A major contributor to poverty among U.S. families with children today is the incredibly high cost of child care. Statistics abound, underscoring how unaffordable child care in America has become, left to the whims of the private market: In more than half of states, care for an infant in a child care center costs more than in-state college tuition. For low-income families, child care expenses for children under five often amount to 35 percent of their income. A recent New York Times article by Jason DeParle on the subject was aptly titled, “When childcare costs twice as much as the mortgage.”

Meanwhile, America’s broken child care system has a become a major driver of poverty and racial inequality on the worker side of the equation, as well, with many (disproportionately Black and Brown) child care teachers getting paid as if they were fast food workers despite the fact that their work is complex and specialized, not to mention incredibly valuable.

Making a bad situation far, far worse—as with so many pre-existing gaps in America’s public policy infrastructure—the COVID-19 pandemic has only thrown gasoline on the fire, laying bare and deepening the inequities of a house-of-cards child care system reliant on families shelling out unaffordable amounts, teachers being paid poverty wages, and communities across the United States lacking a sufficient child care workforce to meet demand. Indeed, nationally, the early education workforce has declined by roughly 12 percent compared with prepandemic levels.

These are among the longstanding policy problems Democrats are seeking to solve with the Build Back Better legislation moving through the House of Representatives this week—which includes an historic $400 billion investment in America’s child care and pre-K system that seeks to finally make high-quality child care and early learning affordable and accessible for all families with young children, while creating good jobs and boosting wages for a woefully undervalued and underpaid workforce largely made up of women of color.

To unpack what’s in Democrats’ child care and pre-K plan as the Build Back Better bill inches closer to passage, Rebecca sat down with two of the advocates behind the push to put child care and early learning within reach for all families: Julie Kashen, a senior fellow and director of women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation and board member of the Vote Mama Action Fund; and Amanda Perez, senior advocacy manager at Zero to Three, which works to ensure all babies and toddlers get a strong start in life.

For more:

To get involved with the ongoing push for comprehensive child care and early learning reform as part of Build Back Better, visit thinkbabies.org and follow #CareCantWait

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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas.

A major contributor to poverty among U.S. families with kids today is the incredibly high cost of child care. Statistics abound underscoring how unaffordable child care in America has become, left to the whims of the private market. In more than half of states, child care for an infant in a child care center now costs more than in-state college tuition. For low-income families, child care expenses for children under five often amount to 35 percent of their income. And a recent New York Times article by Jason DeParle on the subject was aptly titled When Child Care Costs Twice As Much As the Mortgage.

Meanwhile, America’s broken child care system has become a major driver of poverty and racial inequality on the worker side of the equation as well, with many (disproportionately Black and Brown) child care teachers getting paid like fast food workers, despite the fact that theirs is complex and specialized, not to mention incredibly valuable yet undervalued, work.

Making a bad situation far, far worse—as with so many pre-existing gaps in America’s public policy infrastructure—the COVID-19 pandemic has only thrown gasoline on the fire, laying bare and deepening the inequities of a house-of-cards child care system reliant on families shelling out unaffordable amounts, teachers being paid poverty wages, and communities across the U.S. lacking sufficient workforce to meet demand. Indeed, nationally, the early education workforce has declined by roughly 12 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels.

These are among the longstanding policy problems Democrats are seeking to solve with the Build Back Better legislation moving through the House of Representatives this week, which includes an historic $400 billion investment in America’s child care and pre-K system that seeks to finally make high-quality child care and early learning affordable and accessible for all families with young kids, while creating good jobs and boosting wages for a woefully undervalued and underpaid workforce largely made up of women of color.

To unpack what’s in Democrats’ child care and pre-K plan as the Build Back Better bill inches closer to passage, I sat down with two of the advocates behind the push to put child care and early learning within reach for all families. Julie Kashen is a senior fellow and director of women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation. She’s also a board member of the Vote Mama Action Fund. And Amanda Perez is the senior advocacy manager at Zero to Three, which works to ensure all babies and toddlers get a strong start in life. Let’s take a listen.

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VALLAS: Julie, Amanda, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show, especially in an incredibly busy week.

JULIE KASHEN: Thanks for having us.

AMANDA PEREZ: Yeah, for sure.

VALLAS: So, before we get into child care and early learning and this amazing, historic opportunity that we have in front of us right now, I’d love to actually give each of you a chance to talk about how you come to this work. And Amanda, I’m gonna start with you. You bring some pretty amazing firsthand experience of the child care system in the U.S.

