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What makes the dollar strong?

Aug 23, 2019

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For working parents, summer break is no vacation

Rowan Moore Gerety May 23, 2016
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Wanda Gomez registers voters outside a grocery store during her sons’ spring break. Her sons say “Today is a pool day,” but Gomez has to work.
Rowan Moore Gerety/WLRN

Over spring break, Wanda Gomez said her sons knew exactly where they wanted to spend the afternoon. “They said, today’s a pool day, but like, we cannot go to pool, because I have to work,” she said.

That’s how it goes all summer long. For many parents, public school offers an important benefit beyond education: free child care. Gomez has a 5 year old and a 14 year old, and she often brings them along to her job, registering new voters outside a local grocery store. “It’s more difficult when they start, ‘Mommy, I’m hungry; Mommy, I’m tired; Mommy, I’m thirsty,’” Gomez said.

Gomez said there’s no way she could afford child care for every shift she has to work. Most parents in her situation rely on a patchwork of favors from relatives, and tag teaming—where one spouse works early, and the other works late. Even so, lots of parents miss work altogether or make the tricky decision of leaving their kids at home.

“Often, in low-income families, the choice is between leaving your kids home alone, or getting fired, becoming homeless and losing your kids,” said Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “Which would you do?”

Williams said most workplaces are set up for employees who have somebody else to take care of their children. “Who does that describe? It describes the dad of the 1950s.” What’s more, Williams said, our school year is still designed around the agrarian calendar, a holdover from the days when kids were expected to help out on the family farm all summer.

Today, just a fraction of the American workforce gets child care benefits from employers, and those benefits are mostly absent from lower-paying jobs.

Marianne Raney, a single mother of five who works at a McDonald’s outside Miami, said she’s got another solution in mind: “I tried to find an all-year round school…my kids hate it, but I tell them, ‘Hey, the more school the better.’” In the meantime, she said she’ll call on her sister and her mother to help her get through the summer. 

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