Will Congress finally fund quality, affordable child care?

If you want this economy to work, if you want to boost our GDP, or now, during a pandemic … get people back to work, then we need to make a national investment [in universal child care]. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Here are two terms that you don’t expect to see together: “the state of Alabama,” and “progressive leader.” (Okay, I’m a Texan and so have no standing to point at the rank regressiveness of any other state government … but still, Alabama?) And yet–even with its well-earned reputation as a bastion of Jim Crow voter theft, plutocratic anti-worker policies, and right-wing nutballism–the Camellia State has flowered as a model of strong progressive action in one area of critical public importance: Quality child care.

It’s a cliche to say “our children are our future,” but it’s also true. Then why do we invest so little in our littlest ones, our future? Both in providing safe places for children of working parents and for boosting the education of pre-kindergarten tykes, America’s childcare system is a national disgrace. Moreover, the abject failure of state and national officials to meet this basic social need is spreading inequality, rolling back opportunities for women, and severely restricting economic recovery.

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

How impressive is it then, that Alabama officials (often vying to win that coveted 50th spot as America’s worst state for meeting people’s needs) have recently been setting the national standard for effective pre-K programs? Beginning 20 years ago with a small budget and eight classrooms, Alabama’s investment in 4 year olds now operates statewide in about 1,300 neighborhood and rural facilities. It prepares some 21,000 children each year to be “kindergarten-ready”–able to succeed from day-one of entry into the K-12 educational years. A major factor in its success is a two-generation approach, not only educating the kiddos, but also providing support materials and coaching so that parents engage as their children’s “first teachers.”

Producing demonstrable results year after year, the state’s public investment in children and families gets bipartisan support and funding from the Alabama Lege. The program is voluntary, free, and available to all, with special attention devoted to enlisting often overlooked families in rural, poor, and people-of-color communities. “We evaluate everything through an equity lens,” says Dr. Barbara Cooper, Alabama’s secretary of early childhood education. “Everything” includes teachers. Rather than treating them as low-pay babysitters, as so many programs do, Alabama is paying (and respecting) them as the professionals they are and investing substantial state money in their career development. “We are laser-focused on retaining the highest-quality educators and providers for our youngest learners,” Cooper proudly says.

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Alabama! If one of our poorest states can rise to meet this basic human need, what’s wrong with the richest country in the history of the world? Nearly every other nation with an advanced economy (and some not so advanced) treats child care as a fundamental public good essential to nurturing children, families, and the economy. But our US of A relegates millions of working parents and 21 million kids under 5 to the tender mercies of a for-profit market, with providers ranging from impossibly expensive to the helter-skelter messes of unlicensed Kiddie Korrals. The right-wing, super-nationalists who mindlessly salute the US as “exceptional,” fail to note what is actually exceptional about our “child care system”: It is such a shambles that it can’t even be called a system, much less caring.

For the past decade, independent journalist and economic analyst Bryce Covert (brycecovert.com) has documented the worsening social crisis caused by this abject failure of leadership. Her recent report paints a dire picture of huge and obvious need:

  • Two thirds of our pre-K kids have both parents in the workforce, meaning care outside the home is essential.
  • 85% of the parents of these young ones say that finding quality, affordable child care in their area is a problem somewhere between serious and impossible.
  • Nationwide, the annual cost for a 4 year old’s day care averages about $13,000. In 28 states and DC, an infant’s care center costs more than an 18 year old’s public college tuition.

Despite millions of working families finding this essential service unaffordable or even unavailable, political leaders have ignored their plight. What meager federal spending there is hasn’t even kept up with inflation. At its lowest level in a dozen years, child care aid now reaches only 15% of qualified kids. (Note that some callous governors, including ours in Texas, divert chunks of federal child care subsidies to their own political priorities, such as border walls and corporate welfare.)

In 2017, even before Covid-19 abruptly shut down thousands of care centers, 40% of America’s children lived in “child care deserts”–zip codes with zero programs or so few that two-thirds or more of the area’s children are unable to get in.

On the cheap

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” the old bumper sticker says: Yet for decades national and state lawmakers have flaunted their ignorance of what makes a good society by stupidly shortchanging our investment in our youngest minds. At the same time, corporate and governmental policymakers have intentionally rigged our economic and political systems to hold down workers’ incomes even while their living expenses rise. The result is that mothers and fathers alike are herded into whatever jobs or jobettes are available–just to make ends meet. This leaves young children to … what?

