Category Archives: on the job

As a parent and a writer, most of what I do is unpaid. But it’s still a job. Here’s what it’s like.

The Economics of Parenting

Economists study things and make theories, and based on what they say, lawmakers set policy. That’s just one of the things that makes the world go round, and we don’t think about it too terribly much, or at least I didn’t, until I started seeing the phrase “human capital,” but now that I have, I pay attention. And I come up onto statements like this:

While such policies may increase the size of the next generation, their impact on the generation’s total human capital are unclear, since per person human capital may change as well. . . . This paper explores a potential national policy tradeoff, embodied in motherhood timing, between the quantity and quality of children.

This excerpt is from the article “Motherhood Delay and the Human Capital of the Next Generation” by Amalia R. Miller, American Economic Review, 2009. It looks at whether standardized test scores, an indicator of the future economic value of children (a.k.a. “human capital”), are affected by whether or not mothers delay childbearing. The answer to this question is intended to help countries decide whether or not to set “pro-natalist policies” — that is, policies that encourage women to have lots and lots of babies.

(A quick note on human capital, if you’ve never heard the term: it is the set of skills, education, and expertise of a worker or a labor force. Sometimes the term is used to refer to something the worker owns, and other times it means an asset a company owns, or a nation.)

I should mention I’m pretty creeped out by now. First off, I thought my kids were, well, children, not wealth. Next up, it’s disturbing that legislation surrounding childbearing should be affected by the wealth a nation is expected to reap from the children’s future labor. It means that human capital considerations could affect anything from anti-abortion legislation, if a nation is perceived to be running out of human capital, to forced sterilization, if the cost of raising a child is perceived to be higher than the human capital reaped.

But there’s one more thing that stands out when I look at articles regarding mothering and human capital. The unpaid labor mothers do, when we are perceived to be “not working,” has economic value to somebody outside our family, and people in power have measured that value. That’s interesting.

The United Nations is conducting a study called the “Inclusive Wealth Project.” There’s a 2012 report and a 2014 report. It is about the development of a new measure of the wealth of nations, on par with the gross development product (GDP) and human development index (HDI). The new “Inclusive Wealth Index” includes natural resources, produced resources, and human capital.

Here’s a taste of the math, from page 30 of the 2012 report:

Wealth = Pmc * Manufactured Capital (MC) + Phc * Human Capital (HC) + Pnc * Natural Capital (NC)

(Don’t ask me about the Pmc, Phc, and Pnc, because I have no clue. Nor do I have any desire to have a clue.)

The math for calculating human capital is laid out also on page 30 of the 2012 report and is too long to include in this post, but here’s a taste of it:

. . . measuring the population’s educational attainment and the additional compensation over time of this training, which is assumed to be equivalent to the interest rate (8.5 percent in this case) . . .

and

The shadow price per unit of human capital is obtained by computing the present value of the labor compensation received by workers over an entire working life.

and

. . . for each nation we computed these shadow prices for every year within the 1990–2008 time period, and then used the average of this rental price of one unit of human capital over time as the representative weight . . .

It must be strange to be an economist. The people who made this report are focused on “social value” — attempting to make capitalism work for the health and well-being of our people and planet, by reducing said health and well-being to dollars and cents. I’m skeptical, but I’m glad at least that somebody is trying to account for the rapid depletion of our natural resources.

Anyway, back to what I said about somebody measuring the economic value of the unpaid work of mothering. That’s not exactly what they’re doing. They’re measuring the value of educating. Here’s a widely-used graph, from a Science Magazine article “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children” by James D. Heckman (2006).

Graph showing that investing in preschool has great benefit to future earnings. Source: http://jenni.uchicago.edu/papers/Heckman_Science_v312_2006.pdf

Source: Science Magazine

 

The article has a curious blind spot when it comes to the job of the earliest education, the contribution of the parents. A lot of studies focus on “disadvantaged children” and “children in developing countries.” Here’s a quote:

Research has documented the early (by ages 4 to 6) emergence and persistence of gaps in cognitive and noncognitive skills (3, 4). Environments that do not stimulate the young and fail to cultivate these skills at early ages place children at an early disadvantage. Disadvantage arises more from lack of cognitive and noncognitive stimulation given to young children than simply from the lack of financial resources.

The assumption here is that a normal environment, which somehow appears naturally and out of the blue, provides adequate stimulation to cultivate skills needed later in life. Actually, no. Somebody made it happen. A parent.

And it was a hell of a lot of work.

Here’s an estimate of the unpaid labor value of a mother’s work:

If paid, Stay at Home Moms would earn $134,121 annually (up from 2005’s salary of $131,471). Working Moms would earn $85,876 annually for the “mom job” portion of their work, in addition to their actual “work job” salary.

(From “What is Mom’s Job Worth,” by Salary.com.)

(Note: there’s a serious omission here. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of stay-at-home parents who are dads is up to 16%. I don’t know if anybody’s ever run the numbers for dads.)

Never mind the costs of raising a child. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which says that “a middle-income family with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend about $245,340 ($304,480 adjusted for projected inflation*) for food, housing, childcare and education, and other child-rearing expenses up to age 18. Costs associated with pregnancy or expenses occurred after age 18, such as higher education, are not included.”

By “middle-income family, they mean “the middle third of the income distribution for a two-parent family with children.” This is the “normal environment” referred to in Science Magazine, although the number of single-parent households in the U.S. has jumped from 19.5% to 29.5%.

And the annual income at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is only $15,080.

On a family level, the economics of parenting just makes no sense. Wages are far too low to raise children.

It makes no sense on a societal level either. What happens, I wonder, if you take the cost of raising a child, plus the cost of a formal education, plus the unpaid labor of the parents, and compare it to that person’s “human capital” over a lifetime? You could calculate it. But honestly, I’m afraid to even try.

The problem here isn’t with the children. And it isn’t with the parents. It’s with the way we understand (or don’t) understand our own economy.

-END-

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Lego People by Joe Shlabotnik from http://www.flickr.com

 

 

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Reflections on our Racial Equity Team

So our elementary school had a Racial Equity Team this year, with the goal of basically undoing racism. Every elementary school should have one. All the rest of the schools, too. But elementary school is such a key time in children’s development. If we don’t teach them about identifying and countering racism, they’re still going to learn about racism–but from all the wrong places, and without a framework to understand it.

Our group was a mixture of teachers and parents working collaboratively. I think this is rare in Seattle Public Schools, but it should be the goal. Teachers have a window on what really goes on at school, and parents have a window on how racism affects our own children. We have a deep incentive to get past the “all talk and no action” phenomenon that so often afflicts small groups.

What did we do? To make a long story short, we did some important work and we left some necessary work undone and we’re all emotionally drained.

The school district provided resources and support for our team. That’s appreciated but I would also definitely say it’s not enough. The work of undoing racism is hard in many ways–and most of us lack the required expertise. We should have had a dedicated and competent facilitator, outside the group, to help us through the rough patches.

That’s readily available, but expensive. K-12 education is not exactly rolling in the dough. In fact, as I’ve said many times on this blog, Washington State is failing in its constitutional mandate to fully fund education. Our legislature is in contempt of court for not doing it. It’s supposed to be fixed by 2018, but I’m not at all sure the Washington State Supreme Court has the guts to do what needs to be done to make it happen.

Our teachers are begging for pencils, folks.

So our schools are having a financial crisis, and we’re also having a racism crisis, and we need some outside help. Who? What? When? Where? How? I don’t know.

I do know we will keep on going, with whatever tools we have.

That’s all for now . . . stay tuned for more posts later.

Note: This post is part of a series, beginning with “Six Months on a Racial Equity Team.” 

 

Elementary School “Book Swap”

This month I hosted a “book swap” for my child’s elementary school. It’s an idea that’s been rolling around in my mind for quite a while–I initially thought it would be great to have a book exchange party in which my kids and their friends could swap books they liked. But one thing led to another . . .

The book swap was much easier than I expected, and a lot more fun! Here’s a quick recap of what I did and how I went.

First, I approached the principal and the PTA with the idea. They suggested that I do the book swap in conjunction with a PTA “family partnership night.” Those happen regularly and involve games and free pizza. So I signed on to host the family partnership night and got some help. Then I sent out communication to the school well ahead of time, including both online and paper announcements. I was hoping for lots of people and lots of books!

