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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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On the High Wire:
How the Working Poor Juggle Job and Family Responsibilities


 What's the Problem?

To understand the difficulties faced by the working poor, we must begin with the characteristics of their jobs - as fast service providers, hospital attendants, maintenance men, and housekeepers. While tight labor markets in many of the nation's cities have led to wage increases for these workers, among the working poor who have the misfortune to live in communities that are still plagued with high levels of unemployment, these jobs typically pay poorly, offer no benefits and frequently demand shift-work or irregular hours. The low pay means that parents have very few options for child care: they have to take what they can get on the unregulated child care market or rely on the kindness of family members to look after their children. Both of these options have their downsides.

Informal or so-called "home care" typically exists below the radar screen of public agencies that monitor the ratio of caregivers to children or the safety conditions of the buildings where children are being looked after. At the low end of the spectrum, caregivers rarely have had any training in early childhood education, but are experienced mothers themselves, who often take care of their own children at the same time that they care for others. This is a career track for many women on welfare, and low skilled women in general, who may return to this job even after their children are too old to need daycare. The costs are high for their working poor customers: typically $50-100 per week per child, a substantial chunk of a minimum wage earner's take home pay (which with full time hours would amount to about $200 per week). Quality is hard to assess. However there are reasons for concern. Jody Heymann of the Harvard School of Public Health has done extensive research with low income mothers on the quality of the child care they receive: her work is filled with stories of young children left in cribs all day, with diapers that are never changed. From own research confirms her findings. Hence it is far from surprising that low income working mothers and fathers worry about their children's safety because they are not sure that their childcare arrangements are really appropriate.

Because of the expense and the quality concerns, it is not uncommon to find that poor workers turn instead to family members for help with child care. Two patterns were evident among the Harlem families I studied in 1993-95 : single mothers who working for low wages often relied on their own mothers and sisters who were receiving welfare to look after their children, in exchange for a regular contribution to the maintenance of the household budget. In essence, there is - or rather was, until welfare reform began to take hold - a large army of state-subsidized childcare workers among AFDC recipients. This is the only childcare that many low income workers can afford, hence they rely on family members with whom they live while paying a tithe (that is subject to constant negotiation, leading to efforts to conceal windfalls like tax returns from the watchful eyes of kinship daycare providers who would always like a greater contribution). In some instances, the female kin of the child's father stepped in to offer a hand, but this was generally too irregular to rely upon for steady childcare.

The second pattern of kinship care I observed involved a complex hand-off either between husband and wife (both working low wage jobs) or between sisters, each with children. Someone goes to work while the other person looks after the children; then the roles reverse. In some families, this takes the form of 8 hour childcare shifts, with adults going to work at 6am, 2 pm, and midnight. The children are always supervised, but the adults have almost no time together. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find that the adults "in charge" are sleeping during the time they are responsible for their children's care. Such a pattern is familiar in many blue collar households with young children, where the collective income is not high enough to afford child care or for cultural reasons, institutional childcare is not deemed desirable. I do not know of any studies that assess the consequences of this kind of childcare on marital quality, but our fieldwork suggests that parents are routinely exhausted and find it hard to maintain their own relationships with so little time together.

The difficulties with any of these forms of childcare are legion. When personal relationships fray, childcare can fall through. When quality is a concern, parents can be overwrought with worry. When anyone gets sick - parents, children, or caregivers - the delicate arrangements can come undone in short order. Indeed, pressures brought on by illness are generally ignored as far as families can push it: hence children are sent to childcare with bad coughs; employees are on the job when they are sick. More problematic still are the circumstances of those working families with chronic disease problems. The incidence of asthma and diabetes has been climbing at a worrisome rate among the inner city poor. With medical care often reduced to the emergency room - instead of the preventive care that might make a difference - chronic conditions can become life threatening. Even when they are under control, they can vastly complicate the task of finding childcare and/or managing job obligations when someone has to be hospitalized.

Among the low wage workers I studied, it was very common to find steady workers become "unreliable" when their children or grandmothers developed health problems. The working adults in between were solely responsible for the care of these dependents and with no real backstop, often had no choice but to leave work (or among the teens, to leave school) to look after the sick family member. Even when employers are sympathetic, they will not look the other way for very long. Irregular work attendance is a one-way ticket to unemployment. I found this most commonly the case for workers with short job tenure. Employees who had built up a reservoir of good will through long years on the job were shown more flexibility to take time off and make it up later. But it is in the nature of low wage work to be in a high-turnover environment, hence few workers had these "brownie points" to spend. Most were let go if they became unreliable due to family health problems.

Even when employers show flexibility in terms of time, they virtually never provide paid leave to contend with emergencies at this end of the labor market. These workers cannot forgo so much as a single day's pay and keep their families afloat. They are often on the edge of financial catastrophe even when they work full time. Financial vulnerability pushes most families into safety nets of their own making: borrowing from friends and kin, doubling up in households, taking in boarders to help with the rent, combining low wage earners with welfare, SSI or Social Security recipients in the extended family to make ends meet. These elaborate arrangements run on the rules of reciprocity which in turn require some stability in the resources that members can contribute.

While participants who run dry on occasion can lean on partners to make up the difference, someone who is perpetually down and out will be ejected from these "sharing networks," sent packing on the grounds of parasitism. This stricture often applies to men who are unemployed - brothers, sons, and boyfriends - who in time may come to be defined as a drain on the resources of a household. Pressure builds among the contributing partners to eject men who are perceived as using up money, food, or patience, while not pulling their weight. Hence one consequence of a stripped down childcare or health care system among the poor is a fraying of the social fabric that might otherwise envelope, however uneasily, the lives of poor men.

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