President didn't fail us:

"Here’s another example. Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own. And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do.

Of course, nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages. That’s why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time."


OK, I'm not naive. I don't think there is the political will in Washington to implement all of these goals. Nonetheless, hearing the President speak forcefully and decisively on these issues does matter. Imagine our country with affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and equal pay for women. And with men and women equally populating the ranks of senior scientists. Let's do it!