For as long as I can remember, conversations about my future career plans have gone hand-in-hand with conversations about when I plan to start a family. As a woman, it’s not uncommon to hear pointed questions like, “When you’re working, who will take care of the kids?” and “How will you have time to be at home?” when discussing career ambitions.
While the gendered nature of this discourse angers me, I can’t deny that I have a hard time finding answers to these questions. Under our current system, it is extremely difficult to raise a child while a part of the American workforce. And tragically, this lack of child care access disproportionately affects working women.
While this issue may seem like a far-off worry for Penn students, child care should be of significant concern to us as we enter the workforce. Since the federal government gives companies autonomy over many employee benefits related to child care, our future employers can heavily influence our ability to access child care. This is especially true for issues like paid maternity or paternity leave.
Currently, the United States is one of only a handful of countries that does not mandate paid parental leave. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), mandates eligible employees be allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, many single or low-income parents cannot afford to go that long without pay.
I didn’t begin to strongly consider this issue until I watched my sister go through her struggles as a working mom.
During my freshman year at Penn, my sister, who was pregnant with her first child, was diagnosed with preeclampsia. Only a few days following her diagnosis, she had an emergency C-section while only seven months pregnant. Still, she was lucky compared to most working parents.
In her case, her company allowed her eight weeks of paid maternity leave and eight weeks of paid disability, allowing her to take almost four months of paid leave. In addition, when she decided to take two extra months off on unpaid leave due to her daughter's premature condition, she was able to afford the limited period of having a single income and rely on her husband's income.
This is not the case for many families. While my sister’s company offered weeks of paid leave, many companies offer much less, if any, paid time off. This is especially difficult for parents of premature or sick children who may need significantly more time off.
In 2017, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the FAMILY Act which would provide paid family and medical leave. However, the bill has not passed.
Beyond parental leave, accessing high quality child care at an affordable price is incredibly difficult in this country. In many states, child care can cost thousands of dollars a year, with the cost getting higher as the quality of care increases. For low wage workers, the cost of raising a child is essentially unbearable. In addition, many rural low-income areas are considered “child care deserts,” where there are few to no child care providers in the region.
Former Penn Law professor and current presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, has been vocal about her personal struggles accessing child care. Early in her career as a law school professor, Sen. Warren (D-Mass.) almost quit her job to raise her two children after being unable to access high-quality child care in her area.
Last year, Warren proposed a plan for universal child care. Under her plan, families who make less than 200% of the federal poverty line would be able to access free child care through local providers. For families that make over the 200% line, child care costs would be capped at no more than 7% of the families income — significantly less than the 25% most families pay now for child care in the United States.
Child care reform may not be the most trendy political issue, but it should be. As Penn students we must pay close attention to issues of child care access and paid leave as we prepare to enter the workforce and especially as we consider what issues matter to us in this upcoming presidential election.
UROOBA ABID is a College junior from Long Island, N.Y. studying International Relations. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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