I recently attended a forum on education in Arizona hosted by the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce. David Garcia, Democratic candidate for Arizona governor was the speaker. It was an excellent presentation, and one point really stuck with me. He said that the number one ingredient for a student’s success at school is having a “stable family”, closely followed by community support. (I think those two items are interdependent, but that’s an essay for another day).
I agree with this point- stable families are the key to successful children- but I think we have to take this statement a step further. “Stable” families come in many different forms, and should not by default mean traditional/nuclear/patriarchal. In fact, this family structure is as likely as any to not be stable, as inequality and rigidity does not translate to stability or happiness. The overwhelming majority of domestic violence and sexual assault women experience happens inside the “traditional” nuclear family.
Dr. Garcia suggested that stability does not necessarily mean wealth, as children in wealthy unstable homes are at more risk than children in less well- off but more stable homes. I agree with this statement as well, but only to a point. Sure, “less well-off” kids are probably fine, but actual poverty is the most brutal destabilizer of families and lives. Worrying about feeding/clothing/sheltering yourself and your children every day destroys the possibility of a normal, stable environment at home- especially if there is no actual home.
The pitch for “family stability” means nothing if we close our eyes to the reality of the world we live in and pretend it’s still the 1950’s. Today, only 20% of Americans are married by age 29 (compared to 60% in 1960). For the first time in American history, single women outnumber married women. Independent female adulthood finally exists, but this independence can be punishing. Many single women are poor or struggling. 50% of the 3.3 million Americans earning minimum wage or below are unmarried women, often living with children in communities where unemployment, racial and class discrimination, and a drug war that puts many young men in prison combine to make the possibilities of stable marriage scarce. Singlehood often isn’t the freeing choice it should be, but a socially conscripted necessity. The expanded presence of women as independent entities means a re-distribution of all kinds of power that has historically been wielded mostly by men. This is a nightmare for social conservatives. If we truly value stability, we need a rethinking of who women are, who men are, what the family is, and who holds dominion within and outside of it.
If we really believe in making families stable, we need to acknowledge that women are a part of almost every family, as well as the head of a growing number of families, and we need policies that support this fact. It is no longer acceptable for government (and businesses) to prop up and subsidize the outdated model of man at work, wife and kids at home. We need policies like:
• Strong equal pay protections that acknowledge women are often breadwinners; their work should not be discounted with the outdated idea that they are supported by a husband so they don’t need the money they deserve and earn.
• A higher federally mandated minimum wage, since women make up 2/3 of minimum wage workers.
• A national healthcare system that covers reproductive healthcare including access to all forms of birth control and termination of pregnancy if needed.
• Government subsidized day-care programs that allow families of every structure to thrive. (Most adults can’t leave work at 2pm to pick up kids.)
• Paid family leave for women AND men. Women and men should be sharing the work of childcare more equitably.
• Universal paid sick day compensation.
• Support for alternate family structures. We can’t continue to function as if every worker has a wife caring for his home and children for free, or as if every wife has a worker on whose paychecks she must depend.
This list is by no means complete, but gives an idea of what is needed to make sure our children, the next generation, are able to thrive. Along with their parents, regardless of their gender. Not just a meaningless call for “stable families”, but an actual commitment to making sure they happen, in whichever form is best. And making sure women are valued, because we are a major part of the equation (often the foundation).
I want to end with one last comment about education. The main reason teachers have such low pay is because across the country, teaching is an overwhelmingly female profession, and in fact has become more so over time. Women’s work is valued less than men’s. Jobs dominated by women pay less on average than those with higher proportions of men, and studies have shown that these careers tend to enjoy less prestige as well. More than three-quarters of all teachers in kindergarten through high school are women, according to Education Department data, up from about two-thirds three decades ago. The disparity is most pronounced in elementary and middle schools, where more than 80 percent of teachers are women. Teaching is undervalued because it is considered, in general, a low-status female dominated profession.
We expect teachers to do the work almost as missionaries, because they love children and it’s part of their “womanly nature” to care about raising them. It’s an extension of the work we have always expected women to do for free, out of love for their families, not for payment. Women originally went into teaching because they had no other employment options and it was a low-status profession that was associated with women; the fact that it’s now dominated by women inhibits the status from increasing. Teacher’s pay has remained essentially stagnant since 1970 in inflation-adjusted terms. The median pay for an elementary school teacher is now about $40,000. Men who do become teachers tend to be promoted more quickly into senior administrative (higher paying) positions. Not surprising.
Valuing women appropriately would go a long way towards achieving both better teacher pay, and that most important ingredient for every family’s success: stability.