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Why Child Care Is The Most Broken Business In The U.S.

Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Claire Suddath explains why child care is so unaffordable in the U.S. and why attempts to provide federal funding for care keep failing in Congress.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're wondering why child care is so expensive, almost like paying college tuition for a toddler, my guest, Claire Suddath, can help answer that. She wrote a recent article titled "How Child Care Became The Most Broken Business In America." The subtitle is "Biden Has A Plan To Make Daycare More Affordable For Parents If The Providers Don't Go Out Of Business First." The article is published in Bloomberg Businessweek, where she's a senior writer who often writes about gender equity. She examines why our current daycare and early education system is unaffordable for most daycare providers, as well as for parents, and why attempts to change that through federal funding keeps failing in Congress. She's also been reporting for years on the lack of paid family leave and how that hurts businesses and the American economy in addition to hurting new parents.

Claire Suddath, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CLAIRE SUDDATH: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: So you wrote this article about how unaffordable daycare is, in part because your child is now about to be 17 months old, and you had to look for daycare. What were some of the challenges you faced as a new mother finding daycare for your child?

SUDDATH: So she was born in July of 2020 in the depths of the pandemic, which means I was already pregnant when everything shut down originally in March. And I like to do a lot of research ahead of time, and we'd actually started our daycare search before we knew about coronavirus. So in February, my husband and I started touring daycares in Brooklyn because we had heard horror stories from friends about incredibly long wait lists and not getting a spot.

And I knew how expensive it was because I had heard from friends that it was, you know, sometimes between $2,000 and $3,000 a month here is pretty common. And so we saw three places in person. One I honestly can't remember anymore. One I really just didn't like, and it's hard to explain why. And then one we did like. It was clean and friendly. And we probably would have looked at some more places, but then the world shut down, and I thought, OK, well, of these three places, I'll just go with this one.

GROSS: And how much do you have to pay a month?

SUDDATH: It is just under $2,000, and the reason why it is what I would say cheap for Brooklyn is because we have shortened the hours that we have put her in because I'm not commuting to work. So we pick her up at 4 p.m. rather than she would have probably had to stay until 6:00 or 6:30 had I been going into the office.

GROSS: So that's nearly $24,000 a year. That's an enormous sum.

SUDDATH: Yeah. I don't think I could have afforded it earlier in my career.

GROSS: And a lot of women have babies early in their 20s, even teens. How can you possibly afford a figure like that when you're just starting off professionally? A lot of women who probably can't even afford to work because it's too expensive to have daycare.

SUDDATH: Yeah. I have written a lot of stories over the years and interviewed women about their career decisions, and I can't tell you the number of women that I have talked to who have chosen a career or dropped out of the workforce or switched to part time solely because they couldn't afford child care. Sometimes it's trying to pay that $20,000 a year for one baby. Sometimes it is having the second child. And you don't get a discount, right? This isn't buy two, get one free or something like that, so you get to just pay double. And at $40,000 a year, $45,000 a year, people oftentimes say that's almost my entire paycheck, or it is my entire paycheck, or it's more than I make.

And so women who can do it - you have to have a partner who does have income - oftentimes don't work. And for women who aren't in a position like that, I've - I think one of two things happens. Either you find cheaper care - that means like an unlicensed place, and then you're really rolling the dice on quality. I talked to one woman for an article who was going to law school when she had a 2-year-old. And she was a single mom trying to further her career, and she went to law school. And all of the daycares that she was looking at were $1,200 a month or something. And so she was like, well, I clearly can't afford that. So she found a woman on Craigslist who is advertising that she would watch kids in her home for $100 a week.

And so, Liz, this woman that I interviewed was like, OK, I can do that. But her son then came home one day and said that the woman had hit him, so she had to pull him out of that daycare. And what she ended up doing was taking out a student loan because she was in law school, but using that student loan to pay for her child's daycare. So on top of the actual student loans that she used for law school, she graduated with somewhere between a $130,000 and $140,000 in debt.