DO SOMETHING

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Let’s be clear: Caring for children is expensive. Kids are labor intensive –assuming, that is, the goal is not merely to keep the little creatures watered, fed, and restrained, but actually cared for intellectually, emotionally, and socially. Today, only the wealthy can purchase primo attention from private providers and, thanks to ever-attentive lawmakers, the rich even enjoy a special tax-break loophole for their nannies. But workaday families–especially the majority stranded on the lower rungs of the economic ladder– are mostly on their own when it comes to child care.

For our society to rank up with other developed countries, there is no shortcut. We must choose between making a significant public investment to sustain an egalitarian system of quality child care … or maintain our present “We don’t care” policy toward our kids.

As inadequate as today’s “care” network is, it’s only fair to note that the rickety thing actually is heavily subsidized. Not by government, but by the caregivers hired by center owners to tend to the children! Most of these providers are paid less than $11 an hour–on par with parking lot attendants and less than many dog walkers. The hours are long, the ratio of children-to-caregivers tends to be impossibly high, job stress is severe, and staff support is meager. Even as the need for care has soared in recent years and centers’ fees have climbed, pay for caregivers (overwhelmingly women and mostly low-income women of color) has stayed flat. Benefits and job security? Get real. Usually, workers’ wages are so low that they can’t afford to enroll their own children in the centers where they attend to other’s young ones. Training and career development? The US model does not consider caregiving a profession or a career.

What happened to us?

A mind-warping brain teaser: what country set the gold standard for high-quality, universal child care? Hint: The very one that now fails so pathetically, stupidly, and shamefully to meet that crucial need. Yes, it’s the mighty USA!

It came at the onset of America’s commitment to World War II. With masses of men deployed, masses of women were called to rev up economic production as everything from engineers to Rosie Riveters. Their children? Believe it or not, our government responded directly and effectively by passing the Lanham Act in 1943. The new law treated child care as a core component of our nation’s infrastructure, key to a unified war effort. This was a national/local government partnership that set up and staffed a publicly subsidized network of more than 3,000 Lanham Act pre-school centers all across America, open to all.

These weren’t mere child-minding barns, but full-scale teaching and nurturing centers that paid for accredited teachers and staff and trained them in childhood education. The program was widely affordable: For about $.50 a day (equivalent to less than $8 today) a child could get 12 hours of quality care. Twelve hours! The fee included lunch and snacks; the centers operated all day, year around, reaching families in 47 states, and aimed at a 1 to 10 teacher-student ratio. Subsequent studies found the program enormously beneficial to the well-being of children, parents, communities, and the nation.

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So, of course, right-wing extremists killed it. After the war, they loudly insisted that women return to housewifery and that the government get out of child care. Succumbing to their pressure, Pres. Truman axed the budget for the Lanham Act centers shortly after Japan surrendered in 1945.

By the late-1960s though, with millions of women demanding workplace access and equity, Congress pushed again for a national child care network. Even Richard Nixon supported it in 1971, declaring “we must make a national commitment to providing all American children an opportunity for healthful and stimulating development during the first five years of life.” But Nixon wasn’t dubbed “Tricky Dick” for nothing. Later that same year, a bipartisan majority of Congress approved a new child care program to provide the very opportunity he had touted. But with his finger perpetually to the wind, Nixon had sensed demagogic opportunity in the wedge politics of the emerging culture wars. Noting how Pat Buchanan, Phyllis Schlafly, and other screechers were fanning the flames of right-wing fanatics by demonizing feminists, “layabout” welfare mothers, and Great Society social programs, Nixon abruptly switched sides and nixed the child care proposal. Like some born-again Elmer Gantry, the Trickster darkly warned in his veto message that the bill was a diabolical scheme to put “communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”

Thus, American child care was perversely sacrificed on the altar of “family values” politics. Nixon’s commie-baiting had opened the door for the far-right fringe to come into the GOP mainstream, where they unleashed their vitriol, scaremongering, and kookism to swamp sanity on the issue. Indeed, their assault was so intense that it spooked national Democratic leaders like Bill Clinton into chastising family welfare proponents and passing an infamous 1996 “reform” that ended up weakening federal support for child care programs.

Even today, the right wing splatters child care proposals with the same, lame BS. Take the hoary banality of Tennessee Republican senator Marsha Blackburn. When Pres. Biden proposed his national care program this year, she crawled out of the Nixonian ooze and sneered on Twitter: “You know who else liked universal day care?” and answered by citing a half-century- old article about the Soviet Union. (Soviets also liked ice cream and guess who else does? Joe Biden! See, the connection is clear.)

