We have an infrastructure problem, but not the one we think.
On April 12th, 2021, the White House released a state-by-state report meant to assist with a federal proposal to improve nation’s roads, water access, internet access, and other assets. On the grading rubric, no state received higher than a C+ or lower than a C-. The report was too generous.
Though rightly concerned with things like industry and trade, it overlooks the nation’s more obviously pressing issues: The barriers that normal Americans face in the quest to support their families, best illustrated by the fact that U.S. birthrates have been in decline for the past 5 years. As this administration works to get the country back on track, we should give priority to investing in what I like to call “family infrastructure.”
Over the past few decades, families have faced a change in responsibilities regarding the upbringing of children. Once upon a time, the norm was that one parent served as a breadwinner while the other took care of domestic duties. Today, however, one income can rarely support the needs of a family. Increasingly, neither can two.
That is a problem in itself. More important, though, are the additional ills it produces downstream. When both parents work, it becomes difficult to give children the attention that they need. Problems like this are often invisible in mainstream discourse because they are difficult to quantify in economic terms. But they matter.
For one, because parents are the primary educators of their children – even if those children are enrolled in the school system. Parents endow their children with values, character, morality, in a way that no one else can. When we forcibly remove both parents from their children’s lives to work a 9 to 5 (if not longer hours), we deprive them of the social endowments that their parents are meant to provide. When you apply this developmental hobbling to an entire generation of children, you wound society as a whole.
Families living below the poverty line often do not have the privilege of involved parent/child development. There are public assistance programs meant to help with that, but they fall short of providing enough assistance to significantly change the future outcomes of the children with poor family infrastructure. Programs like SNAP can offer just over $100 for food and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) can offer a temporary 2 year monthly payment of around $400 with the stipulation that recipients must work to continue receiving assistance. These programs are vital, but the overwhelming costs of living in the modern era render much of their benefit null.
Consider, for example, that SNAP and TANF benefits apply primarily to single parent and no parent households. If you are a single parent to a child under 5, you generally cannot work without paying for childcare – unless you are fortunate enough to have a wide network of family members and trustworthy friends who are willing to shoulder the burden of childcare for you.
“Raising children will always be tough, but it should not be an impossible hill to climb.”
Depending on where you live, the low-end of childcare can cost anywhere from $5,000-$8,000 annually, or around $100-$150 a week. If you’re working a minimum wage job, that’s between 33% and 50% of your gross weekly income. If you’re fortunate enough to be making double the minimum wage, it only devours between 16% and 25%.
Creating a budget around these figures can be well nigh insurmountable, since working additional hours beyond the traditional (and often elusive) 40 hour week simply means pouring more money into childcare. If not a solution, there is at least a way to soften the blows that these phenomenon deal: Single parents – or families jointly making under $35,000 – should receive more support from the government to help alleviate these financial wounds and promote more time for parent/child development.
Obviously, the norm is that adults need to take hold of financial stability the old-fashioned way – through work. But the very blunt reality is that it is often simply not possible for the parents of children below school age to function as both providers and parents. Counseling parents to pick up a second job to fill in the gaps is not a solution – it alleviates the provider problem only by exacerbating the presence problem. And depriving children of their parents en masse is pothole in the infrastructure of the family here in the United States.
In this light, the recent COVID relief package is interesting. It provides stipulation to add monthly “child tax credits” of $300 when families have children under the age of 6, and $250 above that. Packages like this are a start. Still, we need more.
Because children are the future of the country, developing “family infrastructure” should be our top priority – above even roads, water and internet access. Physical infrastructure matters, but without the necessary family infrastructure it will do little to address the deeply-rooted issues of generational poverty and wounded child development.
Children pine for a positive and intimate relationship with their parents, but the ever-increasing financial burdens placed on parents wall countless families from ever realizing that goal. Investing in family infrastructure may brighten the future, at least a little bit. Raising children will always be tough, but it should not be an impossible hill to climb.
Vince Coiro is a husband and father of two sons residing in Missouri. He is an active member of the American Solidarity Party.