PEREZ: Yeah. Well, so, when I was young, my dad taught me that it was very important that I did work that I loved, that I couldn’t spend 40 hours a week or more doing something that I didn’t love, and so I became an infant-toddler caregiver. And I did that for nine months on basically no salary before I decided that I needed to deepen my education and learn some more things and so that I would actually be able to make a little bit more money. So, I went back to school, and I studied social work. And after having done that, I spent some time as a home visitor. I spent some time in Early Intervention, all of the things that I could that really centered around infants and toddlers. I did a lot of work as an Early Head Start trainer and assistance provider as well. And then I really turned my eye to policy and really wanted to speak with people about the kinds of policies that can really support infants and toddlers. That is the work that I do now.

VALLAS: And it brings such incredible and rich experience to the table for today’s conversation, for sure.

Julie, you bring a pretty amazing résumé as well to the table and have really been involved in a lot of the lawmaking side of things. So, over to you with the same question.

KASHEN: Yeah. First of all, I just wanna say that having gotten to work with Amanda for a while now, it’s such a gift to the advocacy community to have her experience and perspective. It’s just so wonderful that she comes from this place of really knowing the on-the-ground side of things. So, it’s just such a pleasure.

In terms of my story, I, as a college senior very many years ago, realized that I’d been working really hard to have some sort of big, impactful career, and also having had a stay-at-home mom, I imagined myself to be a very engaged mom. And I had this moment (it was the mid-90s) thinking, how am I gonna do both of these things? And then decided as a poly-sci major and an idealistic college student that I would just solve it through public policy for everyone before I had kids. [chuckles]

And so, two days after I graduated from college, I moved to Washington, D.C., I got a job on Capitol Hill, and basically have been trying to make it easier to work and have a family and work and have a life ever since through policy means. And had the chance to work in New Jersey with Governor Corzine to get New Jersey to be the second state in the nation to pass Paid Family and Medical Leave, worked on the original or the precursor to the Child Care for Working Families Act, and have really been doing what I could on this. Of course, I had my son. He’s now seven, and so have not solved it yet, but we’re gonna keep trying.

VALLAS: So, ambitious, though you are, you’re seven years behind, Julie. I can’t believe it.

KASHEN: [laughs]

VALLAS: It’s so disappointing that we’re at this historic moment, and you’re seven years late. I’m obviously kidding!

Julie, I’m gonna stay with you for a moment here, because just to dive right in, we’re gonna get to what’s in the Build Back Better legislation that’s moving through Congress right now. And there’s a lot that is really, really important to understand when it comes to child care and early learning. But first, help us understand what families are facing today when it comes to child care. One of the factoids that often comes up, and I referenced it up top, is that in most states, child care costs more than in-state college tuition for especially the youngest kids. You actually recently published a report card on care policies in the United States at the state level, and you found that most states actually got failing grades. Paint us a picture of what’s going on and how we got here. This is a crisis, of course, that long predates the COVID pandemic because you were not graduating college during the pandemic.

KASHEN: It’s true. [laughs] Yeah. Women, and especially mothers, in the workforce were barely hanging on before the pandemic. They were building a house of cards to make it all work, and the pandemic just crashed that down, right? I mean, if you think about it, 2020 was the year women were asked to run a marathon backwards while juggling fire and holding our children on our shoulders. 2021 has been a year when we’re able to at least turn around and run forwards and start to have some hope, right? Like, running into this hope of what’s possible. But let’s get more into what the problems have been.

Someone, a wonderful provider, said the other day, “Families can’t afford to pay, and teachers can’t afford to stay.” And that, I think, is sort of the fundamental piece of it: that the high prices of child care and early learning are just out of control, as you pointed out. More than half of families live in child care deserts, where they just don’t have safe, nurturing, affordable options. And all at the same time, early educators are being paid $13.50 an hour on average, despite this essential and complex work. And what that means is that, especially for our babies, for our youngest children, we just don’t have the care infrastructure that we need. And it has a disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and immigrant women, both because they are bearing the brunt of caregiving responsibilities themselves, because they are often essential workers in the caregiving workforce, and because during the pandemic, because of occupational segregation, they were some of the people most at risk of losing their jobs. So, it’s really been quite a crisis.

Child care centers and other programs had to shut down during the pandemic because either for safety reasons or their costs went up, and they lost children, so they lost revenue. Children weren’t coming anymore. And in order to serve children safely, they had to spend more money on ventilation, on having smaller class sizes, and a lot of other measures. And so, really, we’re now in this moment where the sector is essentially really crawling back to where it started, but where it started was really behind. And so, we have long needed to build a comprehensive child care and early learning infrastructure. The fact that we didn’t have it in place before the pandemic started has just left us even further behind.

