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Peaceful Revolution: Childcare and Construction

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A Pink and Green Stimulus Approach

A consensus is emerging around the need for a mix of human and physical infrastructure investments in a stimulus package. Why go pink and green?

Any economic stimulus package should achieve two objectives: 1) spur short-term spending, and 2) build our society for the future. We need to spend federal money now to help jump-start employment and incomes, but once we are spending money, we should devote it to something worthwhile. This same logic led to construction projects under the Works Project Administration of the 1930's.

President-elect Obama seems to be favoring a green construction/reconstruction approach. Rebuild our roads, bridges, and water systems, repair schools, and focus on retrofitting and new renewable-energy projects. If these projects are undertaken in a green fashion, they can crank up spending, provide jobs, and help fight global warming. Indeed, a recent study by PERI, at the University of Massachusetts, shows that money spent on green projects would generate twice as many jobs as spending on the military or the oil industry. Part of the reason for the green advantage is that the money tends to be spent inside the U.S. economy. Another is that construction is relatively labor intensive. In the long run, these projects would also make our economy more productive. They represent long-term investments in a way that oil wells don't.

Childcare, the pink side of the agenda, would also help. You think childcare workers aren't suffering now? They are. Folks ranging from nannies to after-school program teachers are looking at job losses in the current environment. And childcare workers tend to live on the edge of poverty. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found childcare workers averaging $9.46 per hour and $19,670 per year in 2007, while construction laborers averaged $14.88 per hour and $30,950 per year. That sad news has a silver lining here because we can create 1.6 childcare jobs for the cost of each construction job.

Both construction and childcare spending would induce further job growth through something John Maynard Keynes labeled "multiplier effects." As PERI notes, construction spending helps generate multiplier effects in part because much of the spending translates into further spending on locally produced goods, such as housing and food, which in turn creates more jobs. It also helps to generate these effects because construction workers, as lower-income individuals, tend to spend most of their money, fueling further job growth.

Both effects would be stronger for childcare workers. Childcare is even more labor intensive than construction, with fewer leakages to fat-cat managers at Bechtel and less money siphoned off to foreign producers of construction equipment like Komatsu. Further, the lower wages of childcare workers mean they would likely spend an even higher percentage of their incomes on goods like housing and food.

Those low wages also signal that poverty is closely connected to care for children. As I documented in Striking a Balance, between 1977 and 2002, women shrank as a proportion of low-wage workers (by over 10%), but mothers representation rose (by over 8%). Mothers now comprise almost half of all low-wage workers. So putting money into childcare would go a long way in the fight against poverty, a challenge the president-elect has also promised to take up.

Like green construction, childcare represents an important investment in our future. Indeed, as Karen Shellenback has documented, quality childcare can help improve productivity right now by reducing parental stress, absenteeism and tardiness at work. And, as Nancy Folbre argues in her new book, Valuing Children, childcare is an investment in the future of our economy. Our children will grow up to be solid citizens, taxpayers, and productive workers if we provide adequate care now. These investments aren't as visible as new bridges or wind turbines, but they are at least as important to our future success.

The final piece of the pink and green puzzle is gender equity. The construction industry, from laborers to skilled workers, engineers and owners, is overwhelmingly male. The care industry, across lines of infant, pre-K, after-school, disability and elder care, tends to be female. So bailing out only one sector necessarily means that either men or women benefit disproportionately. We can do better, and a pink and green stimulus package would fit the bill.

But you don't have to take my word on any of this. See letters on the stimulus package by Randy Albelda and Shawn Fremstad, Nancy Folbre, or Julie Matthaei at the Take Care Net, the NWLC's Platform for Progress, a recent blog from the Direct Care Alliance, the National Partnership on Valuing Families in the Economic Recovery, Robert Kuttner on the long-run value of "infrastructure, green energy, health, education [and] early childhood," or read and sign Barbara Bergmann's ipetition.

Pink and green may be a new idea. But it already has many parents, and needs even more in the media, Congress, and the White House.

A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.