About a month ago, Paul Ryan made some comments about the declining birth rate in the US. And I have some comments back.
Now this may sound strange coming from a woman who just announced her pregnancy. However, this is my first baby. I’m in my mid-30s. I’m not sure I am going to have another baby. There are lots of reasons for why I may not. But certainly the way the US treats families is going to be at least part of the deciding factor for me. So I say if Paul Ryan is going to make such demands of us then I have some demands for him and his colleagues. Here they are:
#1. First and most importantly, unconditional policies that protect low-income families. Lest we forget that in 2014, Paul Ryan suggested we cut free school lunch programs so poor children would know they are cared for (?!). In 2016, he admitted he used to think of impoverished, single mothers as “takers.” And while he claims that he now understands the cycle of poverty, he continues to rail against people on welfare, seeming to imply that they choose to be on welfare because it’s easier than getting a job. All while telling us to make more babies.
But first, I’d like to see our minimum wage change to a living wage, varying depending upon where someone lives and the cost of living in any given place. A living wage that ensures people do not need to supplement their income with cash assistance and SNAP (foodstamps). The answer is not to cut benefits so that people no longer make more on welfare than they do at some job paying abysmal wages. The answer is to ensure there are no abysmal wages.
I’d like to see recognition that welfare to work doesn’t work. While having a higher minimum wage is necessary, sometimes people need welfare benefits, sometimes for a long time and for a variety of reasons. The notion that any able-bodied person can and should work is ableist and ignores invisible disabilities, including debilitating mental health and neurological conditions. Trust me, I know firsthand that someone can look well on the surface but be anything but well. The most important thing is that individuals and families are able to get their basic needs met whether through full-time work or through benefits. All the time and energy we put into interrogating and judging poor people about how they earn money and live their lives is not helping anyone. Especially not their children – those very people who Ryan would like to see “living their full potential.”
We need universal daycare and preschool. If both parents need or want to work then we need a system that supports working families. And, well let’s face it if we’re all going to be shouldering the cost of baby boomers’ (and future generations’) retirements then both parents probably need to work regardless of their household income. These benefits would also provide benefits for children. Beyond the obvious that less stressed parents are good for children, pre-school is excellent for young children’s development. And despite this, there is no guarantee young children can have access to this resource. We need to shift away from pro-birth mentalities and be focusing on pro-family, pro-woman and pro-child policies, which unconditionally accept all the forms families can come in. We also need policies that maintain and increase access to reproductive health care, recognizing this is necessary for well families and a well society.
And… we need to hear more from poor people themselves. I can only make so many recommendations without inevitably overlooking many of their needs. If Ryan thinks he knows what is best for the poor, I’d like to see where his commitment to listening to them has been and if he can be willing to hear them.
#2: Policies that end disparities. This one builds off number one but expands inclusion to other marginalized groups such as people of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, people facing intersectional oppression and so on.
This would include improving maternal well-being across all races. While there is disparity in maternal health outcomes in the US depending upon which region you live in and I’d guess which class you belong to, it is well-documented that black women are more likely to die during and after childbirth than white women. The recent story Serena Williams shared illustrates that a black woman’s wealth and status do not exempt her from this increased risk. While many sources say there is no single explanation for this, it is undoubtedly NOT a coincidence that this racial disparity occurs in a country that built itself on the enslavement, breeding, segregation and mass incarceration of black people. If this is a problem society created then society can certainly end it too. I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan and the rest of congress. Do the right thing and ensure our health care systems are providing better and equal care to all people.
Part of increasing black mother’s well-being would be to listen to and follow the recommendations of the Black Lives Matter movement. Founded by mothers, the group can speak to their needs and what must change to ensure black families are safe and, among other things, black parents are not disproportionately affected by child loss and the murder of their children.
In addition, we need to ensure same-sex parents and their children are treated with respect and given the same opportunities as children of heterosexual parents. This includes protecting equal access to marriage but also expanding rights to people who have long-term domestic partnerships. We must ensure recognition and policies that include pregnant people who are not cis-women. There are people who have a uterus and perhaps are expecting but do not identify as female and their voices and experiences must be included in our public discussions and policies.
There needs to be better care and education given to children with disabilities. This means upholding FAPE and only granting positions of power to people who understand IDEA (cough, Betsy DeVos, cough – you shouldn’t have the job you do!). It also means continuing to hear from individuals with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities about their experiences and their needs.
Our policies must be inclusive and reflective of the realities and complexities of the human experience. The rest of these recommendations build off this staple that policies and social norms must be inclusive to low-income folks and other marginalized groups. With that focus, the following, hopefully, will benefit everyone.
