Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Distressed Investments

Michel Martin: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about why you think this is a significant issue beyond the - how can I put this? - the sort of personal distress of of individuals who find it very stressful for this particular period in their lives. I mean, why do you think that there's an issue that, in your view, should command everybody's attention?

Katha Pollit: Well, not having child care means that women can't go to work who want to go to work and whose families need that income. And that means a lot of women end up with kind of jerry-built arrangements and they fall apart. And then those women can be fired, which is completely legal. I mean, workers have very little protection in this country. Lack of stable, affordable child care is one of the reasons that women's work force participation has stalled even though women's education has increased.

So you've got a lot of women who are unhappily at home, which is something we don't hear that much about. And what that all means is that when women do go back to work, they don't get back to where they were. They have lost Social Security. They've lost a lot of the good things that come when you are working and earning a steady income.
A Democratic Case For Universal Child Care
What struck me at first about this exchange was the feeling that Ms. Pollit had appeared to effectively ignore the question. And as someone who was genuinely interested in why universal child care should command my attention, that was something of an annoyance. My personal understanding of the world is that the best way to have people support a policy is to articulate what's in it for them. But, upon reflection, it occurred to me that perhaps Ms. Pollit had actually answered the question. Or, perhaps more accurately, Ms. Martin had answered it; the personal distress of the women and families who feel the lack of available child care is the reason why this should command everyone's attention. It's the stereotypical "bleeding-heart liberal," the person who is motivated by other people's suffering to the degree that alleviating that suffering is not only an end in itself, but believes that everyone should be motivated by it as well.

Which is all fine and good, but the fact of the matter is that not everyone is motivated by the personal distress of others, especially when that distress strikes them as minor and/or overblown. There are any number of people who have managed to get by with jerry-built child care arrangements, with varying degrees of success. And Ms. Pollit's statements didn't come across to me as the sort of argument that would be compelling to everyone.

This is part of the reason why many people are poor political salespeople; understanding what motivates people unlike themselves is difficult for them. Call me hard-hearted, but if someone were to ask me for something, and I asked them why their cause should command my attention, an answer like Ms. Pollits would likely result in no deal. And, of course, that's likely to be exactly what would happen; the spurned activist would call me hard-hearted. But one of the (oddly) defining characteristics of the United States is people's tendency to see themselves as impoverished. And therefore, while they're not always tight-fisted, they are interested in the return to themselves on the investment that they're being asked to make. Sometimes, that return is simply the warm, fuzzy feeling that they may receive for having done something for their fellow human. It may, however, at times be something more concrete, especially when the big picture is concerned.

There's nothing wrong with funding people's needs when they're in dire straits for one reason or another. But if that funding goes into those needs and nothing comes back out, it's simply a drain. And that means that there is less for the next set of needs. And this is why I think that "What's the ROI?" is a more important question that we often give it credit for. If funding the child care for poor families makes things better for everyone, that investment returns something to the pot to be shared out again. And so while we might understand that for some people, a certain level of selfishness is at work, perhaps that shouldn't be the default assumption.

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