Op-Ed: Why Doesn’t Swarthmore Provide Child-Care?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When I was applying to colleges, Amherst, Haverford, Williams, and Swarthmore were all among my top choices: small, prestigious liberal arts colleges where I would find small classes, great professors, and plenty of work to keep me busy. It takes something special to set one of these colleges apart from the rest. The reason I chose Swarthmore was because of something an admissions executive said to me: “Swarthmore students want to change the world.”

On some level, this is true for all of us. Think about your friends, and where they might be working this summer. Many political science students are off to DC to learn how to implement the policy change in which they believe. Environmental studies majors will work towards varied solutions to climate change. Biology majors will search for cures, and theater majors will apply their passion to any number of social causes.

As Swarthmore students, we take pride in our collective “change-the-world” outlook on academics. But as we look for world-changing jobs and internships, as we write letters to the New York Times and try to effect change around problems in far-off places, let’s remember this: social injustice is right in front of us. After many conversations with workers over the past few semesters, members of Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) have learned that—unlike many of its peer institutions—Swarthmore does not provide childcare to College staff. This decision means that members of our community aren’t receiving the same level of respect we demand for ourselves, our families and those with whom we act in solidarity.

Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Pomona, Smith, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Williams and almost all of our other peer institutions offer child care support to their staff. Swarthmore offers nothing.

Child Care at other colleges and universities usually takes one of two forms. Some colleges and universities offer on-campus child care, where staff and faculty are provided with a place to leave their pre-school age children and know that they will be safe and looked-after during the work-day. Some institutions provide programs for students to participate in the process. Here’s a potential solution: many Swatties tutor children or volunteer at daycares in the Ville; one option would be to create similar programs for the children of Swarthmore staff and faculty.

Other colleges and universities offer subsidies to help staff access child care in their area. Many have found innovative ways of providing child care subsidies to their staff and faculty; the program at Kenyon College, for example, receives government subsidies through Head Start and operates on a sliding scale based on income. For some staff on Kenyon’s campus, child care is effectively free. If such an option is available, it’s hard to see why the administration at Swarthmore would be opposed to receiving outside funding to provide child care services to dedicated staff members.

Naturally, we will need to know a lot more about each of these options before adopting either. That said, we already know that providing childcare is not a choice, but an imperative. Now, all we need to decide is what works for us as a community, an answer that can only come from the combined efforts and expertise of students, faculty, administrators and—most crucially—staff.

Child care support is critical not only for parents who cannot afford to be late to work or miss a day. It is also critical because, for many staff who live outside of borough limits, access to childcare is not as easy to come by as it is in idyllic Swarthmore. In January, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett was court-ordered to advance the Chester Upland School district $3.2 million to operate on for the remainder of the school year, only a fraction of students’, parents’ and teachers’ demanded $18.7 million. This comes alongside recent school closures in nearby Philadelphia, and the proliferation of increasingly privatized models for education reform as promoted by everyone from Bill Gates to Chris Christie. Just because the state has adopted a for-profit approach to education and childcare doesn’t mean Swarthmore should do the same. Like (and hardly distinct from) education, childcare is a basic human right.

I chose Swarthmore because of the student body’s commitment to social change. Ironically, the same administration that prides itself for acting at the nexus of social justice and education is ignoring the right of staff to the latter for their children

Swarthmore College staff members deserve child-care. It’s time we stood up for it.

Swarthmore Labor Action Project will be hosting the first Chow and Chat, a community-wide discussion about childcare on campus. The event will be held Tuesday April 9th at 2:00 pm in Science Center 105. Staff, students and faculty are encouraged to attend!

Op-Ed submitted by Lydia Bailey and Jason Clayton


  1. How does the Swarthmore salary and benefits compare to these same schools? If our current package is higher than our peer institutions, should we cut the pay of all employees to help those who have younger children? You don’t really provide a complete picture in this op-ed of how our school’s total compensation compares to these peers.

