by Andrea Calem
One important part of the evolving conversation about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, is the economic impact of child care on working women. This is particularly true for low- and middle-income women who are neither eligible for benefits afforded to those at the poverty level nor in a position to pay for acceptable full-time child care.
According to a 2010 report from the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, more than 11 million children under the age of five regularly spend time in some type of child-care setting every week because their mothers work—whether due to need or want (or both). The quality and cost of these facilities vary greatly; even where relatives provide the care, the cost is not necessarily free.
While men have increasingly assumed a greater portion of child-care responsibilities, it remains true that women are the ones who shoulder most of the load. Attention to issues of pregnancy, maternity, and paternity leave has provided some relief, but the obligations of parenthood hardly end after the first 12 weeks. School closures, school volunteerism, extracurricular activities, and a host of other child-care and family matters don’t wait for the weekend.
Many child-care providers, whether individually hired or working for child-care centers, must have care arrangements in place for their own children. Both women (and it is usually women on both sides) face personal, social, and economic costs when hours run long, a child falls ill, a storm hits, or a car breaks down.
A recent opinion piece by Lilian Faulhaber, an associate professor of law at Boston University, in the New York Times entitled “How the I.R.S. Hurts Mothers” notes that middle-class women, more than others, face economic disincentives to enter and advance in the workplace because of the federal tax code. Currently, the federal child and dependent-care tax credit decreases as household income increases. The practical effect is that the lower-paid spouse’s earnings (usually the woman’s) end up being taxed at a higher marginal rate. Since child care is, for the most part, paid from after-tax income, the cost of such care becomes an increasingly larger slice of the family’s income pie. When payroll and state taxes are added to the mix, many women take home only slightly more money than what they pay their child-care providers. Higher-paying leadership jobs—the ones to which Lean In encourages women to aspire—require longer hours, resulting in increased child-care costs. It is not surprising, therefore, that many women “choose” to opt out, rather than lean in.
These challenges are not new, nor are they the same for every family. But for many women who aspire to “lean in,” as Ms. Sandberg encourages, the decision involves more than personal ambition. As one successful woman has reminded us, “It takes a village.” Women cannot, and should not, be expected to negotiate these issues alone. Beyond leaning in, as a society, we should be facilitating and improving child care for working women.