VALLAS: And there’s so much that we’re gonna dig into in terms of you’re laying out kind of a nice roadmap of here are the problems. It’ll be a nice segue into talking about why so much of what we’re seeing proposed in this Build Back Better legislation is the type of solution that you and Amanda and others have been fighting for, for quite some time.

But Amanda, before we step into what’s in the legislation, it feels really important to ground this conversation in the families that are actually facing and bearing the brunt of the broken child care infrastructure that Julie was describing. Help us cut through some of the numbers and put this conversation in human terms. What does it look like when low-income families have to spend what some studies suggest is an average of 35 percent of their income per year on child care?

PEREZ: Absolutely. And I have to, I have to just put in a little love moment here, too, since Julie did it at the beginning. It is such a pleasure to be here with both of you, but I have learned so much from Julie about the policy side of things coming in from this direct service side. I am really lucky, Rebecca, in that I get to work every day with family advocates, people who come to Zero to Three with their stories and with a passion to get something done for babies and toddlers and for their families. And so, they bring to me all of these powerful experiences that you’re asking about here.

I would say, as we listen to Julie, I think that there is actually kind of a trifecta in terms of what families are looking for in terms of child care. They need something that’s accessible. So, Julie talked about child care deserts. There are places where people cannot find anywhere a slot for their child, a place where their child can be during the day while they’re working or during the time that they’re working. There’s affordability, which is a huge issue for families.

And then there’s also quality, that there needs to be— We know that babies’ brains are developing at this incredible rate right now, right? And I work particularly with infants and toddlers. Infants and toddlers, in the first three years of their lives, are developing a million brain connections per second. Per second! And so, what happens in those early moments, whether it be at home or whether it be in a care facility, is really foundational to their learning, to their ability to pick up the skills that they need for success in school, but also in life. So, we really want those to be quality places for folks to learn.

When families come to me and they’re talking about the challenges that they have, those three pieces are among the things that they’re talking about. So, we certainly have families who come to me and say, “Amanda, I can’t work. I cannot make it work. I can’t both pay child care and have my car to go to work and pay rent and do all the things that I need to do with this additional child care bill, particularly on a low salary. It’s not possible.” I work with one family who is a nurse, and she became pregnant in her last year of nursing school. And she has not been able to work since she had her baby because she cannot afford to put her baby in care. It does not pay off for her family to do that.

But we also have these issues around quality where folks are not finding the care that they need, and that sets up particular equity issues for a lot of the families who we serve. So, they see that other children in their community are kind of developing in a different kind of way than their children are. And part of the question is, what is happening in my child care program that is different from what’s happening in a child care program that’s a little bit more expensive? And I think that quality piece just cannot be emphasized enough.

I think the other thing, just to go back to your actual question there, was really around how are families coping with this? And what we found from some of the research that was happening during the pandemic was that there was a longitudinal study called the Rapid EC Study, which many of you may know about, which found that really, the stress that is coming to families is largely financial. Families are making decisions about, do I pay my car bill, or do I pay my rent or electricity bill, or do I pay for child care? And how do they do the things that will nurture them that will sort of allow them to make the money that they need to kind of go the next step? Child care is a requirement for a lot of families who are working. It’s really hard when we set up this dichotomy of, can you pay for child care? How do you not pay for child care? And it often means that families are not able to work.

VALLAS: And that’s just a perfect segue way into, of course, the impetus for this episode, which is Democrats’ Build Back Better legislation, the big social policy bill that Dems are trying to move through Congress, I should note, despite the best efforts of a certain senator from West Virginia. We won’t get into that now. But that legislation includes an historic investment in child care and early learning that would fundamentally transform America’s child care and pre-K infrastructure. Julie, talk to us without further ado about what’s in the bill as it moves through the House of Representatives right now and what it would mean for families. There’s a few key elements to the policy.

KASHEN: The Build Back Better provisions would lower child care costs for millions of families while improving the quality of the early education they receive; raising wages, which is also part of improving the quality; and covering the costs associated with additional higher quality care. It also includes universal preschool for three and four-year-olds, and parents will have maximum choices to find the right program for them, whether it’s center-based or home-based or family-based, a Head Start program. And so, it’s really exciting because it puts $400 billion over six years into creating these new programs.

Once they are implemented, the families who’ve been hit hardest by the pandemic’s crisis are gonna feel the effects right away with free or reduced child care. And at the same time, because we both have not had the system we need in place and the sector was so hurt by the pandemic, there will be funding to do start up and build new capacity so that every family has access to options when and where they need them. And the more than one million moms who are still out of the workforce since the pandemic began will be able to return to work or increase hours and earnings as well. And so, we also know that for the Black and Latinx and immigrant women who’ve been on the front lines of care, this is gonna see a huge raise. This is going to mean that they get compensation that is comparable with elementary school teachers if they have similar credentials and at least a living wage. So, really addressing that issue.

