Some time ago, a white-collar professional acquaintance of mine was temporarily laid off. She was concerned—maybe a bit embarrassed—but not too worried; she had good connections and an impressive CV. She even had some savings. But they certainly wouldn’t last long: she still needed an income.
I asked her if she had applied for EI yet, and she looked at me, shocked.
“I’d never go on EI—that’s for people who really need it,” she told me. “I’ve taken out a line of credit to tide me over.”
A couple of things struck me: starting with the fact that behind her suggestion that she was "helping the less fortunate” was only a thinly veiled disdain at the thought that she might “need” to go on EI (that she needed the money wasn’t in question, of course, as she was perfectly willing to borrow—and pay it back—privately). The implication is that public programs are great: sure (at least in theory). But only for people who don’t have “options”.
Her reaction also betrayed a convenient amnesia, or perhaps her genuine lack of awareness, that we all pay for social programs through our taxes. We all own them and are all of us free (or should be) to benefit from them when we need. Our social programs are not just there as a low-rent “public option” that certain people can (or feel they should) avoid to “free up resources” for those who “really depend on them.”
Additionally, choosing to avoid public options and paying for private ones—at great expense and in many cases (health care and education are two potent examples) lower quality—becomes a coveted status symbol: proof that you’ve “made it”. Forgetting of course that even if you go with private options you’re still benefiting, directly and indirectly by the very existence of the public one….but I digress.
Unfortunately this incorrect mindset is sinking in. The story’s got legs, in media parlance. Welcome to the kinder, gentler individualism, where poor-bashing is replaced with, well, let’s call it poor-benevoling. It was repeatedly on display in mid-October when the federal NDP introduced its plan for $15/day universal child care.
Of course, there were plenty of neoliberal-anderthals ready to trash even the possibility of a long-promised universal childcare program finally coming to fruition. Because after all, the combined elements of universality, care and well-being of children, reduction of gender inequality, the requirement of ongoing public commitment, and the absence of an election-friendly tax cut can be too much for some people to handle. Witness the various incarnations of “if the poors want kids why should I pay for them?” in comments sections online:
“Here’s a great daycare program that is easy to understand and everybody qualifies for. It’s called ‘You had them, you pay for them!’ As well as its partner program ‘If you can’t afford kids then don’t have them.”
-Unambiguously Juxtaposed, October 14, 2014, commented on “Mulcair pledges billions for affordable childcare program”, Globe & Mail.
“A completely ridiculous idea. If you do not want to pay to raise your children, then don’t have any. Don’t ask me to give you a blank cheque for the cost.”
-PatrickOwens, commented on October 14, 2014
“I already pay over $1000 a year in school taxes for kids I don’t have. The last thing I need is another tax to support someone else’s kids. No thanks.”
-Bytown, commented on October 14, 2014
“Soon the NDP will expect everyone to food and house people with children to. Did anyone pay for my kids childcare. This is starting to be a disgusting conversation. If people have children its there job to take care of there kids, not the taxpayers. [sic]”The well-established pundits were more careful. They were in fact deeply concerned—even offended—at how universal child care would (cue the indignation) benefit wealthy families too. They were apparently unaware that “universal” means “everyone gets access” since our taxes, which reflect our income, pay for programs like schooling and health care.
-No more taxes, commented on October 15, 2014
Why, these forgetful experts asked, should we implement a “regressive” universal program where the rich benefit too—couldn’t we just target public funding to those who “really need it”? Give them a hand-out, so to speak, instead of a hand-up?
Others expressed indignation at how a “one size fits all” model would only work for parents who needed daycare from Monday to Friday, 9-5. The NDP hadn’t actually specified the hours for which universal daycare would be available, but this line was played out anyway in several places.
It was a rare showing of concern from certain media outlets for families forced to live economically insecure lives as a result of precarious, unpredictable unemployment. But I couldn’t help notice the analysis didn’t extend to actual critique of the socioeconomic realities in which so many families live—they were merely rhetorical props to be harnessed as proof that universal wouldn’t really mean universal.
One professor at Wilfred Laurier University wrote a particularly empathetic commentary, along the lines of: “Heavens: don’t ‘give’ me money [by ‘money’ she meant a ‘universal social program’] I don’t need—I’m too well off and would just feel guilty. Please—give it someone who’s really in need.“
She wasn’t opposed to early childhood education and care, you understand. Just to the idea that she, too, would benefit from a public program that helped provide it to everyone—even her well-off self.
Because why would someone who didn’t directly need (use?) a public program actually benefit from living in a society where others would have access to this same program that reduces financial inequality, provides support to parents struggling with precarious employment or unpredictable finances, enables women to enter or return to the workforce, employs child care workers, and puts back into the economy more than it costs to establish?
It’s a conundrum, that’s for sure. A great, big, public sector trashing, private markets fetishizing conundrum. And the recently revitalized debate over child care has given the neolibs yet another excuse to bang the two-tier drum. But this time with, you know, the very best of intentions.
Erika Shaker is Education Director at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives