The Parent Trap

Want to be "middle class"? Don't have kids.

The good news is that we have no consumer debt (except for the $300 a month to service the student loans that bought us this perch in the middle class) and no car payments. The bad news is that we're one catastrophe away from disaster. Our rainy day fund wouldn't cover six months' expenses if one of us lost a job. We'd be ruined if either of us became disabled or if we got divorced. As it is, the daycare bill means we neglect our 401ks. We're putting away nothing toward our kids' college educations, so we're only half joking when we say they'll have to become national merit scholars.

And still, part of me feels I should shut up because we're so much better off than so many. Of the 1.4 million Americans who lost their health insurance in 2001, 800,000 earned more than $75,000, according to the New York Times. And a lack of health insurance coverage causes some 150,000 families to declare bankruptcy each year, according to The Two-Income Trap. Just as surprising, the authors claim a quarter of a million families "with continuous medical insurance file for bankruptcy every year at least in part because of outstanding medical bills."

It turns out my family isn't unique at all. More and more employers are pushing spouses and other dependents off their health care plans. And little wonder: According to the Kaiser Foundation, premiums for family coverage have jumped 41 percent since 2000. In California, the skyrocketing number of firms that have sharply curtailed or eliminated family coverage led the state legislature to pass a law requiring businesses with 200 or more employees to cover workers' dependents starting in 2006.

Jonathan Stavole

It's the tip of the iceberg, too. According to the Wall Street Journal, Wal-Mart--the nation's largest private employer--has begun curtailing coverage of basic and preventive medicine, including visits to the doctor's office and even childhood immunizations, for most of its workforce. The idea, apparently, is to begin selling the workforce on the notion that employers should provide catastrophic coverage only. I can only imagine that every other employer in the country is watching with bated breath.

If the analysts are right, it's not just parents who are going to pay. As costs escalate to the point where middle-class families are foregoing insurance, the cost simply gets shifted onto taxpayers. In some states, uninsured kids and spouses are ending up on state stopgap plans; in others, they're ending up in emergency rooms. And even if hospitals relax their standards of care, those costs are going to be passed along, whether it's because private hospitals will charge higher rates to insured patients or property taxes will have to go up to keep public hospitals open. (See Britt Robson's recent City Pages cover story, "The Hospital of Last Resort," 11/ 12.)

Indeed, universal health care's proponents now include some very large corporations. Far from being altruistic, it appears that a decade after managed care finished pushing providers into draconian contracts, they simply have run out of people to squeeze.


Earlier this year, as he was campaigning to gut what remained of Minnesota's social safety net, Republican Rep. Fran Bradley was fond of insisting that there were too many comfortable people stuck on the public teat. Chief among the leeches, in his eyes, were working parents receiving childcare subsidies. His favorite whistle-stop speech involved a family of four that earned $50,000 and had half its childcare costs subsidized.

At first blush, Bradley's case sounds so reasonable, especially to a voting public that's been conned into thinking that you have to earn less than the federal poverty level--less than $19,000 a year for a family of four--to be "poor." (Never mind that the feds' calculations are made according to an archaic formula that's based on the cost of food. And never mind that Bradley represents Rochester, which has a poverty rate of seven percent.)

Bradley got his way, of course, and a family of three now qualifies for childcare assistance if its income is $26,700 or less, as opposed to $38,100 before. In the last five months, more than 1,300 Minnesota families have lost their childcare subsidies. There are now 7,500 families on waiting lists for assistance, many of them headed by single parents who were bounced off welfare rolls with the promise that we'd be there to help with childcare and health care while they got up to speed.

Remember JOBS NOW's calculation that a family of four needs about $52,000 to make it? That was based on an average expenditure of $773 per month for childcare, which is less than half what a family in the central cities probably pays if those two kids need full-time care in a licensed center. You'd need another $9,300 a year, or more than $61,000, to actually pay the bill. (If one parent stays home with two kids, the other would need to earn $37,100, or $17.00 an hour, to keep the family at a subsistence level, according to JOBS NOW).

Cheaper childcare isn't the answer. Three-quarters of Minnesotans with children under 14 use childcare, and most of their providers are already notoriously underpaid and overworked. Paying caregivers less will only drive out good, experienced teachers. (Would Bradley actually go so far as to argue that subjecting kids to substandard care is good for any of us?)

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