As the child of a working-class, immigrant single parent, my child care was a childproofed basement tucked in the home of a 50-year-old West African grandmother, Ole’ Ma, who provided safety and comfort to over thirty low-income Black immigrant families from 2005 to 2016. Under Minnesota Department of Human Child Care Center Licensing standards, my child care provider’s establishment—which served my Mom and me, and our community, so well—would have been deemed illegal, punishable by jail, a fine, or both.
All across the United States, there are “shadow workers” like the grandmother on whom my family relied: unlicensed child care providers who offer “family child care,” a type of care provided by a nonrelative within a home setting to multiple children. These shadow providers work in secret, or in the “shadow” of the law, to support their communities. The policies that currently govern our child care system denigrates their work through discriminatory language and inaccessible standards. Policy solutions need to provide equitable language in order to legitimize and support their practices and improve the work of providers like the one I had in my own childhood.
Why Shadow Workers Are Integral to Low-Income Communities
Community child care is a vital resource in low-income communities. The most recent data collected by the U.S. Census (2011) showed that 4.1 percent of children between ages 5–14 in working-mother households rely on child care from an out-of-home, family care provider. In fact, once the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, many licensed and “high quality” establishments shut their doors, and for some working class families, family child care became their only available option. The National Study of Child Care for Low-Income Families indicates that low-income communities have fewer regulated child care options due to financial obstacles, and tend to rely more on community child care. A third of the low-income families in this study indicated that they chose family child care because it was their only option. Price, schedules, convenience, and cultural comfort all factor into these decisions as well.
Love Biah, a Walmart overnight associate from Minnesota, shares that she too relies on family child care as the only option for her three children. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the single mother said she worked overnight shifts from 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM on the weekends so she could see her kids during the day. During the week, she worked from 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM on Tuesday and Wednesday, to ensure that she would be able to get them ready for school and be home when they returned.
The child care provider Biah relies on is a member of her Black community. Living in a small rural Minnesota town, Biah said she was happy to find familiar support, and disclosed that her community care provider charged her $40 for every overnight shift.
Biah pays $6,240 a year for child care, instead of the average annual price of child care in Minnesota, which ranges between $8,476 and $16,224. Her expenses are over $2,000 lower than the lowest state average, which is invaluable for a single working-class mother.
“Paying $120 a week for three children isn’t bad,” Biah said, raising her brows in exclamation. “Many places charge per child and don’t even offer overnight help.”
How Language in Child Care Policies Delegitimize Shadow Workers
The language in public policy, however, which influences how these child care providers are understood and how they are able to practice, delegitimizes the services on which mothers like Biah depend. Child care policies are oftentimes written by people far removed from the experiences of marginalized communities, and this disconnect results in insensitive policy requirements which exclude and punish communities that are already impacted by historic and systemic racism, xenophobia, and sexism. In fact, UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Workforce Index found that 63 percent of listed high-quality, home-based child care providers are white and 82 percent are born U.S. citizens. When our policies reward establishments dominated by white providers for meeting requirements made specifically available to them, we neglect to address and assist institutions staffed by immigrant and low-income communities of color, who oftentimes are not afforded the same systemic opportunities.
When our policies reward establishments dominated by white providers for meeting requirements made specifically available to them, we neglect to address and assist institutions staffed by immigrant and low-income communities of color, who oftentimes are not afforded the same systemic opportunities.
An example of this is the usage of terms like “high quality child care.” This term gets thrown around frequently when referring to adequate child care, but what does it really mean? The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines “high quality childcare” as child care that meets standards necessary for the development of a child. These standards vary by state, but generally require providers or teachers to complete training courses or have a college degree. Once licensed (per the requirements of each state) and after fulfilling specific obligations and inspections, providers are then deemed “high quality.”
The key point here, which the apparently subjective nature of the phrase somewhat masks, is that “high quality” requires “licensing,” with a lack of consensus on what is being certified. Therefore “high quality” is at root a bureaucratic term, one with no necessary or consistent meaning about the actual child care being provided: what matters most isn’t what you do, but whether you’ve been approved to do it. And while the “high quality” rubber stamp is accessible for someone of privilege, it poses a barrier for marginalized child care workers like the one who took care of me as a child.
My provider dedicated a majority of her life to domestic labor like child care, but she was poor, Black, a recent immigrant, not fluent in English, and without a college degree. So while she had the proven skill to perform adequate child care, her inability to pass a written test in a language she could barely speak, let alone read, made becoming a legal provider difficult and a “high quality” one impossible.
