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How to Future-Proof Canada? Pay Parents!

Why aren’t the parties talking about the most important thing we can do to improve the lives of Canadians far into the future?

Crawford Kilian 25 Aug

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Years ago, the late writer Harlan Ellison issued a brilliant rant, “Pay the Writer.” He was understandably furious at the way Big Media expects writers to work for free, to be content with “exposure” for their efforts instead of payment.

Everyone else gets paid, he pointed out. The executives, the assistants who call the writers, the people who work on the sets.

Of course they do. That’s why Vancouver prospers from its booming film and TV industry, because all the people in those big white trucks get paid — and paid pretty well.

But they all depend on writers to think up something so interesting and entertaining that millions of people will pay to watch.

No script? No trucks, no cameras, no caterers, and the actors are all phoning their agents to complain. Yet the writers themselves get little pay and less respect.

And that suggests a way to pull ourselves out of the present pandemic and prepare for yet more disasters ahead.

Pay the parents. Invest in people who have kids as if each parent were going to create the next Shopify.

Treat bringing up children not just as a “motherhood issue,” but the critical first stage for economic recovery and adaptation.

And subsidize parents on something like the scale we’ve subsidized the fossil fuel industries that got us into this mess. After all, their kids will have to get us out of it.

In my long career in post-secondary education, I gained a keen awareness of how upside-down its priorities were. I discovered “Kilian’s Law of Educational Compensation.” The more time you teach kids, and the younger the kids, the less you’ll be paid and respected.

Child-care workers and others in early childhood education spend their days with toddlers and earn almost nothing. I taught some of them in the courses they took at night, when they dragged themselves into class, sneezing from the bugs they’d picked from their toddlers and fully aware of how little they’d be paid even when they were fully qualified after taking courses like mine. But they loved those toddlers, and were willing to subsidize the system and impoverish themselves just to spend time with them.

Their colleagues in primary, secondary and post-secondary, however, enjoy better pay and prestige, and less time in teaching the higher they rise in the system. High school teachers teach less than primary teachers, and college teachers teach even less, because their students are older.

Those who really thrive under Kilian’s Law are the university presidents and administrators. They don’t teach at all, and the people they don’t teach are adults.

In the days when I talked to teachers’ groups, I could count on a big round of applause when I suggested an alternative: Pay the early childhood educators at the top of the scale and reduce teacher salaries as the kids progressed.

By the time the kids hit post-secondary, professors would be lobbying Ottawa for funds to give them access to the feral geniuses their K-12 colleagues had created, and the university presidents’ role would be to find new reasons for such funding. (Regular employers, meanwhile, would be gratefully dumbfounded by the kids looking for work right out of Grade 12.)

Women and children last

Granted, this is a radical idea after at least 200,000 years of treating women, who continue to perform the bulk of child care and child-rearing, as expendable. Expendability brought their male offspring to their present dubious position as rulers of a very fragile planet. The current cost of their rule is five million children dying so far this year alone, along with some 200,000 of their mothers.

Not coincidentally, the countries where child and maternal mortality are highest are countries collapsing under the combined onslaught of the pandemic, economic exploitation, climate change and political extremism.

And even the prosperous countries worry about their aging workers and their childless young women. China has belatedly adopted a third-child policy. But like educated people in developing countries, young Chinese realize it’s tough enough to support yourself and your partner without also trying to raise a family. A few extra weeks of parental leave isn’t remotely enough. Meanwhile, Canada just hopes to attract over one million immigrants between 2021 and 2023 — who will eventually age out of the work force and become part of the senior problem.

Doomed by inequality

A century of research has proven that economic inequality creates societies in which each class is healthier than the class below it, and sicker than the class above it. Even the highest classes don’t live as long as they would have in more equal conditions.

But the lowest, poorest classes are doomed to bad education, ill health, violence, likely imprisonment and early death. Their chief economic contribution is the employment of police, prison guards and an elaborate judicial, penal and welfare system to keep them from being even more of a nuisance to their betters.

Pandemics only make matters worse. In 2006, Columbia University economist Douglas Almond tracked the lives of people whose mothers had been pregnant in the fall of 1918, when the influenza pandemic hit America hardest.

The Spanish flu killed most pregnant women outright. The surviving infants, Almond found, dropped out of school sooner, had more physical disabilities, needed more social assistance and earned less than kids born earlier or later. The boys were in more trouble with the law by 1940, when they were in their early 20s.

A 2016 Swedish study reported very similar results, especially for educational attainment, and found an impact even on the grandchildren of the 1919 babies.

“Our results indicate that intergenerational consequences of prenatal health… are much larger than previously imagined, and that from a policy perspective investments in maternal health generate payoffs that might accrue over several generations,” the researchers wrote.

A recent paper argues that Almond got it wrong.

“The exposed cohorts were born to families of lower socio-economic status relative to those who were not exposed,” the researchers wrote.

“Fathers of the 1919 birth cohort were less likely to be literate, worked in lower-earning occupations, had lower socioeconomic status, were older, less likely to be white, and had higher fertility than the fathers of surrounding birth cohorts.” But that is generally true of the vast majority of fathers (and mothers) in almost every birth cohort, including today’s. The 1918-19 pandemic and the war only aggravated the problems of that particular American cohort.

Nasty, brutish and short

Even if richer, better-educated potential fathers were off in the trenches in 1918, the point remains: poor people bear poor children, who are likely to endure lives that are “nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes described them in the 18th century.

But serious investment in maternal health and prosperity could give us a fighting chance to reach the 22nd century as a functioning, resilient country.

As we are today, a generation of kids is growing up in a world of worsening climate, food shortages and economic upheaval — and doubtless new pandemics as well.

Short-term political solutions may patch up Canada’s economy enough to win the current election, but the kids are living in the long term. They need to be as prepared as we can make them for a world utterly different from the old world. After all, it gave us climate disasters and a pandemic; we don’t owe that world a damn thing except a kick in the ass.

Consider instead someone who finds themselves pregnant for the first time. If they’re affluent and educated, chances are they want to be pregnant, and they and their partner have the resources to bring up their child with every opportunity for success.

If they’re not well off, even if the baby is very much wanted, they won’t have anything like those opportunities. The parents will struggle just to keep them fed and healthy. The support they get will be determined by an elaborate process, but it will be trivial compared to the cost of actually bringing the child up to age 18 — estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 a year. That’s $180,000 to $270,000 just to get one kid ready for post-secondary training or education.

When the average full-time working-class income in Canada is about $54,630 a year, a kid or two or three are liabilities, not assets. To meet their cost, both parents usually have to find work, which involves also paying for child care — which involves paying a fortune for services from workers who themselves are underpaid, or daycare would be even more expensive.

The marginalized are even worse off: three out of 10 female lone-parent families and their children live in poverty, not to mention Indigenous and Métis people, recent immigrants and persons living with disabilities.

Now suppose young parents, including the marginalized, were not just voters needing to be bought off with $10-a-day subsidized child care, but were wooed like foreign investors coming to Canada to found a new enterprise. They are not donating future taxpayers out of the goodness of their hearts, but as an investment in the country on which they expect to see a good return.

Four grand a month, for starters

Now the young parents get a note of congratulations and an immediate $1,000 cheque. If they accept the offer that comes with it, they agree to regular medical checkups through the pregnancy, free prenatal care and prescriptions, and $4,000 a month to the baby’s 18th birthday — not quite the average working-class income, but enough with the other partner working to get them and the kid (and the rest of the family) into decent housing with money left over for living expenses. It’s tax-free, but if both parents choose to work or go back to school as well, it’s taxed and they pay for child care. More than one kid? Call it $4,000 a month per additional kid, again to age 18. Big investors should expect big returns.

Working or not, the parents continue to get medical and social support, including free access to local groups and programs for them and their children. They find themselves part of a network of other parents, and learn from them. And it doesn’t matter whether the parents are traditional straight male-female, or single or LGBTQ2S+. The kids are important, and their welfare depends on their parents’ welfare.

The typical young parents, in other words, are now on a kind of basic income, like the people in the famous Dauphin, Manitoba, experiment. Participants reported improved health, mental and physical; many went back to school or started their own businesses. They certainly felt more in control of their lives, with a consequent reduction in stress.

As scholars like Richard Wilkinson have long documented, the stress of inequality is physically real and harmful — and it encourages harmful behaviour like alcoholism, smoking and drug use in a hopeless effort to reduce the stress. Inequality also erodes social capital, the implicit trust we normally have in our relatives, friends and neighbours. With an adequate income and social support, parents could bring up their kids with far less stress and anxiety, and the kids themselves would grow up the same way. And as the Swedes found, even the kids’ kids would benefit.

The pandemic has only aggravated the stresses of inequality as “essential” workers expose themselves to infection or lose their jobs, while less essential (but better paid) workers stay home and telecommute. Worse yet, the diseases of poverty like diabetes and obesity make poor people much easier targets for COVID-19.

The pandemic has also inflicted serious damage to children’s mental health, yet more stress on parents and yet more demand on sadly inadequate social and health services — not to mention schools already struggling to cope with the stresses of the pandemic.

How governments lose legitimacy

Ignored as just the tough luck of the “underprivileged,” these stresses are precisely what has made COVID-19 the biggest threat unequal societies have faced since perhaps the 14th-century Black Death drove up the price of now-scarce peasant labour. Virtually every government in the world has lost at least some of its legitimacy since early 2020. In theory, every government is supposed to be able to take care of its own people; in practice, very few of them can.

Once revered as the health-care leader of the world, the U.S. is now a world leader in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Authoritarian states like Vietnam and democratic ones like Australia look equally battered by the Delta variant.

And now Canada sleepwalks into an election on Sept. 20, just as the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group predicts we will be well into yet another wave — this one affecting largely children under 10, who are “nine per cent of the population but 36 per cent of the unvaccinated population.” As the group warns, “Cases will soon exceed record levels.”

No federal or provincial party seems to want to consider this prospect as an election issue. But if it happens, no party and no government will emerge undamaged. Kids will crowd our ICUs, their schools will be closed yet again, parents and teachers will be furious, and health-care workers will resign in droves.

The toll will be horrendous. But historically, governments have always squandered their people’s lives, especially those of women and children.

Canada could break with that nasty, brutish and long tradition. We could redefine ourselves as a nation of people who take real care of one another, not as a nation of cannon fodder at the disposal of the ruling class. We should recognize that our children are our greatest resource. Parents — women, in particular, who still tend to do the bulk of child-raising — deserve not our sentimental clichés but our admission that without them we are literally nothing, biological dead ends.

To future-proof Canada, we will need all hands on deck, with every pair of hands as capable as we can make them. The pandemic has taught us that traditional Band-Aid solutions are useless. All over-stressed, unwell and under-educated Canadian parents and children will be problems. Properly funded and supported, they will be formidable solutions to the multiplying problems of this century.  [Tyee]

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