GROSS: In trying to understand why daycare costs so much, while at the same time daycare workers are very underpaid, you tried to look at it from the point of view of providers because the profit margin apparently is very small for most daycare providers. What are some of the reasons why daycare is so expensive from the provider's point of view?

SUDDATH: Yeah. This is really the question that led me to research this in the first place because I could not figure out why something that was so unaffordable for families was also so unaffordable for the people who work in child care. No one goes into this industry because they want to get rich. So I thought, where is the money going? And the reason is that while the U.S. government more or less doesn't subsidize child care, there are low-income subsidy programs. But for the most part, it's a private market. It is heavily, heavily regulated, and so the government is very involved, but on the regulation side, as it should be.

There's no one that I have talked to who is arguing to deregulate the industry because these laws have been put in place over the years to keep babies safe. You know, there's fire safety codes, CPR requirements, square footage requirements so that you don't just pack 50 babies into a room and leave them lying on the floor or something like that. And the sticking point, like the thing that makes it so expensive is, most states, it varies a little bit, but they require one caregiver for every three to four infants, which is children 2 and under, and that's solely because they have to. You know, babies need constant supervision and attention. When they're newborns, they nap four times a day. They eat every two hours. You have to swaddle them. You have to hold them all the time.

GROSS: So babies cost more in the sense that they need more attention and therefore more workers to take care of the babies at any daycare center. And the older children, like the 3 to 4-year-olds, they help subsidize the infants?

SUDDATH: Yeah. Yeah. So most places, if they do accept infants, also watch children up to age 3 or 4, which would be sort of preschool age. And it's because the regulations at that age are a bit more relaxed. It's usually like seven or eight kids for a caregiver. And so you can collectively watch more children with fewer caregivers as long as you're watching preschoolers as well.

GROSS: And that creates a kind of problem in the sense that in some places, like in New York, now there's a government-subsidized preschool program, but that's taking away some of the older kids, you know, 4-year-olds, from day care and that's making it harder to pay for the infants. Explain that complicated formula.

SUDDATH: Yeah. So, you know, OK, let's say you have a day care who watches babies from, you know, birth essentially through age 4. And they, you know, have a different curriculum, probably, for 3- and 4-year-olds, but it's still one business. And then if a city or a state or something comes along and says, OK, well, you know what? We're going to have a universal preschool program and we're going to open new preschools or maybe put them into the public school system. You're going to pull those 3- and 4-year-olds out of day cares and then they're going to lose those spots that are the spots that are making it financially feasible for them to even watch infants. So they lose money. Some of them close or they, you know, reduce their size.

And I think New York City, when it launched universal preschool in 2014, it was, you know, a huge success on the preschool side. I think it, like, quadrupled the number of 4-year-olds who had access to preschool in just a few years. Like, it was a really good thing. But they hadn't thought through this sort of complicated financial, very precarious model that day cares are in. And they actually lost about 2,700 infant spots in day cares, mostly in poor neighborhoods, because the day cares just couldn't afford to stay open.

GROSS: So are day care centers, like, making money or making a lot of money or how much are they struggling?

SUDDATH: Oh, no, they are not making money. The U.S. Treasury a few months ago released a report because it was studying why the industry was just in such a huge mess. And they found that, you know, your typical child care business in the U.S. entered the pandemic - like, this has nothing to do with COVID - had about a 1% profit margin, which is not a lot of wiggle room, so that when something big does happen, like, I don't know, you have to shut down for months on end because there is a virus, they don't have the financial capability to withstand that.

GROSS: What are day care workers typically paid?

SUDDATH: It's really low. The number on average is about $24,000 a year.

GROSS: Wow. That's about almost what day care costs (laughter).

SUDDATH: Yeah, exactly. I know. Essentially...

GROSS: Like, they would be among the people who couldn't afford to put their children in day care.

SUDDATH: Oh, yeah. I mean, at my daughter's day care, we had - her favorite caregiver who she absolutely loved had to quit because she herself got pregnant. And, you know, she worked up to a certain point in her pregnancy and then, you know, caring for children and picking them up and doing all this is incredibly physical, and she had to leave. But she certainly could not have afforded to put her child in the actual place where she herself was working.