    • I’ll leave it to my more experienced colleagues in the Swarthmore Labor Action Project to provide exact figures for you, but I do want to make one point that I feel addresses your concerns.

      We could only find one peer institution that provides no childcare program or subsidies to its staff. That institution is Oberlin College, coincidentally my hometown. Oberlin College staff are unionized, unlike those at Swarthmore, and they have successfully pushed for very high wages.

    • Your question is important but hard to answer. Part of the complexity is trying to figure out how to compare compensation packages across schools. Basic living expenses cost more in some areas, so calculating everything would require significant research. While compiling this research is important, I didn’t need to do the full empirical study to realize that Swarthmore’s compensation package doesn’t look like a compensation package at a school commited to social justice.

      While making comparisons are difficult for many reasons, it is clear that Swarthmore could do better if you compare our compensation package to UPenn. While some dinning hall workers at UPenn make $17.05 per hour, this article http://www.thedp.com/article/2013/03/penn-slap-justice-on-the-menu points out that similarly experienced Penn staff at an outsourced dinning hall only make $12.95, which “falls well below the living wage in Philadelphia.” The minimum wage at Swarthmore is $12.00, and I know from personal conversations that some of our low-wage staff do live in Philadelphia.

      Hopefully, SLAP will be able to provide a full picture in the future, but I hope that you’re skeptical of the college’s claims that we’re doing everything we can for low-wage staff.

  2. I was under the impression that discounted child care was provided through the Friends Meeting House. While not funded directly by the school, it is on-campus and financial aid is provided to parents in need.

    • Why does the childcare need to be affiliated with Swarthmore directly to count? Speaking practically, I would not feel comfortable leaving my (hypothetical) children in the hands of haphazardly trained student workers.

      As someone who babysits two 3-year old twins on a consistent basis, I would be horrified to be left in charge of more than 5 children at a time. Finding consistent, and adequately trained students willing to take on the additional workload at the current pay-grades will be extremely difficult. I get paid 14 dollars an hour working in the Ville. Working at a College Daycare wouldn’t be worth my time,effort, or the added liability. In addition, I worry about the constant swapping of caretakers throughout the day. Unless you can find students willing to work 7/8 hours shifts, you’re expecting small children to be comfortable opening up to strangers. It takes time to develop trust, something which won’t happen without familiar faces every week.

      I think SLAP needs to invest much more effort into looking where the lack of childcare actually occurs. How many Staff apply for childcare at the Friends Meeting House and are turned away? In a given year, how many members of Staff have pre-school age children in need of care?

      A 5-year old informal e-mail survey asking Staff/Faculty if they think Swat should provide childcare is not demonstrative of an imperative need on campus. A formal poll of all staff requesting information on who is in need of current childcare services/subsidizes might be more appropriate.

      • While staff, students, and faculty need to understand what the demand for childcare looks like as they shape a specific proposal, that’s not as important as you’re making it out to be.

        Given the holes in America’s safety net, childcare is a benefit that the college needs to provide in some form or another. Your question implies that if not enough staff or faculty need childcare, then the college shouldn’t provide it. I disagree. If only one member of our community needs childcare, then the college should still find a structure that makes that a reality.

  3. Since when is childcare a basic human right? Where do you draw the line between things that are nice to have but not entitlements and things that society truly has an obligation to provide?
    Having kids is a choice, so I don’t see why people have a right to childcare.

    • Is education a basic human right? Why would childcare be any different? We know that high quality childcare has clear benefits for future performance in school, even without any additional moral arguments about the impact on employees. Society has an interest in the next generation being safe, educated and well-cared for. Added to which, of course, in the absence of support for childcare, the “choice” to have children is only really accorded those affluent enough to pay for childcare.

    • I. They didn’t say constitutional right. They said human right.

      II. Not everyone accepts what I infer to be your strict constructionist approach to the constitution. (Correct me if I am pigeonholing you. It’s an assumption based on your comment and your identification as a libertarian.) Setting aside what seems like a pretty classist attitude towards poor (hard)working parents, why can’t we see childcare as a right of the child, rather than a right of the adult? I think a pretty convincing argument can be made that age appropriate care and education is a right for all children, independent of income and their parents decision to have them.

