Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Community, Kids, and Casserole

Did you know that during WWII, when this country desperately needed women to assist with the war effort, our government passed something called the Lanham Act, which provided grants to communities in support of need-based childcare.

In a matter of months, the Lanham Act enabled small communities to build the social infrastructure necessary to enable mothers to work at a time when most husbands were already engaged in the war effort.

The legislation was far from perfect, and it varied widely in implementation. But some communities used the Lanham Act to create truly revolutionary support structures for women who were raising young children essentially on their own. In most communities, the childcare was flexible enough to accommodate the wide-ranging schedules of war-time factory work. For many communities, the childcare facilities also provided hot meals for weary mothers to pick up along with their children. A few even offered cleaning services to assist with routine tasks at home.

Can you imagine how much easier work was for those lucky mothers who knew their children were well cared for during the day, had a nutritious meal waiting for them, and a clean house to come home to. Plus, they met all the other mothers in their neighborhood who were under the same pressures as they were.

Of course, the program was scrapped when the war ended, and mothers were expected to return home to their so-called “8 hour orphans.” Today, while the vast majority of women work, many of us can afford to hire our own Lanham-style infrastructure, engaging Merry Maids and Let’s Dish to help with cleaning and meals in addition to tracking down quality child care. We also expect and receive more support from our partners.

But what about the rest of us? If we can’t or don’t want to outsource the homefront, but still want to work, it’s exhausting to maintain a career, a home, and a family – even if both partners are sharing the work.

If we don’t have a partner to share the work, we’re in even worse shape, and this portion of the population is growing. Thirty years ago, almost 80% of kids lived in two parent households, compared to 67% today. Fully 30% of kids live in single parent families. Single parents make less money; in fact, fully 26% of single parents lived below the poverty line in 2000.

With staggering food and gas prices, that figure is surely going up.

How amazing would it be if we could bring back grant-giving legislation that would empower communities to rebuild the infrastructure to support single parents? We already subsidize day care, and provide food stamps. What if we consolidated this effort with the type of community-based, community building care and support that came out of some of the Lanham Act initiatives?

Parents could instead opt for healthy, ready to eat meals that could be picked up along with their children. Flexible day care facilities could accommodate diverse work schedules.

Parents would be left with a bit more time with their children and more resources to devote to their families.

Of course, I don’t have all of the details worked out or anything. There may even be programs like this in areas outside of Minnesota.

I really do keep busy during my days at home, from playing Hopscotch with Maya (teaching her number recognition and hopping skills) to pureeing squash for Elliot’s dinner, to taking care of things around the house. I realize that a lot of it could easily be done by someone else, or not done at all, but so much of what I do, most other women do in addition to working long days. I know it can be done, and I know many working parents are able to develop their own support structures.

But for those that can’t, I wish we could create community-based, supportive child AND family care systems to ease the burden.

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