The Working Families Agenda: Who Speaks for the Children?

 

As a volunteer tutor in Minneapolis elementary schools, I see the impact of low wages, unpaid sick leave, and unposted and erratic work schedules on the children of workers. All the commentary about the possible imposition of changes by the city on employment practices seems to overlook the repercussions on the children of workers. The agenda is called Working Families, yet business issues and money — not families — seems to have taken over that agenda.

Let me relay a few observations and comments from the kindergarten and 3rd grade students I’ve met while tutoring at Whittier, Jefferson, and Lyndale schools. Children often confide in me about their lives as if they need someone to talk to. My few minutes of tutoring elicit their heart-felt concerns.

An 8-year-old boy told me his 10-year-old brother is now “the man in the family” because his dad doesn’t live at home anymore.

A 5-year-old girl said she sleeps in a recliner because her older siblings sleep in the beds. She added that her mom does cover her with a blanket.

Another girl cried as she told me she misses her big brother in Texas and that she sometimes lives with her grandma now.

One girl excitedly told me she takes the bus with her mom on Saturdays to visit her dad working at Burger King.

A teacher told me a child had been inattentive in class all day worrying about what bus to get on after school because his family had to move recently. A child with a runny nose complains of a sore throat too but is dropped off at school by mom because she must work. A kindergarten boy looking at pictures of animals told me he has never been to a zoo. A third-grade boy mentions he writes on Sunday afternoons while waiting for his dad to come home from work.

All of this is to say that employment practices impact children. I see it in the mobility and instability caused when working parents have inadequate incomes to pay the rent. I see it in the stress and worry of a child when their parents fight over money. I see it when children are not ready to learn because parents work shifts and longer hours and are unavailable to encourage their learning. I see it in a child’s disruptive behavior. Stressed and unprepared children can hardly focus on learning, and I see this too often.

The school teachers, staff and social workers I’ve met knock themselves out to meet the needs of children. Minneapolis schools already arrange for parent/teacher conferences to accommodate shift workers; print notices to parents in multiple languages; send automated phone calls to non-English speaking parents. Boxes with extra mittens, scarves, and hats are well used. Food is even sent home with children who won’t have enough to eat over a weekend.

So I wonder if those who object to increasing the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and fair scheduling recognize what is happening “downstream” to the young children of those workers. No doubt there are businesses that do their best to accommodate employees, but these issues are on the agenda because elected leaders represent residents young and old — not just business interests.

It’s time to challenge the mindset that employers know best. Instead, we all need to recognize the impact of low wages in particular on workers with young children. Just like parents everywhere, those workers want the inherent dignity of being able to provide for their families — and that means happy, healthy, ready-to-learn children. 

Peggy Reinhardt lives in the Lowry Hill East neighborhood.