      I’m not an education scholar and I haven’t read the peer-reviewed literature, but it seems like the common consensus is that children (mostly low-income) who come to kindergarten underprepared tend not to catch up without extensive intervention. While social mobility isn’t an enumerated right in the Constitution it is very clearly a value (even the objective!? controversial claim) of the constitutional project. For instance, I tend to believe that policies that allow for social mobility, like quality inexpensive Pre-K help: form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. General welfare & liberty, for ourselves and our posterity!

      Also, I don’t necessarily think the people who wrote the constitution could have anticipated that there would come a day where the vast majority of women (rich and poor) were permitted to do things like work despite having children. So they wrote in, what I consider to be the most under appreciated amendment to the constitution: “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” From a living breathing perspective, those rights can change based upon the needs of the population. For instance, while it is great to not have to quarter soldiers in my dorm room, I think if the founders were magically transported to the present where women work and soldiers stay on bases, the inclusion of childcare might trump the the need to specify that the government can’t make you host soldiers. Furthermore, working from the 9th amendment, that swap wouldn’t eliminate our right to refuse to host soliders.

      III. Because perspectives on the constitution are and forever will be subject to honest academic debate, and because you seem skeptical of the notion of human rights outside of the US constitution, I’m going to go ahead an assume that you didn’t really buy my points I and II. Which leaves me with this. Even if the childcare isn’t a Right, it is still the right thing for Swarthmore to do.

    • Wow, you googled me and looked up my old articles? That’s kind of sad.

      Anyway, I’m not talking about the constitution at all. I’m not even disagreeing that it would be a good idea for Swarthmore to provide child care as another benefit. The idea mentioned in the article about hiring students to run a childcare program on campus is very attractive to me.

      I’m just pushing back on the idea that childcare is a basic human right, which sounds ridiculous to me. And by the way, I know everyone here is going to call me evil for saying this, but I don’t think education is a human right either.

      And as far as my “classist attitude” goes, I’m sorry but the reality is that people don’t HAVE to have sex. Condoms are super cheap anyways. And if people are in a financial position where they can’t even afford condoms, then it is really doing a disservice to their potential future children if they have them because there’s no way they can properly support a child if they can’t afford condoms. So for society’s sake and for their future children’s sake they should wait to have kids until they can financially support them. It’s not like society needs more kids in poverty.

      • Zoe, how did you get into Swarthmore? I don’t care if you’re a conservative or democrat, your lack of concern for people who are not as well-off as you is extremely disturbing and runs against our college’s focus on social justice and helping the less fortunate.

  4. In this entire article, there isn’t a single mention of the employees’ views on this issue. Is this what they see as a primary need? I’ve talked to people who are part-time and desperately want to work full-time. I would love to see the people who work here get child care, but I would also like to know that they get a voice in defining what they need and want.

  5. In 2008, Linguistics Professor Donna Jo Napoli did an email survey in which she asked faculty and staff if they thought the college should offer childcare. After half a day, she sent out another email explicitly requesting that people to write in if they didn’t think that the college should provide child care. In a short amount of time, 45 faculty and 65 staff said that the college should provide childcare. 3 people said that the college should not.

    For 20 years, the Women’s Concerns Committee tried to get childcare on campus.

    Members of SLAP spent the past year and a half having conversations with staff in order to figure out if there are ways that we can help make Swarthmore a better community to work in. Childcare didn’t come out of left field.

  6. Great piece, Jay and Lydia, and thanks to Ben for stepping in and answering some of the questions here. SLAP is doing some great work.

  7. I join many others at the College in sharing the concern expressed above for the well-being of staff members and their families and would like to take this opportunity to clarify and correct some of the information presented.