That is so important right now because we actually have a child care staffing shortage. There are people who say, there was a New York Times article by Jason DeParle that talked about how there was one woman who worked part-time in child care and part-time at Starbucks, and she made $15 an hour pouring coffee and $10 an hour to care for children. That is not acceptable. And what this bill does is puts the money into the system so that it’s not about asking parents who are already strapped to pay more. It’s actually about asking them to pay a little bit less while we’re able to raise wages, recruit, and retain people in our workforce so that they’re making the wages that they should be making for this complex work.

And also, there’s money in it to do training and to make sure that there’s scientifically-based child development invested in the types of training that providers get. So, we’re gonna make it safer, healthier, better early education, more affordable, and invest in the workforce, which is gonna have a huge impact on children and families and caregivers and communities and the economy.

VALLAS: And it feels worth noting—and this is not the main focus of this particular episode—but of course, this is not the only care-related policy that is in the Build Back Better legislation. There’s a broader set of sort of caring economy proposals that President Biden pledged to make part of his Build Back Better push earlier in the year. And we actually do see some other incredibly important provisions from that list in this legislation, even as the bill has been somewhat slimmed down in recent weeks. Do you wanna talk just a little bit about some of those other important pieces? Obviously, not the focus here, but it feels really important for some of the broader connections when it comes to care.

KASHEN: The same ways that we don’t have the investments that we need in child care and the people who care for children, we don’t have that for our aging relatives, for people with disabilities. So, this program would actually invest historically in Home and Community-Based Services so that older adults and people with disabilities can remain in their home instead of being forced into institutions. And the people who are caring for them, the home health aides and direct care workers, will actually also be paid fairly and treated with dignity. There’s $150 billion over 10 years for Home and Community-Based Services. The original ask was more than that, and this is considered a down payment on what’s really needed. But it’s going to enable people to get rid of waiting lists for Home and Community-Based Services.

And this is something that became so evident during the pandemic because people who are in nursing homes were really at risk of getting sick and dying. And it was really quite tragic to see, and particularly knowing that so many families would like to have their family members living at home or living in their communities but can’t afford it, or there’s a shortage of workers because again, they’re just not paid well enough. And so, this is incredibly important.

In addition, there’s been a huge fight for Paid Family and Medical Leave that would make sure that nobody has to choose between work and caring for their loved ones or their paycheck and caring for their loved ones. And this is something that the majority of other countries have, and the United States has long been an outlier. We do have 10 states that have adopted it, and it’s worked incredibly well in those states. And so, there’s been a huge push to make sure that that happens as part of this policy. And as of right now, the House has resurrected it and has put some money in for Paid Family and Medical Leave. And I know there’s a huge advocacy community and a huge outcry to make sure that that becomes law as well.

VALLAS: And obviously, a lot more shoes to drop in the ongoing trajectory of this legislation. So, we’re having this conversation.

KASHEN: No more shoes, no!

VALLAS: No more. I know.

KASHEN: [laughs]

VALLAS: We’re done. We don’t want any more shoes. I’m not trying to manifest more shoes, to be clear! But we know that they’re gonna drop. So, just to say we’re talking on Wednesday, and there’s already a lot of movement going on. So, by the time this goes to air on Friday, there are probably updates we can’t look in our crystal balls quite yet and are going to happen. But really wonderful to see both of those in the bill as it stands right now in the House.

I’d love to next get into the immense and really ever-growing body of research behind these types of policies. And here we’re returning to our conversation on child care and early learning specifically. And that research really translates into a broad range of arguments in favor of this type of care infrastructure. A term that I’ve heard Julie use frequently to describe the child care and early learning proposal in this bill is “win for all,” which maybe sounds kind of like, all right. Yeah, it’s kind of rosy puppies and roses language, but it quite literally describes the multifactor arguments for this policy. So, on the one hand, there’s the obvious child well-being and development case to be made because of the importance of the critical early years of life. On another hand, there’s an economic and labor market case, both because child care enables parents to work outside the home, as you’ve been describing, Julie, and because it also creates jobs for teachers, jobs that could be paid a lot better. And on a third hand, if I’m allowed to have three hands for the set up of this question—

KASHEN: [laughs] I’ll lend you one.

VALLAS: Well, and as the host of this show, I think I get to give myself three hands! There’s also a racial equity case to be made for the policy as well because, as you mentioned, Julie, the child care workers who are being paid poverty wages, less than people are being paid to pour coffee, are disproportionately people of color.

Amanda, I wanna start with you here, and I wanna start with the kids. Zero to Three is laser focused on infants and toddlers and those critical first few years of life. What do we know about why those early years are so incredibly important to kids’ development and to actually their entire life chances?

