Two weeks ago, the Swarthmore Office of Human Resources released the results of a survey, conducted in conjunction with the Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP), of faculty and staff regarding the issue of dependent care. Along with protesting such colossal injustices as $30 proposed parking fees, SLAP has made childcare for Swarthmore College employees the subject of its latest paternalistic crusade. The survey results were discussed in this week’s Phoenix, in an article that unsurprisingly included not a single negative quote or criticism of the SLAP campaign.
To begin, the voluntary-response survey called forth responses from just 23% of all faculty and staff at the College – hardly a representative sample. If the well-known laws of statistics we were taught in Stat 11 are true, it’s likely that only employees most passionate about the issue of childcare would respond to the survey, biasing the results. Using the survey as evidence that there is widespread employee demand for childcare is akin to polling KFC patrons to gauge public opinion on vegetarianism.
The survey results proudly proclaim that 63% of respondents agree the “College should consider offering additional childcare benefits.” Putting aside the fact that this “63%” is actually 14% of all employees at the College, the wording of this question is itself geared to generate more positive responses. The inclusion of the word “consider” will naturally make respondents more eager to answer in the affirmative, since it does not imply a commitment to support the movement, just to consider it. As one respondent said: “My response is not an endorsement of a proposal to DO it [provide dependent care benefits], just to consider it.”
I agree that the College should consider adding childcare benefits, in the loosest sense of the word. We should always be looking for ways to more efficiently compensate our employees. But it’s ridiculous to extrapolate this result into a mandate to provide immediate and universal childcare benefits to College employees, as SLAP would have us do. And a close reading of the survey results suggests childcare is far from the best thing we could do for our employees.
Indeed, actually reading some of the open responses to the survey provided by College employees paint a much different picture. Among them:
“As much as I wish our resources were unlimited, I don’t see how it‘s possible to offer the full-time, quality, licensed, and insured care I would want for my child at a cost that makes it even remotely possible.”
“I feel it would be completely ridiculous for the College to pay for any kind of child care. The College could spend its money in other needed areas. YOUR children are not your employer’s responsibility.”
“Child care and adult dependent [care] are family issues that are personal matters. … I am aware of the pressures that are involved, but I do not feel it is an employer’s responsibility to cover the cost of child care or adult dependent care.”
Moreover, when the issue of funding is brought up (finding ways to pay for things does, after all, often vex leftist fantasies), the responses are even more suggestive of the idea that childcare issomething that is simply not in the best interests of the community at the present time. Cutting back on other employee benefits, reducing employee headcount, and raising tuition all garnered more than three-quarters negative replies from survey respondents. The only funding suggestion to win a positive majority was “fundraising to create an endowment for childcare” – a nice idea, if not realistic. Donors are interested in endowing a world-renowned college, not a preschool.
SLAP’s unyielding campaign for universal childcare is at best paternalistic and at worst downright arrogant. It is clear that this push is based more in the self-righteousness of campus activists than a real, critical examination of the needs of community members. Worse, the two professors who publicly support SLAP’s campaign in the Phoenix, Carol Nackenoff and Donna Jo Napoli, are both full professors who make significantly more than many families who are asked to pay full or near-full tuition. Why should families who have saved for decades to send their students to Swarthmore subsidize free childcare for professors’ children?
I have not heard any suggestions from SLAP or the Phoenix for how to pay for childcare benefits, and in all likelihood provision of universal childcare would entail a cut in other employee benefits—which would likely impact many staff workers who do not have the same clout as full professors or idealistic SLAP activists. What Swarthmore employees need is a campaign based around their actual preferences, not what a group of students thinks they ought to have.