Child care is infrastructure

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Nancy Andrews/Oxfam

In partnership with CLASP, NABTU, SEIU, and NWLC, Oxfam is calling on Congress to fund affordable, accessible child care and help ensure living wages for providers and all workers.

A struggle for working parents

Ashley, an electrician in West Virginia, is the proud mother of seven children. She and her husband work hard at their jobs, but it hasn't been easy with the lack of affordable, quality child care.

“Right now, we actually don’t have a child care option [for our youngest] because there is nothing that opens early enough for me to take her,” Ashley says. “At the end of this school year, I have to get her in a daycare because I won’t have a family member that’s able to watch her anymore. So, it’s a real issue.”

Ashley’s profession is one of the many crucial jobs needed to accomplish the work funded by Congress’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year. While Congress has sent $6 billion in infrastructure investments to West Virginia—investing in physical infrastructure jobs like Ashley’s—it has so far failed to pass legislation that would provide parents with the child care they need to go to work.

Dustin is also an electrician in West Virginia. His wife is a nurse, and they have two sons. Child care has been an issue in their lives for some time as they juggle careers, finances, and family. He and his wife value their jobs, but child care is a barrier.

“The American way is to work,” Dustin says. “If you don’t have somewhere for your children to go that’s an educational, safe place, then why would you go to work?”

Access is not the only barrier to child care. Cost is another huge problem for families in search of quality care. In 29 states and the District of Columbia, infant care costs exceed the average cost of in-state college tuition at public four-year institutions.

“You have to have a job making $30,000 a year at least just to survive, and you’re going to be spending half of that on child care,” he says.

For many families, that is not an option, and it leaves parents stuck. They need child care in order to go to work, but the money they make goes to paying for child care. And while access to and affordability of child care is a problem across the board, it is felt most severely by people of color, particularly those with lower-incomes.

“Child care historically has been perceived as a personal issue rather than a collective one,” says Sean McGarvey, President of North America’s Building Trades Unions. “But times have changed. In most of the country, the cost of child care disproportionately harms low and middle-income working parents and parents of color.”

Low-income families spend about 28 percent of their income on center-based child care, while the benchmark of affordable care, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, is 7 percent. Without federally funded, widely available care, many families struggle to make ends meet with little to no support.

This is unsustainable for working families, and it’s time for Congress to do something about it.

Oxfam joined with labor unions and other allies calling on Congress to fund affordable, accessible child care, and help ensure living wages for providers and all workers. Nancy Andrews/Oxfam Photo: Nancy Andrews/Oxfam

Care work is essential work.

The child care industry in the US has long been underfunded and overlooked, but when the pandemic hit, the lack of investment in child care became a glaring problem. Not only did many parents struggle with the burden of child care on their own, care workers also suffered without adequate support options while continuing the important work of caring for and educating our nation’s children amid a global health crisis.

Vikki has been a teacher with Head Start—a federally funded child care program for low-income families—in West Virginia for 26 years.

“I don’t think I would want to do anything else,” says Vikki. “Because with Head Start it’s low-income and under-privileged. You can tell when the kids come in on Monday underfed. With us they have breakfast and lunch. That may be the only good meal they get that day. We make sure that their shoes fit, they have a warm coat, the families are taken care of. We have a family service worker who makes sure that if the families are in need, they are taken care of... A lot of our kids go through a lot of things that you and me have probably never dealt with...They are our children. And have been. And always will be.”

Vikki’s child care work is essential, both for the children whose lives she impacts for the better, and for the parents who want their children to be safe and cared for while they're at work. Yet, it is grossly underfunded.

“Right now, in [my county] ... they can’t hire anybody. Federal Head Start has required now that the teacher in the classroom has to have a degree,” says Vikki. But there has been little to no change in wages to reflect this new requirement.

“I’ve been with Head Start for 26 years. I make $12.70 an hour. They can’t hire anybody because you can go to McDonalds and start at $10-11 an hour. Hobby Lobby I think pays $15 an hour. There’s some great people that we’ve lost because of that. One of my teacher’s aides left ... I just lost my bus driver.” Vikki is clear on what is needed. “We need funding especially for wages so we can get people who are qualified.”

This problem is not isolated to the Head Start program or to West Virginia. It is an industry-wide problem across the country. The National Women’s Law Center reported that child care is one of the most underpaid professions—the poverty rate among child care workers is more than double that of women workers in other fields, and these workers are disproportionately Black, Latina, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and immigrant women. Last year, Oxfam spoke with Rochelle Wilcox, a child care center director in New Orleans and she raised the issue of wages as well.

“[Child care workers] should not have to leave this field and be less impactful in another job because someone else offers a dollar more and they offer benefits,” she said.

Providing livable wages for child care workers and more funding for centers raises the availability and the quality of care they are able to provide. Families need access to child care that is fully staffed and properly funded. They need safe, reliable care.

Congress: solve child care

We must build a child care system that works for everyone, and the only way this will happen is with robust federal investments. For too long, high costs and lack of availability of quality child care across the country have created massive challenges for families, especially low-income and families of color. The government must fund child care in a way that makes it accessible and affordable to all working families across the country, while also ensuring child care workers are paid well and have workplace rights.

“We need flexible, safe, and reliable childcare options for working parents in our industry – affordable options that open at 4 am and close at 8 pm,” says McGarvey. “With one-third of the U.S. workforce - an estimated 50 million workers - having a child under 14 in their household, creating affordable access to quality childcare is an issue that must be prioritized.”

Parents need child care in order to go to work. It’s that simple. Congress cannot invest in our physical infrastructure and then fail to invest in the child care that is needed for those working parents who are building our roads and bridges. It is time to make child care affordable and accessible for all and provide child care workers with living wages.

“We build things,” says Ashley. “I’m assisting to build a high school right now. If we want those things to get done in a timely manner, those parents have to be able to work too. If we don’t have child care, how can we work?”

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