PEREZ: Well, I spoke a little bit about this earlier, Rebecca, this piece around the brain development that happens so rapidly during these first three years of life in particular, and then of course, continues at a slightly lower rate as children get older. We know that they are building the most amazing maps and architectures in their brains that those moments, and we can see that learning sort of as we think about what it takes for a child to get from not being able to walk to being able to walk, the most foundational things, right? Not being able to speak to having such strong command of language, we see it so quickly in those first three years. And we are learning, over time, we’ve learned just how amazing that brain development is and how quick it’s happening for babies and how foundational it is that many of the things that are happening during those early years inform and provide the foundation, again, for what happens then later in life.

So, we know that quality child care, particularly quality child care, prepares babies for future learning, for future success, for success in school, for success in relationships—which is sort of the core of mental health as well as other things—for success in sort of their own feeling of well-being. We know that all of that, all of the seed of that, is being packed in those early years. And that quality child care can then have the outcomes that include things like increased cognitive and communication skills, expanded vocabulary, better social and emotional skills, as I said, and higher scores on math and language measures over time. Those have long-lasting impacts for children.

VALLAS: And Julie, I wanna take us next to another element of this as well. Folks may be sort of saying, “Okay, I get it. I get that the child well-being, child development case is there, but how much is this really an economic issue?” Well, you recently authored a series of briefs, Julie, laying out many of the arguments for a child care and early learning infrastructure like what we see in the Build Back Better proposal. Take us next to the economic and labor market side of the coin. You actually point out in that series of briefs that there’s something of a multigenerational case to be made here, particularly with huge implications for women workers. And you were talking a little bit about that briefly, but it’s worth digging into a little more deeply. Some scholars have termed something that women workers face “a motherhood penalty” when they have kids. And you mention we’ve seen steep declines in labor force participation during this pandemic, particularly for women, because this pandemic has hit working families so incredibly hard. Talk a little bit about the economic and labor market argument for this kind of care infrastructure.

KASHEN: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I often think about this as like, if only this policy helped set children up for success today and in the future, it would be amazing! But it does more than that, right?! And so, I think I’ll start with the piece of it that’s about family economic security.

And so, children are better off when they have great care, and also, they’re better off when their parents are economically secure. And so, that’s what some of the research has shown. And so, by making sure that a) we’re lowering the cost of child care so that family budgets make sense, and b) we’re supporting parents to be working so that they can earn more, that actually also helps children’s healthy development. So, I think that’s another important point of the child development piece.

And then on top of that, we know, as you said, a good child care system both creates jobs and supports jobs. So, there was a study that showed that a significant investment could add 2.2 million jobs to the economy and increase the GDP by $274 billion. That’s a lot of money, right? We know that women’s labor force participation is a huge part of the economy. And even over the past 40 years, as women entered the labor force and brought home larger paychecks, they drove 91 percent of the income gains experienced by the middle class. And so, when we support women to be able to be in the workforce and work more hours if they want to, by making sure that they’ve got great child care options where they can feel comfortable that their kids are safe and secure and well taken care of, then we are really increasing economic growth.

Similarly, business disruption costs the economy about $57 billion a year, right? And that’s because of child care, so that the lack of reliable, steady child care options means that productivity can be lost. And so, while I’m not somebody who says productivity should be our be-all and end-all, for those who are, this has a productivity argument as well. Because if a parent feels that they have the peace of mind that their children are safe and well cared for, they are able to be much more productive at work. It’s obvious, I guess. It’s common sense that good child care and early learning options increases women’s labor force participation, but it’s also been proven in research. And so, I think investing in child care is about women’s economic support and justice. It’s also about parents’ bottom lines and family economic security. So, those are two more ways in which it makes a huge difference.

VALLAS: And staying with you, Julie, just on the third point, as I was sort of laying out kind of the big three, right, the child well-being, the economic and labor market side, the third which is really racial equity. It plays into the labor market piece that you’re explaining here as well, and you hit on this just briefly before, right? But there’s obviously also a huge racial equity imperative in how little child care teachers are paid, given that child care teachers who are being paid those poverty wages, those wages that are less than, in many cases, pouring coffee, an example that stuck out with me from reading that Jason DeParle story as well, are disproportionately Black and Brown. So, just finish us out with kind of the hat trick here with the racial equity argument as well.

KASHEN: Yeah, there are a number of pieces to this. I mean, one of them is you can actually go back and think about how the history of child care is rooted in the exploitation of Black women beginning in the institution of slavery, and Black women were forced to nurse or care for the children of white landowners. And so, we’re going all the way back there. And following the end of slavery, public policies restricted what kind of work Black women and immigrant women could do and really left it to domestic jobs. And this is sort of the racist and sexist history that has led to the undervaluing of care work, of this work being seen as not as valuable and not being given the pay that it’s worth. And so, today, this profession is disproportionately made up of women of color, and that kind of racist, sexist past continues as they are so underpaid for this really valuable and complex work.

And then in addition, for families of color, they’re often facing greater barriers to care, everything from prohibitive costs to irregular work schedules, language barriers, lack of convenient options. So, it’s both families of color and the women of color who make up so much of this workforce that will really benefit from this new policy that centers caregivers, that centers children. And I think it’s a really important piece about racial equity here.

VALLAS: And like you’re saying, it all kind of circles back around, right? Each of these points end up being sort of mutually reinforcing because research suggests that raising wages for teachers isn’t just good for the teachers, it also benefits the kids. Because on the flip side, low wages, poverty wages for child care workers don’t just keep workers in poverty and reinforce racial disparities, they also hurt kids because they impact the quality of the care and lead to high turnover, something that isn’t just anecdotally supported. This is also something that actually shows up in the research. And Amanda, this is something you were referencing before.

PEREZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we certainly not only anecdotally hear that from families, but we see it in the research as well, that quality care costs money. It costs money. And that is a problem when we are trying to set up sort of this sense of equity from the beginning, which is, of course, what we want for children and for babies and toddlers. And we should not be confused about the money piece. Families of color are less likely to be able to afford the high cost of quality infant and toddler care and more likely to live in communities that lack that high quality that is available, those providers who are available to them. So, we know that that economic-racial connection is really important here. And when we think sort of what Heat Start and Early Head Start have been set up to do across our country—and that’s the federal program that really looks at poverty and child development in the very beginning—the idea there was to provide, in 1965, the idea was to provide sort of a head start and beginning experience where we could really have an equal learning field for folks. And that has not been the way it has played out, and we see that in the research recently.

KASHEN: I just wanna add one more thing, if I could, about that.

VALLAS: Please, please. Yes.

KASHEN: So, just building on that, I think it’s also important to note that the low wages means that there’s high turnover. And we know that consistency, right, having a relationship, a consistent relationship, with an adult is really important for healthy child development. And so, when the wages are so low, and when teachers are not able to have economic stability because those wages are so low, that creates stress in their lives and makes it harder to show up the way that they want to for children. And so, I just wanna be really clear that this is a systemic problem that this Build Back Better policy can really help solve.

VALLAS: It’s such an important point, right? And it’s also, I mean, it’s something that comes up in a lot of different industries, sometimes in the context of, for example, the need to raise wages for restaurant workers who face tipped minimum wages that no one can live on and that end up fluctuating because of tips being what people are having to use as how they’re paying the bills and whatnot, which leads to huge turnover in that industry, right? So, it’s not a foreign concept, but it’s something that’s just more important in this sector than almost anywhere else when you think about what’s at stake when turnover happens, right? It’s just, and Amanda, I think you really, you summed it up really, incredibly well before.

Before we move on, I also wanna just, Amanda, stay with you for a moment here because another huge priority that you and other advocates have been pushing for that doesn’t get quite as much attention as maybe some of the other kind of front-page headline features of a child care proposal or a pre-K proposal is that better wages, which we’ve been focusing on here in this most recent part of the conversation, better wages for teachers are not quite enough. That they actually need to be coupled with other types of policies, things like workforce development and professional development opportunities all because what’s really important here is that we not just ensure that we’ve got an early childhood workforce who’s paid enough. It’s incredibly important to ensure that we have a diverse and culturally competent early childhood workforce. And this is something that child care and early childhood advocates have really been ringing the alarm bells about, in large part because children under age five now represent the most diverse segment of the American population. There is no majority group anymore that dominates when it comes to children under five. Talk a little bit about why it’s so important that the early childhood workforce be as diverse as our nation’s children.

PEREZ: Well, sure. And I think it comes back to a lot of what Julie was saying in terms of the importance of the stability of relationship for babies and toddlers. We know that at the foundation of their learning, babies are not only learning about communication, they’re also learning about cultural identity, right? And so, there is this importance to the intimacy of child care and how robed it is in sort of all of the practices and the language and the family experience that is so important for babies. And so, there’s sort of this part of like, okay, how do we help a baby who is really dependent on everybody else around her for care, how do we help that baby sort of get the care that that baby expects and needs and sort of on that individual basis? What is important to that baby? How do we make sure that that communication is established and that caregiver can really learn about and know that baby? And part of that happens through, or can happen through, sort of a cultural awareness that is really powerful.

We have seen through a lot of the research that happens, usually for later, in preschool, that we know, for example, that Black boys are most likely to be expelled from school, right? That is a quality issue, and it has to do in some cases with not having our arms around all that’s happening with children, not having our arms around sort of what it is that they’re expressing in their behavior and expressing in their own modes of communication, which are developing over time, right? So, we really wanna make sure that we have a workforce that is reflective of the babies that they’re caring for. Which is not to say that an individual provider can’t learn a baby. An individual provider absolutely can. And with the incentive to stay, with the wages that that provider deserves, with the training and support that that provider can really use and bring in to that experience with the baby, we know that families and providers and babies can build all kinds of relationships. But we do know that there is something really powerful about having a cultural match there and a reason that we really wanna maintain a diverse workforce.

Well, we have an idea that caring for children is unskilled labor, and that is not true. And we see it among people, we see that skill develop among people, who have all levels of education. But it is skilled labor, and there is a skill and an expertise to knowing how to provide developmentally appropriate, supportive curriculum to babies. There is a skill to interacting with babies in ways that really nurtures their learning. There is a skill to interacting with families in a way that connects all three of those, or both of those environments: the child care environment and the home environment. And I think when we talk about child care and we think about it as a skill that develops and it’s emotional work as well, right, so it’s not just sort of ticking boxes in a chart. It is interacting with your whole self every day with babies, toddlers, and with preschoolers. And so, I think that that piece around training and ongoing support for providers is equally as important as having this diverse workforce.

VALLAS: So, moving on, one of the things that I feel is sometimes useful to do in tandem with laying out lots of the arguments in favor of something is also to raise up the straw man. So, let’s go ahead and erect the straw man here. There is lots and lots and lots of public support and political support for this set of proposals for historic investments in child care and early learning infrastructure. But not everyone universally is in support of this set of ideas, and here I’m thinking about a handful of conservative think tanks in particular who are very, very much not excited that we are on the brink of making history when it comes to this type of policy.

So, to give each of you an opportunity to respond to some of the conservative critiques of this proposal, I’m gonna quote here from the actually, I think, the same Jason DeParle New York Times article, Julie, that you referenced before that quoted the child care teacher who makes more at Starbucks. And then I’m gonna give each of you an opportunity to respond to this straw man. The quote here is from Rachel Greszler, who’s an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, and the warning is that, “this expansion of the safety net is unaffordable and smacks of socialism—”sorry, some of this is extremely predictable—and that “the child care provisions proposed would inflate costs, would impose burdensome regulations, would penalize parents who prefer informal care, government intrusion into the family realm.” So, it’s sort of like the bingo card of conservative complaints all wrapped into one.

KASHEN: [chuckles]

VALLAS: And in particular, and this one, I think, is really worth giving you each an opportunity to respond to. She says, “The policy would penalize parents who stay at home by taxing them to expand center-based care and ignoring the tremendous personal and societal value of full-time child rearing.” Whew. So, that’s a mouthful of conservative complaints. But Julie, I’m gonna give you a chance to speak to some of this. How do you respond to some of these conservative critiques of a proposal that is so long in the making here and so incredibly popular with Americans, I should note, across party lines?

KASHEN: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, in the 1970s, we were really close to passing comprehensive child care and early learning legislation, the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which was vetoed almost 50 years ago, basically 50 years ago in December, by President Nixon. And when he vetoed it— And sorry, I don’t know if I said it was a bipartisan bill passed on a bipartisan basis, and it was the last time we came as close as we are right now to passing comprehensive reform. So, President Nixon said he was worried about the family weakening implications. And Pat Buchanan and lots of propaganda were out there talking about how all of our children were gonna become communists, and they were gonna start smoking and unionizing against their parents. And the world was gonna end. And so, this is just sort of new versions of that. [laughs] And I think it was easier in the 1970s to say we think all women should stay home and cook and clean and take care of babies. I think it’s a lot harder to say that today, but I think that’s what they mean.

I think especially when the pandemic showed just how much the impact was on women when we lost our schools and child care, that women still are the primary caregivers in so many situations. And these are just quite frankly, wrong, right? It’s incredibly supportive of parental choice. It actually gives parents more, way more choices than they have right now. We also know that most parents are working. They have to if they wanna be able to support their families. And so, whether or not people wanna stay home, that’s why we need Paid Family and Medical Leave. That’s why we need as many child care options as possible. And it does support them in homes. It supports family child care, it supports center-based care, and it supports faith-based options. It supports Head Start and Early Head Start.

