The House Elves Strike Back
What Happens When Women Stop Working Those Low-Wage, Flexible Jobs?
It’s no surprise that a female writer, not a male one, imagined that a system of house elves who prepare meals, clean robes, sweep hearths — all the annoying, time consuming, boring, but essential tasks of life — so other magical beings can fly around on their broom sticks without worry. House elves are unpaid and dressed in rags, but the wizards rationalize their exploitation, JK Rowling writes, by saying that the elves are driven by their passion to serve their masters.
It’s not hard to draw a line from Rowling’s fictional house elves to the very real women who do those thankless tasks within their homes. Sociologists write about the Second Shift of cooking, cleaning, and childcare that women do, after they return from a full day of work. Men might “help out,” but women take on the bigger burden.
That second class status in homes has been replicated in the workplace. In banking, women handle the contracts for the stockbrokers. In publishing, they correct the commas and footnotes for male writers and take orders from the mostly male management. In higher education, they are the majority of adjunct professors, who now compose 75 percent of the professoriate. In education, they are the non-unionized, contingent substitute teachers, bus drivers, special education aides, and lunch aides.
What happens when those low-wage, invisible workers suddenly refuse to do those jobs? The systems collapses.
We live in strange times. People are getting hit with serious inflation; they are feeling the pain at the diner and the supermarket. But, at the same time, people are resigning from their jobs in droves. You would think that if people needed more money to buy milk and gas for their cars, they would hold on to their jobs. My guess is that those jobs were so terrible that they really had no impact on their family’s bottom line, so losing that income doesn’t matter.
Right now, schools are getting slammed by both forces at the same time. Any school board member will tell you that there is very, very little fat on a school budget. Three-quarters of the budget goes towards teachers’ salaries and benefits. The rest has to cover everything from heating bills to band uniforms. So, this double hit of resignation and inflation could bust public education permanently.
The Great Resignation impacts schools in an unexpected way. Teachers aren’t resigning, but substitute teachers, lunch aides, special education aides, and bus drivers are. Those jobs have traditionally been done by mothers, who have been forced to take those jobs, because they need flexible jobs that conform to the school year. What other job can you get if you need to be home over the summer and be back by 3:00? None. Schools have taken advantage of women for years to do this grunt work. They paid them minimum wage and as part time employees, so they didn’t have to provide benefits.
Schools are also saving on labor costs by hiring therapists and special ed professionals from outside agencies, so they don’t have to pay them benefits and deal with a tenured bad-egg. This is the adjunctification of public education, but that’s a topic for another day.
For years, moms, who put themselves on the substitute list, have sat around waiting for a call from the school district at 6am. If they get a call, they have to dash out, take abuse from teenagers, and get a $100 paycheck. If they don’t get a call, they put away their work clothes and don’t get paid. Surprisingly, women aren’t willing to do that anymore. They stopped doing it during the pandemic, and are finding that they don’t miss the money or the grief. So, schools have to hire permanent staff with higher salaries and benefits.
And then inflation is hitting schools, too. Heating bills are going to go up. School books are going to cost more. Everything from printer paper to toilet paper are going to cost more. Taxpayers, who are feeling a crunch, will vote down any tax increases.
Government just gave schools fat checks to deal with the problems with remote education. How are schools spending that money? Are they spending on tutoring and summer school to help kids struggling with learning lag? Or are they using that money to deal with the coming budget crisis. Is the money going to be used to keep the lights on in the buildings? And what’s going to happen when the money dries up in two years?
Of course, I want the federal COVID money to go to the kids. They’ve been through hell and need help. Kids first. But the school budget crisis can’t be avoided and will involve some seriously unpopular cuts.
But the lines are far from clear. There isn’t a clear exploited and exploiter class. Sometimes, low paid women’s work is based on the lower paid work of other women. Teachers, for example, are arguably low-wage workers in many parts of the country, but they need daycares to do their jobs. Daycare teachers only make about $24,000 per year. Slightly better paid female workers rely on teachers to keep their children occupied all day and to save them from paying private school tuition.
So, our economy is resting on the shoulders of low wage women, the invisible caretakers. What happens when they stop? What happens when the minions that you’ve never really thought about before stop doing their jobs? What happens when they say, “I don’t want to watch your grandmother, your children, your disabled adult/child, your babies for very little money? I’ll caretake for my own people instead.”
When the lowest paid women refuse to work, then the house of cards that is our economy falls down.
I’m very much engrossed in the details of the Democrats’ new spending bill to see how it will benefit disabled people and caretakers, like myself and my son. Today’s Upshot has some great info. While the biggest chunk of money will benefit parents of younger children, there is money earmarked for community based support and housing vouchers for disabled people.
I would like to expand the notion of caretaking to go beyond the needs of families with small children. Any woman will tell you that caretaking doesn’t end when the diapers come off. Just as you launch your teens off to a nice college, then it’s time to take care of your aging parents. Maybe you have a nice and boring nine months of quiet between high school graduation and parental doctor’s appointments, but that’s about it.
Driven by the pressure of The Great Resignation, our country can no longer ignore the caretakers. At a crossroads, we are deciding whether we should pay women to stay home and care for their own parents, families. The other option is to pay women properly to watch the nation’s kids and old people in daycares and institutions. We can “lean out” or “lean in.” Either option is expensive. It will be interesting to see what we choose to do.
I highly recommend checking out The NYT’s Upshot for a breakdown on the Democrat’s spending bill.
We talked about the economic crunch that is hitting public education on my blog.
Ghislaine Maxwell is a dirtbag, but her prison treatment isn’t cool.
The press is totally on a Queen Elizabeth death watch. Grusome. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are in big trouble. Best articles are coming from the Daily Beast. I might have to do a post on this, because it’s all so tragic. It’s almost operatic.
Kids can’t read. The pandemic made it worse. Teachers are getting retrained from the ed school nonsense. It’s back to phonics.
Mental health among kids is ridiculously bad.
Career and Technical education is where it’s at. They’re building a huge new facility near us. When Ian’s done with this transition program, I would rather than he get his tech training at a place like this, than at the local community college.
WATCHING: Succession, Maid
Tim Noah doesn’t fear the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on the Feast of the Epiphany. “I want them to be punished harshly for their crimes. But fear them as the leading edge of incipient fascism? For Christ’s sake, just look at them.” Me too.
Nicholas Kristof is on Substack, not in the NYT, because he’s running for office. He’s calling attention to the horrific substance abuse numbers. “Since the pandemic began in March 2020, more people have died here in Oregon from substance abuse than from Covid-19.”
Helaine Olen says that Democrats are minimizing the pain of inflation at their own risk.
Nobody is happier than I am that 90’s fashion is back in style. I bought two pairs of the high waisted vintage jeans from the GAP, and I’m getting black turtlenecks from Uniqlo. It’s time for black tights and mini-skirts. Yay!
I admit to feeling the pressure to stockpile cans of beans and bags of flour and Christmas gifts. I’m shopping now.
Some schools are slowly shutting down again. Schools in Detroit are now only open for four days per week. Even though there is tons of evidence that school closures were terrible for mental health, some schools are closing to give their teachers and students mental health breaks.
We’re going to have to talk about Trump soon. I don’t want to. But he’s coming. Ugh.
I’m enjoying watching people put out political feelers about 2024. Would you vote for Huma Albedin?
PICTURE: As I filled up my car with gas this morning, the gas station owner was changing the price numbers on the tanks. Ouch.