Then I found some books to prime the pump. It turns out that there are usually tons of books for lower grades, but not so many for higher grades. I went to a thrift store and found some appealing upper-grade books for about a dollar each. It would alternatively have been a good idea to solicit donations from middle-schoolers. I also reached out through my local “Buy Nothing” Facebook group and left a box in the office so people could donate books early. Finally, the kids and I worked on clearing our own shelves.

The day of the event, I showed up early to order the pizza and to put out signs on the cafeteria tables, so that the people who brought in books could organize them roughly by grade level (pre-K through 1st, 2nd & 3rd, and 4th & above). I didn’t have to do the organizing myself because the kids were all over it.

We had a gorgeous spread of books by the time we were done! It was heavy on the picture books and light on the books for fourth graders and above, but there were at least some.

Kids were allowed to take 2 books each to start off with. Once everybody had taken two books, it was more of a free-for-all. When we were done, about half the books had been taken and half remained.

And that was it! Really fun and easily manageable.

I asked other people on the Soup for Teachers Facebook page if they’d done anything similar, and people have. Here were some of the responses I got:

  • One school hands out “book bucks.” Kids who bring books get one “book buck” for each book they bring in. But every student gets a “book buck,” whether they brought books or not.
  • Another school takes donations and then uses volunteers to sort them. Each student then gets the same number of books.
  • Another school does the swap during school hours, classroom by classroom. They get books from a variety of places, from the thrift store to the spring library sale to Goodwill. Then students visit, one classroom at a time, and each student takes one book.

Has anybody else done a book swap for a school? How did it work? Would you do it again?

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image from modernreader.org

Catching my breath!

This past week has been a whirlwind of activity. What was supposed to be the first week of school turned into organizing strike support for educators through the Facebook page Soup for Teachers. We worked hard, learned a lot, and now I’m exhausted!

Some amazing things happened during this process. The amount of parent support was unprecedented. We were quick, we were loud, and we were out there strong. Also, parents managed to work across the district to help support every single school. We were all fighting together for goals that went far beyond teacher pay. The educators’ union won some important concessions from the school district they’d never have gotten without a week-long strike.

It’s just a beginning, though. I’m catching my breath, because we’re in this struggle for the long haul. The bargaining team for the union reached a tentative agreement with the school district, and a representative assembly approved it and suspended the strike. But we won’t know until Sunday evening whether or not educators will sign the contract. As I understand it, they have some options:

  • stop the strike and sign the contract
  • resume the strike on Monday
  • keep working under the old contract while continuing to negotiate
  • keep working under the old contract and set a strike date

Whatever they do I’ll support them. And whatever they do, we have a long way to go. Bottom line: the state legislature needs to pony up and obey the state Supreme Court order to fully fund schools. We’ll be underwater until then. Our educators can’t afford housing in Seattle. There aren’t any caps on the number of students per nurse. And more stuff.

For now, though, I’m just glad my kids are back in school!!!

too hot by Guldehen at http://guldehen.deviantart.com/

too hot by Guldehen at http://guldehen.deviantart.com/

Sponsor me for the Clarion West 2015 Writeathon!

It’s that time of year again. Serious students of SF/F writing are sitting down to six weeks of intensive study with award-winning authors. They write at the grueling pace of one story a week, while also reading and workshopping everybody else’s story a week. (For some perspective, the MFA program I took required three stories per quarter, and that was HARD.) They learn the craft of writing SF/F, and they make connections that will support their writing and their careers. Maybe five, ten years later, some book of theirs shows up on the shelves of your local bookstore, and you pick it up and stay awake all weekend reading it.

The workshop is expensive. Some of the most amazing voices could never afford the tuition. Hence, the Clarion West Writeathon! It supports scholarships for the students who have been selected to participate. Here’s how it works: I set a writing goal for myself. When that goal’s met, you donate to the workshop.

So please sponsor me for the Clarion West Writeathon! You’ll be doing two great things at once – you’ll be helping guilt me into writing, and you’ll be helping train the award-winning speculative fiction authors of tomorrow. Pledge whatever you’re comfortable with — even a $10 pledge helps!

