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"You Can't Have Both": The Impossible Struggle of Working Parents in COVID Capitalism

Deb Perelman's call for consideration for working parents points to a societal neglect of humanity in the workplace.

In her impassioned, desperate diatribe on the increasingly untenable position of working parents—caught between work and child care in the reopening economy—food writer Deb Perelman asks her readers two incredulous questions:

"Why isn't anyone talking about this? Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it?"

As it turns out, those primal screams were waiting patiently for Deb Perelman to lead them in unison. Within minutes of her article going live in the business section of The New York Times, thousands of users on Twitter were sharing the link accompanied by choice quotes like, "Allowing workplaces to reopen while schools, camps and day cares remain closed tells a generation of working parents that it's fine if they lose their jobs, insurance and livelihoods in the process."


As Perelman's article makes clear, while law-makers and government officials have arranged plans to ensure that economic conditions return to normal as quickly as possible for wealthy business owners, there has been little apparent concern for how reopening measures would affect families with school-age children.

In Perelman's case, living in New York City, this lack of consideration reached a breaking point when she became aware of current plans for the fall school term. In order to ensure that each student is afforded a minimum of 65 square feet of classroom space, only a third of students will be in the school building in any given week—the other two thirds learning remotely.

For the time being, while the science on how COVID-19 is contracted and spread by children remains unclear, these sorts of measures are seen as necessary to prevent sudden, overwhelming spikes in the infection rate. But for parents like Perelman and her husband, this means that two weeks out of every three, their children—one approaching kindergarten, the other entering 6th grade—will need to be home.

The fact that Perelman's husband is among the tens of millions who have been laid off during the COVID-19 lockdown has made it possible to maintain child care while Perelman works from home, setting her own exhausting hours.

But what happens to them and countless other parents who are struggling to keep their children educated and supervised when he is rehired or forced to start looking for a new job? How are they supposed to pay their bills and take care of their children?

The problem is obviously even worse for parents who may not have had the option—like Perelman—to work from home, or haven't had the resources to maintain their children's education with online tutors and extra school supplies.

Here's what schools could look like this fall amid pandemic l GMA www.youtube.com

As Perelman points out, these and other issues with remote learning have already affected student outcomes and have likely expanded the existing achievement gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines. But those issues are certain to get worse as more and more parents are forced to return to work without viable child care options.

While the wealthy will be fine, many in the middle class (particularly mothers) will be forced to choose their children over their long-term career plans. And as for poor and working class parents, far too many will have no choice at all—will have to keep working and leave their children unsupervised.

While the proximate cause of this mess is obviously the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world and requiring adaptive measures to counter its spread, there is a deeper issue that can be tied—as with so many societal problems—to the structure of capitalism.

It's the same problem that English philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out in his essay "In Praise of Idleness". It's the same problem that recurs on a near constant basis in our society, but it's most evident in the aftermath of a crisis: At every opportunity to give workers more freedom, we instead choose to increase productivity.

When Russell published the essay in 1932, he had in mind the aftermath of World War I, when soldiers returned home from the front, effectively doubling the workforce.

As he notes, living standards and productive industry had been maintained throughout the war thanks to mechanization and thoughtful planning. The populous remained fed and clothed and housed despite the loss of so many workers to the war.

Less work was needed to achieve the same outcome, which meant that—when those workers finally returned—there was the option to allow everyone to work half as much and still make a living wage.

But no. Instead productivity was increased, workers were laid off, and it was still necessary to work 40 hours a week to get by. And that's where things in England, the US, and much of the world remain to this day.

The same dynamic was in play in the second half of the 20th century as it became the norm for women to join the workforce. There were twice as many workers, but rather than cut the work week in half, we kept it at 40 hours, increased productivity, and allowed wages to stagnate so that two incomes were soon necessary for a basic standard of living—and working mothers were still expected to perform traditional child care duties.

We've invented so many machines and systems to make our work lives more efficient and our home lives more convenient, but instead of framing these advances as opportunities to increase our freedom—to reduce the work week to 20 hours, as Russell suggests, and give workers the opportunity to redirect their energy toward their passions and interests, we treat them as tools to increase profit for those at the very top.

They replace workers with automation and outsourcing and pay those who remain less while investors and executives rake in more. Because growth of investment is the ultimate ideal driving the whole machine—even if that machine is wringing the life out of workers and the planet alike.

Right now around half of working-age Americans aren't working. The work force is set to return in a big way in coming months—just as it did after WWI. If we shifted our priorities toward a more humane objective, we could see this crisis and the aftermath not as another occasion to benefit the wealthy and push working people to their limit, but as an opportunity to increase the freedom and the happiness in the world.

Shift to a 30-hour work week (without reducing pay) and give workers—especially working parents—some flexibility for when they work those hours. Suddenly child care and home-schooling wouldn't be nearly such an overwhelming burden. Better still, provide them with that child care. Suddenly workers would have energy left over to find new ways to thrive—rather than only surviving.

It may seem far-fetched, but changes like this have happened before when workers were united. The only thing preventing it now is that we haven't all joined our voice with that primal, deafening scream and demanded what we deserve.

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