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UW-Madison professor traces the ways women are pushed to serve as a social safety net


UW-Madison professor traces the ways women are pushed to serve as a social safety net

Jun 04, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Baylor Spears
UW-Madison professor traces the ways women are pushed to serve as a social safety net
Preschool children playing with colorful shapes and toys in a child care center. (Getty Images)

Jessica Calarco, a sociologist and associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, says writing her book “Holding It Together: How Women Became America’s Safety Net” was a “labor of fury” and a “labor of love.”

The book, released on June 4, examines the variety of ways that women have been pushed to fill in the gaps in the United States’ social safety net. Women, Calarco writes, often have no choice but to take underpaid and underappreciated caring roles. In her book she explores why the country hasn’t found a different path forward. 

“It makes me very angry, but it also feels cathartic in a sense. … This is something that I care very passionately about and that resonates very deeply with my own experience.” Calarco tells the Examiner in an interview. 

The book grew out of research Calarco started in 2018. She, with a team of graduate and undergraduate students at Indiana University, interviewed over 250 families. In addition to over 400 hours of interviews, Claraco conducted two national surveys, getting feedback from over 2,000 parents across the country.

UW-Madison professor traces the ways women are pushed to serve as a social safety net
Jessica Calarco, a sociologist and associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, says writing her book “Holding It Together: How Women Became America’s Safety Net” was a “labor of fury” and a “labor of love.” (Photo via Penguin Random House)

At the start of the research, Calarco, who has worked at UW-Madison since January 2023, says she was looking for a way to meaningfully examine inequalities in family life, and the initial idea was to consider the best laid plans of parenting and how life often gets in the way of those plans in deeply unequal ways. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Calarco continued interviewing parents dealing with child care and schooling issues. Meanwhile she herself was juggling care for her two young children who were home from child care and kindergarten due to the pandemic. 

“Suddenly, we’re in this moment where the way that we dealt with this crisis was to push most of the responsibility onto women,” Calarco says. “That sort of made it very obvious very quickly, how much of a gendered story this was and how much we could have made different choices during the pandemic, but we sort of fell back on old patterns of just leaving it to women to fix it instead.”

The book seeks to understand how the U.S. came to rely so heavily on women as society’s backstop.

Coming out of the pandemic, Calarco says, “we had this moment where we seemed close to building back better, where we thought that we might put in place universal child care, higher minimum wage laws, universal paid family leave. But we didn’t.” She points to  President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal which initially included the establishment of universal pre-K and major federal investments in child care. Those programs were stripped from the final legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act. “Why do we keep failing so spectacularly at actually trying to do better than where we are right now?” Calarco asks.

Policy decisions such as eliminating the only federally funded child care program in the U.S.  after World War II and  watering down the welfare system in reaction to misleading rhetoric about “welfare queens” contributed to the creation of a “DIY society,” Calarco writes. 

“Unlike in other places where they have social safety nets, to help them manage risk, to help people stay out of poverty, to help people feel safe enough to pursue economic opportunities, to just live with dignity, we [in America] instead tell people that they should be able to manage risks on their own with little or no support from the government,” Calarco says.

People are told that if they aren’t given protection, then they’ll make better choices and keep themselves safe from risk, Calarco adds, but that’s not what happens in practice. Her description of the “DIY society” includes low taxes, especially on wealthy people and corporations, little or no regulation of industry and limited investments in social safety net programs, all of which leaves families without much protection. 

As a result, “families and communities have tried to manage the expectations of this DIY society by pushing responsibility onto women, by having women be the ones to sort of shoulder the burden of risk and shoulder the burden of responsibility that comes with not investing in a social safety net,” Calarco says.

The “DIY society” and the impact it has on women is detailed in the book through the personal experiences of mothers and other parents interviewed during Calarco’s research. The life experiences of the women, whose names have been changed in the book to protect their privacy, varied widely including different economic, racial, political and religious backgrounds. 

One of the women introduced early in the book is Akari, who was a stay-at-home mother and self-identified Republican. She left the workforce in 2017 because it didn’t make financial sense to pay for child care when she was making $10 an hour at her retail job. That is until her fiancé died unexpectedly. He was the victim of a random act of gun violence. 

Without any savings or a job, Akari ended up on welfare and had to move into a shelter and then public housing with her two children. 

Calarco says Akari’s experience is an example of one of the most surprising things she learned through her research; many people who stand to benefit from the social safety net are themselves safety-net skeptics.

“It was deeply devastating for her, and at the same time, she felt guilty about having to enroll,” Calarco says. Eventually, Akari took on three jobs — an arrangement that worked because she could leave her children with her deceased fiance’s sister. But the three jobs didn’t leave her in a much better financial position as Calarco details in the book. Akari started making a bit too much money to qualify for several of the social safety programs she was using, including welfare, food stamps and Head Start. 

“[Akari’s story] gets at the fact that rather than tell people how we all deserve to live with dignity, we all deserve the support that we need, we’ve used things like the myth of meritocracy to shame people for needing that kind of support in our society.” 

The “myth of meritocracy” is one of a handful of myths Calarco examines in her book. She says these misleading ideas get at the question of why the U.S. hasn’t found a different path.

“We tell ourselves these myths that make it seem as though women are doing OK at least trying to hold things together and some of these myths suggest that women are actually happier being the ones who hold it together than they would be in other types of positions,” Calarco says. 

Ideally, Calarco says, society would ensure people have protection to help them stay out of poverty. Among the programs needed for that to happen are universal child care, universal health care, paid family leave, guaranteed vacation time and stipends for families with dependents. 

“We can’t outsource all of our care needs… but what we can do is make sure that everyone has more time and energy in their days, and in their lives, to be able to help with that project of care to be able to be more involved in their families, to be more involved in their communities,” Calarco says. 

Calarco says she expects that many of the readers of her book will be women, especially mothers of young kids or women who might want to be mothers someday, and she hopes that they are able to see themselves in the stories she has collected. 

“My hope is that for many of those readers that this will resonate with their experience and make them angry at the same time that it gives them hope that there is a better possibility for moving forward,” Calarco says. She hopes a broad swath of people pick up the book. 

“We are all embedded in networks of care,” she adds, “and what happens in those networks affects all of us, whether we want to believe that or not.”