    Like many of our peers, we offer a way for staff members to set aside without tax penalty some of their salary for dependent (child and elder) care. In my recent discussion with members of SLAP on Tuesday, April 2, I indicated that, now that the wage review is completed, we are able to commit new energy to further exploring possible additional resources for staff members, including child care. I also offered to host a discussion about the wage review and the methodology we used in recommending the College’s new minimum wage. We have proposed that this conversation take place on May 7 at 4:00 p.m., however we are still awaiting confirmation. I invite anyone interested in learning more about this issue to attend. My colleagues and I welcome the opportunity to share what we have learned and begin the discussion on our next steps.

    I would also like to add that we spoke with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania today and could not verify the wages cited above or in the Daily Pennsylvanian. We did confirm, however, that the minimum wage for all Penn employees is less than $11.25/hour. As of July, Swarthmore’s minimum wage will be $12/hour. More information about this is available at http://www.swarthmore.edu/news-and-events/board-of-managers-approves-2013-14-budget-sets-new-college-minimum-wage.xml

  8. Child-care is a basic human right and a refusal to provide such a right to workers is oppression and opposition to social justice. Periodic paid vacations is also a basic human right as written in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. If Swarthmore does not provide these basic human rights, it cannot be regarded a safe haven of social justice.

  9. Well, if childcare is “a basic human right”, what isn’t on the list?

    This is not about “human rights”. This is about who pays the cost of having children.

    Although as a college student you may rarely think about money, we will assume for purposes of this discussion that the Op-Ed Editors do not believe money simply grows on trees or magically appears in the Registrar’s office to pay faculty, staff or child care staff. Someone, somewhere, must EARN those greenbacks before they may be confiscated to pay for this “basic human right”. So, who’s going to earn the cash for your human right? The employer or the employee? Swarthmore students/parents . . . or the individual who chose to have a child? Which will it be?

    College faculty and staff already enjoy some of the best benefit packages of any employees anywhere on top of hefty salaries in an idyllic setting. Yet, the Editors feel struggling students (or their parents) paying $50,000 per year (an amount charged more because “everyone else is” than any other reason per a Swat administrator’s own admission in a Gazette article) should start subsidizing the cost of “on-campus” (a euphemism for “free”, apparently) childcare – on top of other salary and benefits?

    Fine – if you feel compelled to make this argument . . . be upfront and make it . . . instead of hiding behind liberal tropisms like “basic human rights”.

    (And, to be fair, you might figure out and disclose the extent to which Swatties are already subsidizing faculty children. For instance, unlike any other employers anywhere, a subsidy of 50% of the cost of tuition PER YEAR PER KID for any employee who has been employed for 5 years is a standard private college benefit – and reciprocal – i.e. usable at virtually any college the kid gets in. Undoubtedly Swarthmore provides this standard hefty private college employer subsidy (aka human right) if you bother to check.)

  10. To Uhm,

    You say “Redistribute the money already here. Take money away from the frivolous fluff and put it toward important things like childcare.”

    Why not pay Swat faculty their salary and let them decide how to spend their own money, instead of you (or someone else) deciding for them?

  11. Child care services provided by workplaces seem to be one of the ‘luxuries’ that can only be offered in the really good times. Obviously the author sees child care as an essential right as a parent and employee though others may argue.

    Providing child care isn’t cheap – the cost of employees plus providing facilities, insurance and so on – so I’d imagine the decision to get rid of it would come down to a few key points:

    1. How much does it cost to provide?
    2. What else would we have to cut out to pay to provide child care?

    (and to a lesser extent)

    3. Are enough people using the service to justify keeping it running (question of economies of scale/efficiency of the service)?

    If the lack of child care services mean they can employ more staff directly involved in teaching at the university, is it worth it?

    If the lack of child care services mean they can offer lower prices to their students, is it worth it?

    Swarthmore seems to have come to their own decisions on the matter.

  12. From what Pamela Prescod-Caesar has said, the college has taken into account the need for parents to provide child care to their kids when the parents are at work. An on-site child care service would likely be convenient for staff with children, but I’m sure others prefer the current situation as it allows them to make their own choices on where to send their children for care.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading