One year ago today, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act—a universal child care bill to ensure every family has great care for their children that doesn’t break the bank. While moving forward on federal progressive social policy like this is challenging in the current political environment, in the year since the bill was introduced, advocates have achieved unprecedented progress on child care and early education. The evidence of this is in new public opinion research showing strong public support for the Child Care for Working Families Act, historic increases in federal child care and early education funding, state child care expansions, grassroots mobilization, and electoral attention and successes.
More than Three in Four Voters Support Child Care and Early Education
Yesterday, the Center for American Progress, Center for Community Change Action and Make It Work Nevada released a new poll, fielded by GBA Strategies, showing that 77 percent of voters support congressional action to increase child care assistance and expand early education. Support is even stronger among women of color and parents of children under eighteen years old. For Black women, it’s 84 percent; Hispanic women, 83 percent; and 81 percent of parents of all races support the policy. Support is also strong across political parties and includes a majority of people without children.
77 percent of voters support congressional action to increase child care assistance and expand early education.
Support for the specifics of the Child Care for Working Families Act is even stronger than support for the issue generally. The bill would address the high cost of child care that is causing families to have to make difficult sacrifices and tough decisions. For example, in 2016, nearly 2 million parents of young children had to quit a job, turn down a new job, or change jobs because of problems with child care. Enabling these families to find and afford great child care options now will make a huge difference in their economic security for years to come. The Murray–Scott bill would do this by guaranteeing child care assistance to low-income and middle-class families on a sliding scale based on household income, more than doubling the number of children eligible. The new poll found that 83 percent of voters support this specific policy.
The child care reform bill would also focus on improving the quality of child care and early education jobs by providing federal resources to cover the cost of a living wage for teachers and caregivers. By providing federal resources, the bill would ensure that higher pay for teachers doesn’t come at the expense of families already struggling to pay their child care bills. As Halley Potter, Andrew Stettner, and I wrote in our report, “Quality Jobs, Quality Child Care:” “Raising the standards for jobs in the ECE [early care and education] field is not just a concern for ECE employees and their families. High-quality early care and education is important for all children and has the potential to level the playing field for low-income children and children of color. But we cannot achieve the goal of quality care without addressing the issue of job quality.” The new poll shows that voters understand the importance of making child care more affordable for families and also investing in the child care workforce. Ninety percent of voters support ensuring that people who work in child care earn a living wage.
The new poll shows that voters understand the importance of making child care more affordable for families and also investing in the child care workforce. Ninety percent of voters support ensuring that people who work in child care earn a living wage.
Unlike a lot of other issues in the current policy climate, policy leaders are listening to this demand for action on child care. It helps that the bill’s sponsors are the ranking members on the committees that oversee federal child care programs—Senator Murray, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and Representative Scott, the House Education and Workforce Committee. Their leadership and the public demand has helped to get the majority of the Democratic Caucus supporting it, with 126 cosponsors in the House and thirty-three in the Senate. In addition, as I wrote in “Child Care and Early Education: Where Congress, Science and the Public Agree,” the congressional spending bill signed into law in March included an unprecedented $3 billion increase in federal funding for child care and early education. This increase—fought for by Senators Murray, Schumer, Warren, and Sanders as well as Leader Pelosi and Representative Scott—was an important down payment on the Child Care for Working Families Act.
By sending new child care assistance money to the states, where state leaders have some flexibility over how to spend the resources, the new funding also opened the doors for exciting state reforms. As a result of this funding, tens of thousands of families across the country will be receiving child care assistance for the first time, while child care teachers will begin to see much deserved pay increases. For example, Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas are among the states that have already taken action to assist more families. Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin are among the states raising the reimbursement rates, which can help them give teachers and caregivers a pay raise.
Burgeoning Grassroots Support and Action
At a time when families are struggling to afford child care, and child care educators are economically stretched by their low pay, progress in so many states will materially improve many families’ lives. Participating in high quality child care programs contributes to healthy brain development. And having safe, nurturing care for children while parents are at work gives parents the peace of mind to be productive and the ability to be present. But while the progress is exciting, especially for those families and teachers directly impacted, it is not enough. Too many families are still are having trouble finding quality, affordable care when they need it and too many early educators are still not being paid a living wage.