I think it's important, you know, when you throw out a number like $24,000 a year to really think about what that is. Most of the people who work in child care have at least some form of higher education. And it's usually in child development or early education. And these are people who are, like, incredibly passionate and want to do this because they love children, which coincidentally is the type of person that as a parent I want to take care of my kid.

But because they make so little money - in a normal year, about a quarter of child care workers leave the industry because they just can't afford to hold the jobs that they hold. It pays less than being a janitor. It pays less than being a barista. Like, it's so low paying. And they - oftentimes, these are small businesses. Maybe they don't have health insurance. A lot of them are on some sort of government subsidy because they're at poverty level wages. It's - you know, as a parent, I can't pay more money, but I want them to make more money because I find it unconscionable that we pay them so little.

GROSS: Are most day care centers, like, independent or, like, what's the percentage of, like, big chains that run day cares versus small businesses?

SUDDATH: Yeah, that's a great question. And this is a industry that is almost entirely small businesses and almost entirely run by women. It's, like, 95% of child care owners and workers are women; 40% of them are women of color; many of them are new to this country; sometimes English is not their first language. And the number of providers that I spoke with who themselves were priced out of whatever career that they had had, it was astounding to me. So many of them open up these businesses because they can't find affordable child care themselves.

There are chains. The largest one, I think, is called KinderCare. And if they were fully enrolled, they would be able to serve about 200,000 kids across the U.S. But all of the chains combined are maybe 6%-ish of the industry. Like, this is mostly small businesses, which I like. You know, we want these women to be able to have businesses and support themselves. I think that's what we want in an economy, but it's just not working for them.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Suddath. She's a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, where she often writes about gender equity. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Suddath. Her recent article about child care is titled "How Child Care Became The Most Broken Business In America." Her recent article about paid parental leave is about why the reality for new parents is brutal and at times inhumane. The articles are published in Bloomberg Businessweek, where she's a senior writer.

You quote Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as saying child care does not work well in the free market sector. I think a lot of people who you've interviewed agree with that. Why is it not workable in the private sector?

SUDDATH: Well, when you talk to economists, they say, you know, this is a perfect example of what they call a classic market failure, which is, you know, when a price point for a good or a service - in this particular instance, it's child care - is too expensive for the consumers, by which I mean families, and too expensive or unaffordable for the providers, the people providing that service, in which case child care owners and workers. And there's no way to fix that in a private market setting.

And we have other examples of this in our society, right? We recognize that we want everyone, regardless of income, to have access to a fire department. You know, if your house catches on fire, we don't ask, well, can you afford to put it out? It's better for us collectively if we put the fire out. We collectively pay for a fire department. We put the fire out so that it doesn't spread to another person's home because they happen to live next to someone who can't afford a fire department. You know, we have police. We have libraries. We have public schools. But child care has never been thought of in that way, even though I think, very obviously, it should have been a long time ago.

GROSS: How does the U.S. compare to other countries when it comes to day care?

SUDDATH: It's not good. I think the statistic that surprised and appalled me the most when I was researching this had to do with preschool. So in the U.S., for the most part, public school starts when the kid is - turns 5 and enters kindergarten. So if you're a 3- and 4-year-old in the U.S., their access to preschool is contingent mostly on their parents' ability to pay for it themselves. And other countries don't do that. Most of the U.S.'s peer nations, like, wealthy, industrialized countries, heavily subsidize child care and early education. So in Spain, Italy, France, Israel, South Korea, 90% of 3- and 4-year-olds in those countries go to preschool. In America, it's 40% because the other 60%, their parents can't afford it.

GROSS: What's the latest with Build Back Better? How does child care figure into that?

SUDDATH: Well, I'm going to criticize it. But before I do, I want to say that Build Back Better is the first time in 50 years that the federal government has meaningfully even attempted to address this issue. So I want to give them credit for that. And if Build Back Better passed tomorrow and was fully implemented, every state bought into it, it would do a number of really great things. You know, the two most important things would be - it would make child care completely free for low-income families, and it would cap it at about 7% of many families' incomes, which would about halve the cost for a number of Americans. You'd be saving millions of families, you know, millions and millions and millions of dollars. And on the other hand, it also requires caregivers to be paid a living wage. It doesn't really define that, but it's generally considered to be like a kindergarten teacher salary, which would almost double their pay.