Sanity rising

Sometimes real life catches up with unreal politics, and the good news is that this is happening at last for universal child care. One big reality is that need and demand have grown exponentially since the age of Nixon-Schlafly. In many–if not most–families, mothers still have primary responsibility for the care of children, and yet, whether from preference, economic necessity, or both, 57% of women are now in the workforce, including 75% of America’s 9 million single moms. Recently, the pandemic has dramatically cut the availability of child care, while also heightening the urgency of getting it. So, striving to manage both job and family responsibilities (often doing work that is both essential to our country and poorly paid), women today want, deserve, and insist that our rich economic system honor and support their contribution to the Common Good. Secondly, there’s been an equally profound, tectonic shift in political attitudes, leaving the GOP hardcore isolated in a Nixon- Reaganish time warp. Consider their knee-jerk reliance on the Bugaboo of Big Government. That ploy used to work, but as horrors like Covid-19, climate disaster, job loss, and flat wages rip through America, more people have come to fear government that is too small, uncaring, or inept to respond. Given this disconnect, the political climate for passage of major public investment in our children’s care and education has rarely been more favorable. Here are some results of a national survey done for the Center for American Progress just before last fall’s elections:

  • 70% of registered voters support increased congressional funding for child care and early childhood education, (including 60% of Republican voters).
  • At least 6 in 10 people in every age and educational group support this increased funding, including two-thirds who don’t have children under the age of 18.
  • 79% support a government guarantee of child care assistance to low-income and middle-class families (67% of GOP voters agree).
  • 80% favor new care programs targeting rural and low-income areas where licensed care is scarce.
  • 8 in 10 favor offering pre-K public education to all 3 and 4 year olds.
  • 88% (including 80% of Republicans) support increasing worker pay to ensure that child care workers earn a living wage.

So let’s go! As a central part of infrastructure restoration, Biden’s “American Families Plan” proposes free pre-K for all 3 and 4 year olds, affordable child care for all low- and middle- income families, living wages and benefits for care providers, and a long-term investment in the skills of day care workers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, longtime champion of a strong, progressive- populist program of support for working families, has made an even more responsive and comprehensive proposal, including funding public care centers that are available to people who work night shifts and weekends.

Sour old naysayers like GOP senate leader Mitch McConnell are, as expected, vehemently opposed to more spending on the care and education of America’s children. But they have nothing more potent in their quivers than worn out shibboleth slurs like “lefty social engineering” (a dud that boneheaded Sen. Josh Hawley recently lobbed at Biden’s plan). Their inherent problem is that parents, grandparents, and the general public do not view care for children through a red-blue ideological lens, but as a practical human need. People know what a good program would be, they know they’re not getting anything close to it, and they’re increasingly desperate for help. Even a lot of working-class parents who think of themselves as right-wing Republicans are in crying need of a functioning, affordable system, and they’re dismayed that the McConnells and Hawleys are just pissing in the political wind.

Especially stupid is the present, self-defeating procedural tactic of congressional Republicans who’re huffing and puffing that child care is “not infrastructure” and, therefore, can’t be part of the big bill to fix “real” infrastructure like roads, bridges, and water systems. Dictionary Definition of Infrastructure: “The fundamental facilities and systems serving a country.” Hello. Child care is the work that makes all other work possible–including building things like roads and doing stuff like staffing congressional offices. A public system for taking care of children is about as fundamental as a society’s infrastructure gets.

My message is twofold:

  • We progressives (and many allies of other persuasions, including none-of-the-abovers) can’t waste today’s remarkable political moment to achieve something big for the good of all; and
  • We can’t let Biden and other Dem centrists sell us out for a half-assed compromise.

Are we going to be for the people … or not? Here’s the clear test.


👇 DO SOMETHING 👇

How much fun is this?! The Think Babies campaign organizes Strolling Thunder rallies in state capitals, where parents and grandparents can speak with legislators about the policies needed to help kids (and their families) thrive. thinkbabies.org

Early Learning Nation offers loads of tips for parents and community leaders interested in #brainbuilding in our young ones, as well as abundant resources specifically about the child care crisis. Check out its interactive map to find out who’s doing what in your state. earlylearningnation.com (Note: Lowdown Interweb Emissary, Deanna Zandt, also works with ELN.)

The #CareCan’tWait coalition–including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Moms Rising, and SEIU–is mobilizing volunteers to lobby congress for substantial new funding behind the radical proposition that our society actually should care about children and elders.

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