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It’s high time we talked a bit about childcare, both in terms of its importance for parents who want or need to work, and with regards to the value of childcare workers. It’s a matter of great importance for families, for women’s economic participation, and for the good of society.

I teach at a school that prepares students for the GED. I promise this has to do with childcare; bear with me. The students who comes to our school face challenges that aren’t supported by normal high schools. Many are immigrants learning in a second language, have experienced or are experiencing homelessness, have IEPs (edu-talk for having special educational needs like a learning disability or emotional trauma)…and many are young parents. Our program offers free care during school hours for the children of students.

At each graduation we give one GED passer the chance to deliver a speech. They’re always inspiring, but the speech given by Z, a warm, hardworking, intelligent former student of mine, will always stand out to me because of how clearly she identified the determining factor in her education. She said:

Cuando vine [de El Salvador] a los 16 años de edad, viajé yo sola. No tenía ni a papi ni a mami. Eso me costó mi educación porque tuve que optar por trabajar. Luego de un tiempo me casé y tengo una nena aquí quien es mi nueva familia junto con mi esposo. Me sentía desesperada porque no tenía aún mi secundaria…[Esta] es una escuela completa para ayudar a los estudiantes que piensan que por tener una familia es imposible prepararse. Quiero decirles que no es así, que si te lo propones puedes conseguir tus aspiraciones.

When I came [from El Salvador] at 16 years old, I traveled alone. I had neither my dad nor my mom. This cost me my education, because I had to opt to work. After a time I married, and I have a child here who, along with my husband, is my new family. I felt hopeless because I didn’t have even my high school degree…[This] is a complete school for helping the students who think that having a family means it’s impossible to further your education. I want to tell you that that’s not true, that yes, you can follow your aspirations.

Z isn’t alone in depending on childcare to pursue her life goals. Many parents, young or otherwise, face the tragic reality that without access to childcare, their aspirations remain beyond their grasp. Since women are more likely to be saddled with childcare responsibilities, we are the ones whose dreams pass beyond reach when childcare is too expensive, unavailable, or of dangerously low quality.

mother in cap and gown with baby

Let’s make this easier for women to do.

Access to Quality Childcare

The New Republic has an in-depth, sobering report on the state of childcare in the US; here are just some of the gory details: Only ten percent of US day care centers provide high quality care (a majority were rated fair of poor). Parents will fight to keep horrible centers open if it’s the only place able to take their children- as often happens for centers that provide weekend care. And even when a place has racked up violation after violation, one Texas DFPS official explained, “there’s a fair number [of cases] that we lost because the judge decided, No child’s died yet, so they stay open.” And children do die.

The NR piece explains: “Depending on the state, some providers may need only minimal or no training in safety, health, or child development.” Furthermore, “there are no regular surveys of quality and no national database of safety problems.” It’s not because we don’t know what sort of training and techniques work to provide not just safe daycare, but care that encourages creativity and sets a foundation for literacy– it’s just that we haven’t prioritized their implementation.

There is a class component here, of course. Upper class families can afford to pay for high quality private childcare. Low income parents and single parents have less choice to stay home and care for their children, yet at the same time, fewer resources to arrange for other care. “Among the 50 states, the annual cost of center-based infant care averaged 38 percent of the state median income for a single mother.” It’s also more than half the income of a family of three living in poverty.

busser wiping tables at a fast food place

“Half the money I make from this crappy work pays someone else to take care of my kids so I can do this crappy work? Great.”

But childcare is not just an issue for low income women; its effects are felt by women across classes. Lack of access to childcare is a primary factor inhibiting women’s career success in STEM fields; women were forced out of tenure track positions because they couldn’t find adequate childcare. Even fancy awesome TV stars understand its importance:

So, whether it’s a personal dream or a financial necessity to work, having a safe, trustworthy, affordable place to take care of our kids is really important for women’s ability to accomplish their goals outside of the home. Shocking, right? The other side of that coin is that childcare workers are doing a hella crucial job, and deserve to be valued for it.

Valuing Childcare Workers

But, of course, as care of children is traditionally female work, traditionally work we expect women to do for free, or that is done by women of color and migrant women, we don’t value it very highly at all. As the New Republic article points out, the median salary for childcare workers is lower than that of parking lot attendants. Yes, we pay people more to watch after our cars than after our children.

Much childcare work is done in the home, which means that those caregivers who aren’t employed by a center are not even covered by the laws passed during the New Deal to protect workers. The National Labor Relations Act excluded both domestic workers and agricultural workers because those were professions likely to be held by African Americans. Excluding them by profession was a “race-neutral” way to institutionalize their inequality in terms of labor rights.

Like most parts of racist US history, the legacy of those laws from the ’30s remains. Domestic childcare workers still do not have legally recognized labor standards like overtime, breaks, paid sick leave, vacation days, and minimum wage. That’s right, the minimum wage does not apply to domestic workers. Many live-in childcare workers are asked to be on call and wake up throughout the night for no extra pay.

You can help. Get involved with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. If you or someone you know lives in California, Illinois, or Massachusetts, take action on the campaigns to pass a domestic workers bill of rights (and if you live in New York, congratulate yourself on your state’s awesomeness in this area).

Federal Funding for Childcare

The solution seems obvious to me: we as a country should place a higher priority on keeping children safe, allowing women access to the economy, and rewarding quality childcare workers with safe conditions and good salaries.

The thing that kills me is that we almost had this over forty years ago! In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which called for a sliding scale payment plan for federally trained and accredited childcare. Nixon decided it was the ‘most radical piece of legislation to emerge from the ninety-second Congress,’ because it would mean putting ‘communal approaches to child rearing over the family-centered approach”–he vetoed it. Providing a healthy place for children of working mothers to spend the day is bad for families, apparently. Thanks, Dick.

Obama is pushing for universal Pre-K now, in his State of the Union and as recently as two days ago. What can you do? Spread the word about the importance of this issue, and pressure your Congressional representatives to take action on it.

What’s at stake? Not just the financial and professional wellbeing of mothers, not just the safety and education of children (though that should be enough!)– I argue that what’s on the line here is the good of our whole society! Giving women better access to careers in science means better science. Giving young mothers access to education means they can contribute to society in whatever way they dream of- like Z’s dream to use her education to help others:

Creo que no hay nada más gratificante que poder ayudar a otros…Hoy quiero seguir mis estudios y poder sacar mis créditos suficientes de English para poder ir a la universidad. Mi sueño es también ser maestra para poder ayudar a otros. Creo que hoy cada uno de nosotros nos vamos con nuevas expectativas de superacion.

I believe there’s nothing more gratifying than to be able to help others…Now I want to continue my studies in English so I can go to college. My dream is to become a teacher to be able to help others. I believe that today every one of us is moving forward with new expectations of success.

We’ll never know what parents like Z can accomplish for the good of all of us unless we give them the chance.