But the problem with Build Back Better is that it doesn't create a whole new federal program from scratch. All it is saying is, hey, we as the federal government have a ton of money available for you, states, if you decide to address this yourself. And you have to come up with a plan that hits all of these points, you know, the 7% cap, the living wage. And that's a big ask because it's possible that a state doesn't decide to do anything. It might not take the money. We have 12 states in this country that still have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. It's possible that something like that would happen with child care. And because of this, like, very complex model of how the business actually works, it's possible that a state might not get it right. Like, their plan might inadvertently make things worse.

Like, when I would talk to experts about this bill, they would say that they're very nervous because they're worried that a state would maybe launch universal preschool - because the preschool funds in Build Back Better are separate from the child care funds - that a state would say, we'll address preschool, but we'll leave child care. And then they would make the cost of infant care even greater. And one woman that I talked to, an expert who has worked in this field for a really long time, estimated that, you know, in some places, infant care could rise to over $30,000 a year.

GROSS: Oh, wow. Who can afford that?

SUDDATH: And so - yeah, exactly. And so it's just so complicated that to ask all 50 states to come up with 50 different plans to address an incredibly complex issue, it requires a leap of faith to think that that is going to happen. And I honestly don't think that it would.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Suddath. She's a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, where she often writes about gender equity issues. We'll be right back after a short break.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Claire Suddath. Her recent article about child care is titled "How Child Care Became The Most Broken Business In America." Her recent article about paid parental leave is about why the reality for new parents is brutal and at times inhumane. The articles are published in Bloomberg Businessweek, where she's a senior writer.

How long have some members of Congress been trying to create some kind of national child care system or system of real, helpful subsidies?

SUDDATH: I mean, you can go back as far as World War II, when they did actually do it, and then again...

GROSS: 'Cause so many women were working 'cause so many men were at war.

SUDDATH: Yeah. I - you know, I didn't know this until I was really researching this. But, you know, when World War II started, all of these women, you know, entered the workforce in huge numbers. I think it's like 1.5 million women with children under 10 started working. And it was like this point of national pride, right? You know, you have Rosie the Riveter. And they're going to work, and it's their patriotic duty, and they're fighting at the home front as men are fighting, you know, overseas.

But they needed a place to put their children for practical reasons. And in the very early days of World War II, you have stories of - there was, like, a movie theater in Muncie, Ind., that women would just drop their kids off to watch movie after movie while they went and worked in a factory. Or in California, there was a factory, and the women working there realized that they could leave their children in their cars and parked under the factory windows so that when they had their breaks, they could peer out the window and check to make sure that their kids are OK.

And so Congress was like, well, this is not a good idea, and they passed what's called the Lanham Act. It was passed in 1940. And by 1942, we essentially built - I think it was over 3,000 Lanham centers, which were federally subsidized and run day care centers for women working these jobs. And by and large, they were incredibly successful. And they could, like, tailor their services based on what their customers or their families needed - you know, whether it was overnight care for people working the night shift or, you know, summertime hours or something like that. But they closed at the end of the war because funds were withdrawn. And that was the last time Congress has successfully addressed this issue. They did pass a bipartisan bill in 1971, and it landed on Nixon's desk. And had he signed it, we would have a federally subsidized child care program, and I wouldn't be talking to you about this today. But he vetoed it, and so here we are.

GROSS: And you quote what he said when he vetoed it - or before he vetoed it - that it was a "dangerous proposition that the state take the place of the family."

You quote a lot - a couple of other people over the years. And in March, Idaho lawmakers rejected a $6 million early childhood education grant. And Representative Charlie Shepherd said during a debate, any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home, I don't think that's a good direction for us to be going.

You quote Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, as recently tweeting, "you know who else liked universal day care?" And then she linked to a 1974 New York Times article on subsidized care in the Soviet Union, implying that subsidized day care is like a communist plot or, you know, just what the communists do.

Has day care been an ideological debate in other countries and a debate about whether, like, women should be in the home or whether the government should have any role at all?

SUDDATH: Yeah. Yes. The answer is yes. You know, biases against working women and idealized notions of motherhood are not unique to America. Germany does have federalized subsidized care, but it's fairly recent. You know, they actually used to have measures put in place that would encourage women to stay home. But their approach has shifted over the years because they recognize that that's just not how the world works anymore. It's just not reality. You know, in America, 70% of children under age 6 live in a home where all of the adults in their home - single parent, two parents, whoever cares for them - all of those adults work. So it is more common for American children to need child care, to need someone to watch after them than to not.

GROSS: Let's talk about paid family leave. What does the average worker get now in terms of paid family leave and especially paid maternity leave?

SUDDATH: I think the average nationally is about five weeks, which is shorter than the amount of time that women are given before they have to see their doctor for a checkup. For their doctor to clear them, it's usually at six weeks. So you're expected to return to work before your doctor even examines you to see if you are physically capable of resuming your previous life. And also, I think the number is about a fifth of Americans have access to paid parental leave or maternity leave, but all of those people are salaried full-time workers, usually working white-collar jobs. I think the percentage of low-wage workers who have access to any form of paid leave is, like, maybe 5%. It's a very, very unequal system.

GROSS: You're one of the lucky ones. You had six months of paid parental leave when - because you work at Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Businessweek. And you wrote about why you couldn't imagine going back to work at four weeks. Tell us about why it was so unimaginable to you.

SUDDATH: I think if you haven't given birth and you think about, oh, OK, you have six weeks to have this little newborn baby at home and take care of it, that's one mental picture. But then I actually gave birth, and I was shocked at physically how traumatic it was. I had a particularly bad delivery. My daughter was delivered with forceps, so that means you - they're physically sort of ripping a baby out of you. And so you have quite extensive injuries.

So at six weeks, I couldn't sit in a chair. I couldn't really stand for long periods of time. And I just thought, how do people go back to work? I know not everyone had the experience that I had. But if you have a C-section, it's about, I think, at least a minimum of six weeks, and you can't lift anything heavier than a frying pan or your baby, I suppose. You can't go up stairs. And yet all of these, you know, low-wage workers doing really physical jobs have to go back to work.

And I had just interviewed so many women over the years who would tell me these horror stories about trying to do that. One woman I - worked in Hollywood, and she was a, you know, highly paid - she was on the production side of TV shows. And she was highly paid, but she had to go back to work three weeks after a C-section. And she's, you know, still has stitches and is, like, actively bleeding. But she was back at work because she didn't have job protection.

GROSS: My guest is Claire Suddath. Her recent articles about why child care is unaffordable and parental leave for new parents is inadequate are published in Bloomberg Businessweek, where she is a senior writer. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Suddath. Her recent article about child care is titled "How Child Care Became The Most Broken Business In America." Her recent article about paid parental leave is about why the reality for new parents is brutal and at times inhumane. The articles are published in Bloomberg Businessweek, where she is a senior writer.

Now, obviously, it's expensive for businesses to pay an employee who isn't there, and that's part of the reason why so many parents want government subsidies for paid parental leave so that, you know, the business isn't going to, you know, go under, but they'll be able to have a humane policy about early parents, particularly women, particularly the, you know, new mothers. So again, let's look to other countries. Like, other countries have kind of figured out ways to do this.

SUDDATH: Yeah, they do. You know, most European countries, Canada, most wealthy nations also, you know, it's paid and it is subsidized by the government because you're right. I mean, if you are a small business and you have five employees and one employee has a baby and leaves for months on end, it's a struggle. It's a struggle for you to come up with a solution to to cover their work, and it's a struggle for you to pay their leave. So in other countries, the government pays. And it's oftentimes, you know, months, you know, if not a year in some Scandinavian countries and Canada. And the U.S., the initial plan, I think, for "Build Back Better" was 12 weeks, which is still just incredibly paltry, but it's something. And now we're maybe talking four weeks, if that.

And, you know, when I heard that, it's one of those things that's - it's so small, it's almost insulting. It's like, am I supposed to be thankful that we're going to get four weeks? It's not really helping you all that much. So we're so far behind. Most countries have started dealing with this, I think, in the least by the 1970s, and they have gradually, over the years, increased it as they have realized that they needed to. And we're still sort of back at, you know, 1974 or something like that because we've never dealt with it.

GROSS: Why has it been so hard to get government subsidy for a reasonable amount of paid parental leave?

SUDDATH: Well, I have interviewed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand twice. And then for this past article, I talked to Senator Elizabeth Warren. And, you know, they have said, essentially, just look at the people who are in Congress. You know, today we have, I think, maybe the most diverse Congress in history, and it's still 75% white. It's mostly men. You know, Senator Gillibrand has been on this issue for a really long time. Even when she was a lawyer, I think, she had to write the maternity leave policy of her own law firm that she worked at. So she's quite invested in this. And she has told me that for years she's struggled to get her older male congressmen to take this seriously. They just don't recognize the need, and I think we're seeing that again.

You know, you have seen pictures, maybe in the news, of a female senators, you know, trying to talk to Joe Manchin about this. And, you know, they would hold it back from 12 weeks to four weeks. I think first they dropped it altogether, and then they got him back up to four weeks. And it's basically contingent upon a man who's never given birth. I think he has children and grandchildren. But he's deciding whether or not this is necessary.

And I think sometimes about how a lack of representation really matters. You know, if you don't have people who physically look like you or have gone through the same life experiences of you representing you in government, your needs and your issues are going to get short shrift because it won't seem as important to other people.

GROSS: Has researching these articles about paid parental leave and about the cost of daycare helped you navigate your way through early motherhood?

SUDDATH: That is a really big question. I think yes, I, you know, as a journalist, I love doing research. And I have sort of entered into this phase of my life armed with about as much knowledge as is possible without actually going through it. You know, I knew all about paid leave before I ever even filled out paperwork for maternity leave. And it had made me feel good about, one, what my company offered and also my decision to take the full amount. Because I could come back, you know, I could have come back at four months or three months or whatever. And Bloomberg also has this sort of transition policy where for the first 10 weeks that you're back, you can take one day off a week to make it easier for you to sort of ease into work. And I did that.

And sometimes people would say to me like, oh, wow, so you're taking the full amount of leave and you're doing the full 10 weeks. And I was like, yeah, I am. Why would I not? And it has made me feel more confident. And also the stuff that I find really hard and frustrating I know is not because of some sort of failing on my part. It is because child care is that expensive or that is how this works. You know, one thing we haven't talked about is how school days don't line up with people's workdays. And I'm not at that point in my parenting life. You know, my child is not in school, but I am thinking about it and I'm aware of it. And I don't have an answer. But by the time I get there, I hope I will have come up with a solution that maybe works for me. I don't know.

GROSS: I can hear you ruling out a solution that works for everyone. It's like every woman for herself figure out a plan.

SUDDATH: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Suddath. She's a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, where she often writes about gender equity. After a break, we'll talk about writing about a different subject - her ancestor, who was a former Confederate general and owned a plantation and enslaved people. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Claire Suddath. She's a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

I'm going to change the subject pretty completely to talk about something else that you've written that I thought was really interesting, and this was about your great-great-great-grandfather, James Zachariah George, who owned enslaved people. He was a colonel in the Confederate Army. He was chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court and later was a U.S. senator. So before we get to what it's like knowing that your ancestors had a plantation with enslaved people, what was your great-great-grandfather known for?

SUDDATH: Oh, wow, you really did a deep dive on my work (laughter). So, yeah, my great great great - I think there's four greats - grandfather was James Z. George. He was a colonel in the Confederate Army. He was a U.S. senator. He was on the Mississippi State Supreme Court. And he, after Reconstruction, was instrumental in rewriting Mississippi's Constitution to systematically disenfranchise Black voters, I think, is the most succinct way of saying that.

GROSS: Yeah, because he wrote a literacy clause or a literacy law saying that you had to be able to read the Constitution, and if you couldn't read it, you had to be able to explain it. Do I have that right?

SUDDATH: Yeah. So the - it was the literacy clause. And, you know, there were a lot of white people who also weren't literate back then. So it couldn't just be you had to be able to read a passage from the Constitution because they wanted white people to be able to vote. So it was if it was read to you, you had to be able to explain what it meant. And the people deciding whether or not you had successfully explained it were, surprise, white people. So this was a method to effectively push thousands of newly freed Black Americans who had only recently been able to legally vote to push them back off the voter rolls. I forget the number off the top of my head, but it was something like...

GROSS: Oh, I have it written down. You say it went from...

SUDDATH: Oh, good, good because I wrote about this a while ago (laughter).

GROSS: You say that it went from 80,000 registered Black voters in Mississippi to 9,000 after this literacy test was passed.

SUDDATH: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Did you grow up knowing about the history of slavery in your family?

SUDDATH: Yes. But as a child, there's, I think, a difference between, like, knowing about it and really thinking deeply about what it means. So my - this is my dad's mother's side of the family. And my grandmother died before I was born, but she came from the Mississippi Delta. And in her family, her cousin still lived in the family plantation. It's called Cotesworth. It's in a town called Carrollton, Miss. A few years ago, it was turned over to the state, and I think now it's a museum and an event space that you can rent for weddings and stuff like that. But I grew up going there, and I am not from the South, originally.

I was raised in Chicago, but my dad is from Mississippi. My mom is from Tennessee. My entire family is Southern. And I knew that it was a plantation, and I knew in the way that you know in elementary school that slaves had worked that plantation. But I didn't really understand what that meant until I got considerably older. And several years ago, a former professor of mine, you know, sort of asked me in conversation, was there anything that I'd always wanted to write about but never have? And so I said, yes, actually. My family has this plantation. And he said, well, why don't you go do that? So I did. And it took a lot of research, and I ended up writing a really long and lengthy story about it.

GROSS: One of the things you did once you started thinking seriously about what it means to be a descendant of an owner of a plantation who owned enslaved people, you tracked down one of the ancestors of one of the enslaved people because there was a rumor that your - was it great-great-great or great-great-great-great-great-grandfather?

SUDDATH: I think it's great-great-great-great-grandfather.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So the rumor had been that he had fathered children with enslaved people on his plantation. So you tracked down one of those descendants of an enslaved person and wanted to see whether you were genetically connected. So you tracked him down via Facebook. You met with him in a diner. And you did DNA tests. Tell us about the results.

SUDDATH: The - spoiler alert - results was that we were not related. And when I say that, I always want to make clear that there were hundreds of slaves working on this plantation, and the rumor that I heard was about a specific man who had been enslaved, who had worked there, who - the rumor was that he was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather's son. So I found descendants of him. And that rumor turned out, apparently, not to be true, but that doesn't close the door on it possibly being the case for other people who had been enslaved. Like, I can't say that he did not do this. I just know that we are not related - 'cause I think that's a very important distinction to make.

GROSS: What sense of - I don't know - responsibility do you feel for what your ancestors did?

SUDDATH: I think the only thing I can really do is acknowledge it and talk about it. I don't own the plantation. I've never lived at the plantation. I don't have any say over it. I am very far removed from the family members who still live there. I'm, you know, the weird Yankee cousin, essentially, who lives in New York and writes for magazines. But because of the job that I hold and the skills that I have and the knowledge that I have, I feel like it's important to talk about it because, in a way, I think, similarly to the way men have been talking more about the need for paid leave or something like that, I think it's on white people to say, look at all of this stuff that we have done in the past. You know, I didn't write the literacy clause, but I can research it and learn about it and write about it so that other people can know about it and know what has happened.

GROSS: Claire Suddath, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SUDDATH: Yeah, thank you. I have really loved this.

GROSS: Me too. Thank you for your time.

Claire Suddath is a senior reporter at Bloomberg Businessweek. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Anne Helen Petersen about how the pandemic has changed attitudes about working from home and with astronaut Chris Cassidy, a former U.S. commander of the International Space Station, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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