#3: Paid family and medical leave for all workers. This could cover a variety of things including caring for a sick relative or time needed for surgery or other medical care. It would also include paid parental leave for all parents whether they are expecting a biological or adopted child. In heterosexual couples (where there’s no DV, that is) paid parental leave can decrease defaulting into restrictive, traditional gender roles. Not to mention that caring for a child on your own is challenging, even if it is just for part of the time. If there is a single parent, perhaps a loved one of this person could also use this benefit to assist them in caring for a new baby. It takes a village, dammit, and we need to have policy that supports this reality.
At the job my husband had two years ago (before the first lay-off), he was guaranteed six weeks paid parental leave. While I was psyched he got that, knowing it would make a big difference for us, I also was resentful. We plan to have a biological child (or children) and as we all know, childbirth takes some time to recover from. Not to mention, what if I require a c-section? That complicates and lengthens the needed recovery time. And then there’s breastfeeding. As much as I want to breastfeed, I’ll be honest and admit there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel like I have a choice. There is so much pressure to breastfeed that I know I’d feel so guilty if I didn’t try it. And if for some reason I can’t breastfeed, I’ll feel awful because society makes you feel like you’re basically poisoning your child if you give them formula. Newsflash – there are times new parents can’t breastfeed and their babies turn out fine! In any case, I plan to breastfeed so between pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, it did not seem at all right that my husband got paid leave and I did not. Of course in his new job he doesn’t get any paid leave. So now neither of us do. C’est la current vie in the USA.
Paid family leave needs to be longer than twelve weeks. If I take the standard twelve weeks, my baby will not even be three months old when I go back to work. And I’m “supposed” to breastfeed for the first year of his life! Not to mention sleep deprivation and physical recovery. Or the fact that our baby will only be a baby once and I don’t know, it might be nice if both my husband and I were able to be there for those early months without having to plan to go back to work prematurely. And let’s face it, I’m one of the “lucky” ones if I get to take the full twelve weeks. I’ve seen colleagues come back to work after eight weeks because they could not afford longer. Eight weeks! A report from a few years back found that in the US, 25% of moms return to work within two weeks of having a baby. That just seems punitive and if you read the accounts of these new moms, it’s downright nauseating. And Paul Ryan wants us to work and have more babies! Paul Ryan, give both parents the PAID time they need so we can keep working. Don’t subject families to inhumane conditions by forcing one in four of us back to work two weeks after bringing a baby into the world. You say you did your part. I say you did your part for your family. Now in your position of power, truly do your part and enact policies that support working parents. It is truly disgraceful to see the contrast between the rest of the world, industrialized nation or not, and the United States in terms of paid parental leave. The contrast makes clear we are, in fact, a nation of takers and makers but contrary to what Ryan once believed, the makers are the majority of us while the takers are those at the top. But he and his colleagues can and should change this. And they should remember that paid leave means continuance of paychecks, which means more paying into our social security and medicare systems.
4. Single payer health care. All people deserve quality healthcare. I’ve heard people complain that public health insurance benefits are better than private health insurance benefits. And, in my experience, these people often aren’t wrong. Private health insurance companies, in general, are profit-driven, not person-driven. Some people think we need to do away with public health insurance programs but the ramifications of that would be horrible for poor people but also for people with complex medical needs. I think public healthcare should be the option available to all. Countries that have single-payer healthcare tend to score better in terms of health and well-being. And while, as I mentioned before, certain groups are disproportionately affected by maternal death in the US, our country has a shockingly high rate of this across the spectrum. I don’t think it takes much effort to make the case that the US needs better health care.
One might argue that government healthcare would increase taxes. But it’s important to consider how much of your current paycheck goes towards buying insurance through your work and then having to cough up money for co-pays and deductibles.
Not to mention, it is just not any of my work’s damn business. My work is pretty progressive but I hate that something so personal is tied to my employer. When I went through all I did with my miscarriage, questions came up about my deductible and HRA. Granted, I didn’t need to tell my employer exactly what happened. But I didn’t want to be speaking about it all with the HR person at my work. Even if I just said, “oh yeah I had surgery” or “I had to have a procedure done” – I was still having to bring up topics related to something very painful in my life. And I suppose this would still happen even with single payer care. If you need leave, you’ll have to give some explanation. Still. Why increase the amount of overlap between personal and professional life? It truly adds insult to injury.
Speaking of insult to injury, let’s talk about how I felt when I got a bill in mid-December for over $600 to cover the anesthesia for the D&E I’d had for my miscarriage seven months before. It would have been nice to have a heads up that I would be getting this large bill and right during the holidays, nonetheless. Better yet, it would have been nice to have all aspects of this painful part of my life covered and to know that no one out there had to chose between their physical health and their financial well-being. The trauma of many health concerns is difficult enough without factoring in stress related to a bill. We need better, compassionate and unconditional care. And we need it now.
This may be just a start but this is what I’d like to see change. And whether or not I have a second child may just depend on Paul Ryan. Anyone else feel the same?