I am reminded of the words of Albert Einstein: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
The gatekeeping system to which phrases like “high-quality child care” pertain is at least classist and at most also racist. It creates legal obstacles to these other, older, and more urgently needed forms of child care operating at all, and also ultimately sends the message that community-led centers organized and staffed by people of color are low quality, often not because they are bad establishments, but because they are fish being asked to climb trees. Instead of expecting the fish to grow legs, by somehow dropping everything overnight in order to achieve biased, and often unattainable, certifications, our policies should instead give them water in which to swim by meeting them where they are.
Listening Is the Answer
Child care consultant Mary Beth Testa is a big advocate for meeting communities where they are. She notes that the certification of “licensed” care involves an evaluation of the provider’s home, and is often conducted by child care inspectors who are not required to consider cultural customs.
For instance, Minnesota Rule 9502.0435 indicates that “the residence must be free from accumulations of dirt, rubbish, or peeling paint.” The term rubbish in this policy isn’t defined, but is re-referenced as “indoor and outdoor garbage and rubbish containers.” It is customary in the homes of most West African families, including my own and my providers, to see big barrels packed with used items like clothes, shoes, and hygiene products stored for months, until the community raises enough money to send those barrels back to family in Africa. To someone like a white-American inspector unfamiliar with my culture, those barrels could be condemned as clutter and rubbish.
Another subjective home care requirement that must be met is cleanliness. Homes must be clean, which means “free from dirt or other contaminants that can be detected by sight, smell, or touch.” Ole’ Ma’s home smelt of castor oil, incense, and Liberian palm-nut leaves. All of these smells are familiar and comforting to me, yet could throw off someone who had never smelled them before. These are just a few examples of how our vaguely worded policies leave room for racist and culturally disrespectful assumptions.
With a known history of racism and classism in this country, we cannot solely place the responsibility of interpreting policies on those enforcing them without holding policymakers accountable for ensuring that the enforcers aren’t misinterpreting or disregarding differing racial and cultural norms.
With a known history of racism and classism in this country, we cannot solely place the responsibility of interpreting policies on those enforcing them without holding policymakers accountable for ensuring that the enforcers aren’t misinterpreting or disregarding differing racial and cultural norms. The average home care inspector is tasked with making rigid assessments based off of questionable policies and inescapable personal bias. So, how can we trust that all inspectors are fairly taking into account race and cultural customs that may look like red flags by the standards of racist policies when in actuality they are not?
“In this country we put a lot of value on that piece of paper and what it says, but we can’t judge quality based on very narrow standards,” says Testa.
Testa shares that oftentimes, working class people and people of color around this country aren’t even aware that their rights are being decided by people who do not experience the same hardships as them. A good part of her work consists of engaging marginalized communities in the legal decisions being made about their child care, while centering their experiences in her political advocacy.
In order to improve the conditions of low-income, Black community care, policymakers must be willing to engage with the families and providers they serve, like Testa does, by listening and centering the voices of those closest to the problems. In doing this, policymakers can discover what works best for each community and advocate for those needs, ensure they have the resources they need to cultivate safe and healthy environments, and remove policies that ultimately isolate marginalized communities from their only accessible resources.
The Stakes Are High When It Comes to Equitable Language in Child Care Policy
Because of policies that create barriers for Black people, there is a deepened mistrust between Black communities and government-sanctioned establishments, like child care centers. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reports that even though Black children represent only 19 percent of preschool enrollment, they account for 47 percent of preschool expulsion, in contrast to their white peers who represent 41 percent of preschool enrollment and only 28 percent of preschool expulsion, indicating that Black children are 3.6 times more likely to be expelled than white children.
Thus there is a legitimate risk with sending Black kids to “high quality” child care establishments. These statistics highlight the start of the “preschool to prison” pipeline, one of the many systemic obstacles Black communities have to overcome. And some overcome this fate by relying on community child care.
Community-based child care is being utilized all over this country. Policy language that degrades it ultimately punishes low-income communities of color for trying to survive and provide appropriate and adequate care to their children.
As policymakers develop and examine child care policy proposals, I urge them to think of the working class families, the immigrant families, and the communities of color whose go-to child care option, and many times only child care option, isn’t classified as “high quality,” but is high-quality nonetheless, and is what works for them as well. Meeting our communities where they are means making space for their lived experiences, legitimizing their survival, and working to strengthen the systems built for them by them.