When Slate’s chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie tweeted “it is a bit mystifying to me that there isn’t a broad movement for affordable child care in this country,” in mid-May he started a Twitter conversation on the need for more activism without knowing that more than 250 parents, teachers, caregivers, and advocates from 25 states already had plans to gather in Washington, D.C. in June for the first ever Grassroots Assembly for Child Care and Early Education. Hosted by the Early Care and Education Organizing Network, a network of more than twenty national organizations representing millions of members, the diverse convening brought together individuals to learn from each other, plan together, exchange information about local organizing efforts, share concerns and information with elected leaders, and launch the Grassroots Movement for Child Care and Early Education, a network of leaders across the country committed to policy action on child care and early education.
Assembly participant Clarissa Doutherd, a parent leader from Parent Voices who lost her child care subsidy when her son was four years old and subsequently lost her job because she didn’t have care options for him, summarized the assembly this way: “Movements are not built overnight; however, this is a place where we can get ready… for when it’s time for us to mobilize and act.” Assembly speaker, and TCF board member, Melissa Harris-Perry sent a video message (inclement weather prevented her from attending) characterizing the intersectional nature of the event and the larger movement: “The national grassroots assembly for child care and early education is a foundation for all else. For health care. For women’s safety. For immigration reform. For political change. All of this begins with child care.”
To her point, all of these issues are interconnected. For example, the parents, caregivers, children, and advocates at the assembly pivoted from child care and early education to talking about how to stop family separation and family detention because the people standing up for child care reform understood deeply the impact of these shameful policies on brain development, health, safety, and well being, and were heartbroken to think of the families impacted.
Similarly, the progress on child care is directly connected to a larger movement for progress on policies that support family well being and healthy child development, like paid family and medical leave and paid sick days. In fact, six new paid sick days laws passed this year, and earlier this year, Massachusetts became the sixth state in the nation to pass a paid family and medical leave law (Washington, D.C. also has passed a law). The public demand for these family forward policies has kept momentum going.
Childcare for Working Families: A Winning Political Strategy
Policy leaders are responding to the public demand both while in office and on the campaign trail. And when candidates run on these issues, they are winning. The new poll shows that 69 percent of voters would be more likely to for a candidate who supports increased funding for child care assistance and to expand access to early childhood education, and we’ve seen evidence of that in multiple primaries. For example, three Democratic candidates for governor who made child care a cornerstone of their campaigns won their primaries this year—Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, and Richard Cordray in Ohio. Many factors will determine whether they win in November, but we know that if they do, the public will keep up the pressure for them to keep their child care and early education commitments.
When candidates run on these issues, they are winning. The new poll shows that 69 percent of voters would be more likely to for a candidate who supports increased funding for child care assistance and to expand access to early childhood education.
One other area of unexpected progress this year was the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) ruling that women running for office could use campaign funds to pay for child care related to the costs of running their campaigns. New York House candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley asked the FEC in April whether she could use campaign funds to help with her child care costs, and the FEC ruled in favor. Arkansas followed suit in supporting state candidates use of campaign funds to pay for child care for these purposes, although Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Iowa have ruled otherwise. The candidates who were turned down in those states, should they win, may become even stronger proponents of child care for all than when they started their campaigns as a reaction to those rulings.
Finally, a child care and early education ballot initiative in Alameda County, California that included similar policies to the Child Care for Working Families Act —expanding affordable child care and preschool options for low- and middle-income families, investing in the child care workforce, and increasing the supply of child care, among other provisions—received 64.6 percent of the vote in the county. Unfortunately, it required a two-thirds majority to pass, so fell short by 2 percentage points. This suggests that the issue has gained a lot of momentum, but that it will require still more effort to see it get over the finish line. As Senator Murray tweeted to the grassroots assembly: “We can only build the #movement4childcare when people tell their Representatives, ‘I’m not quitting, I’m going to be at your office every [day], and I’m going to bring all my friends and their kids.’ It takes a lot of time and energy, but together we can achieve #ChildCare4All.”
The year since Senator Murray and Representative Scott introduced their bold child care and early education vision has been an eventful one. Public support for child care reform is strong, elected officials are prioritizing it, states are taking action, grassroots groups are mobilizing, and politicians are successfully running on the issue. While a lot of progressive energy has been spent this year defending against horrific rollbacks of good policies, as well as against harmful new policies from the current administration, the progress on child care and early education, and related paid leave policies, is a ray of hope. While these policies have bipartisan support, they are a Democratic priority, not a Republican one. The progress this year is a signal of what’s to come if the balance in Congress changes and/or if more progressive candidates are elected in the states, and the grassroots advocates keep up the momentum.