Here’s my official write-a-thon page, with all the details! While you’re there, be sure to check out the other fabulous writers who are taking part in this write-a-thon!

P. S. Check back on my blog for weekly updates on my progress — I’ll be keeping a log of how many words I wrote.

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On tidying papers

Starting month three of a major decluttering event, based on Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (See my previous posts here and here and here and here.) I finished going through my clothes, books, CDs, DVDs, doll furniture, and floppy disks (egad!). That was all exhilarating. Now it’s papers.

Papers are not fun.

Marie Kondo’s advice: “My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away.” If only it were that easy! Over the last four decades I’ve kept a lot of papers, some for the right reasons and some for the wrong. I have three filing cabinets, ten stack files, and at least a couple of boxes, just for my own papers.

They’ve been bogging me down. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t look at a stack of papers without wincing, so then I don’t touch it, and it’s a downward spiral from there! I have organized files carefully over the years, but still, I have papers of sentimental value mixed in with papers of no use entirely.

So far I’ve gone through all my filing cabinet drawers and rid myself of about half the papers. I am nowhere near throwing them all away — nor, as a writer, should I be. I have about two filing cabinet drawers full of things I’ve written over the course of my life, from preschool-era stuff to the half-finished novel from high school to the story I’m in the middle of right now. I have a drawer devoted to classes I have taught once, and several files devoted to the technical writing career. I have drawers full of research materials for stories and essays I might write.

Going through all these has given me a chance to think about where my life has been and where it is going. What am I doing with myself, anyway? I’m a stay-at-home writer mom, doing work that fulfills me absolutely, but in a culture that values neither writers nor SAHMs. I’m missing the kind of respect you can get from the workplace, and to be honest, it’s affected my self-esteem. In one year I will have exited the “kids in elementary school” stage and could re-enter the workforce with reasonable confidence my family could cope. A lot of my friends are doing that. Am I just spinning my wheels?

Welcome to my midlife crisis, brought on by a filing cabinet!

What am I doing with myself? Well, treating my writing career like a spare-time activity, and treating my work itself like a blog entry, to be tossed in the wind and left behind. Time for a change. Not a return to the daily grind, not right now, anyway, but time for me to take myself and my work seriously.

Linkspam: The ethics of self-publishing

Yesterday I got into a great conversation with interesting people, and the topic of self-publishing came up. It brought me back to the ethical issues I’ve faced along the road of publishing Misfits from the Beehive State, so I figure it’s time for a tiny bit of background and helpful resources.

When I self-published Misfits from the Beehive State,  my number one consideration was that it not be “vanity press,” and the way I made that distinction was to keep overhead so low that it made an actual profit. At the time, using CreateSpace was the way to do it. And I made my book available on Amazon, because that’s how a lot of people wanted to buy it.

I maybe wouldn’t do a second book the same way. That’s because my book is one part of a larger ecosystem of readers, books, publishers, distributors, and bookstores, and what I do as an author has an impact on that ecosystem. Here are three links from my website that touch on the issue:

On small publishers and indy bookstores – I propose “We need to band together and support the small presses and independent bookstores we eventually hope will support us.” (March 2014)

What I learned about working with small bookstores – I report on a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association event “Working with PNBA and NW Bookstores” (May 2014)

Misfits available on IndyBound – I explain how and why I made my book accessible to independent bookstores, and why to buy for them. (May 2014)

Here’s a link that discusses the problem of Amazon:

Ursula Le Guin on Amazon and market-based censorship – a little intro to the problem Amazon poses to small publishers and independent bookstores. Quote from my #1 favorite author Ursula LeGuin: “We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ms. Le Guin wrote in an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

Finally, here are links to some potentially viable alternatives to CreateSpace and Amazon.

Roundup of self-publishing services – includes not only CreateSpace but also XLibris and Smashwords

IngramSpark – a self-publishing service that can make your books readily available to bookstores

How to make your book available through IndyBound – a way to make even CreateSpace books available in many indy bookstores

There’s a lot more to be said on this topic, but I need breakfast!

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