So, I think that these are wildly off base. And I think people, you know, we are getting really close to historic progress that’s going to help millions of children, millions of babies, millions of families. And I think that can be hard. But the reality is this is a system that goes to states, and then they’re investing in their local communities. I think people are gonna experience this as a very local program, but it’s actually going to be an amazing program because the federal government’s going to be spending the money that’s necessary to make sure that children are getting the highest quality of care, early educators are getting paid well, and families are able to afford it. So, I think that this is an incredible policy, and I disagree with detractors.

VALLAS: As do most American voters, it’s also just worth underscoring, right? I said it, but it’s worth saying again: Even though we do see some of these kinds of predictable old chestnuts getting rolled back out in the mouths of some conservative think tankers and some conservative members of Congress, we are talking here about a policy that’s actually overwhelmingly popular, not just overall with American voters, but with voters of both parties and of independents, right? So, really across the political spectrum. So, it’s just always worth reminding when we see a real gap between the American people and some of the groups and the special interests that purport to represent them. Amanda, I wanna give you an opportunity to respond to that type of critique as well and particularly given all of your experience within the system.

PEREZ: Yeah, well, actually, you gave such a great, comprehensive answer. I think one of the pieces that I would go to is sort of the economics here. So, we’re really talking about if it’s an economic question, there is no question that the economics just do not work for child care, as Julie discussed earlier, right? And so, the result of that is that families are not making choices based on choice. They’re making choices based on what they have to do, and I would not call them choices. So, sometimes they are sort of piecing together different kinds of child care to make sure that they don’t have to spend so much in one place, or they have their different people kind of coming in at different times, that there is such a limit in terms of what families are able to do because they are so constrained by the economics of what is happening in the current child care system. Sometimes they wanna work; they wanna be bringing in the money for their families, the money that certain unnamed members of Congress are asking them to make in order to get the Child Tax Credit, those kinds of things. But they can’t do it because they cannot afford to put their children in child care.

So, I think what this does is it really expands options for families in a way that is meaningful, that actually is taking into account the way that this child care system works and those three prongs that I talked about earlier—accessibility, affordability, and the quality of that care—that I’ll note will just feed into a more skilled and more prepared workforce. If we can start early with kids in getting them prepared for school and getting them prepared to be active participants in the economy, that has benefits for them for that as well.

I would also say that we have some really good evidence that high quality birth-to-five care, especially for under-resourced children, yields a pretty high return on investment. So, that’s a 13 percent per year return on investment. And I think that that sometimes can be an argument that works as well if folks really wanna go to that economic place.

VALLAS: So, in the last few minutes that we have—and there’s so much more that we could get into, but time is flying in this conversation where you guys are covering so much—I wanna give an opportunity for us to talk a little bit about what comes next and where things go, the road ahead for Build Back Better, which is what is providing this historic opportunity for transforming the landscape on child care and early learning in the U.S.

Julie, you have been calling this moment an opportunity for a paradigm shift, a paradigm shift that is long overdue, as you have so aptly described. And the paradigm shift that you are calling for is for us as a nation, for us as a society, to finally start to understand child care and early learning as a public good. And this is a parallel paradigm shift along with what many folks are also pushing for when it comes to Home and Community-Based Services for people with disabilities and for older Americans, as you referenced before, but also paid leave and many other aspects of the human infrastructure agenda that progressives have been really trying to push as part of this build Back Better effort.

Tell us what the road ahead for Build Back Better looks like, at least with what we know as of right now as things are starting to move through the House. And then, Amanda, I’m gonna give you the last word to talk a little bit about how folks can get involved in the push to not only pass this legislation, but to ensure that child care and early learning stay in at these important funding levels that Julie was describing before.

KASHEN: Yeah, I first just wanna reiterate what you just said. I mean, as a country, we have failed to acknowledge the realities and needs and pressures of care and caregiving, and we’ve treated it as an individual problem and not a collective one with collective solutions. But the fact is, it’s a public good, and it should be treated that way. When you’re thinking about young children, our shared stake in seeing them thrive doesn’t suddenly begin when they turn five, but that’s the only system we have right now, the K-12 system, right? So, this is absolutely, as you said, a paradigm shift. And right now, we know the House is getting ready to take some next steps and vote on at least the next step. It has to move through the House, and then it goes to the Senate. The Senate will take some time where they will make sure that everything fits into the parliamentary procedures and offer a chance for doing some amendments. And my hope still in my optimistic moments is that President Biden will be signing this into law before Thanksgiving, and we’ll all get to celebrate and show our gratitude.

VALLAS: I really appreciate that optimism because I’m definitely needing it right now. But also, I know all the advocates who have been working tirelessly on this legislation would really love for us to be celebrating by Thanksgiving because this has been such a marathon, every single hour.

Amanda, how can folks get involved in the push to pass this legislation, but to importantly ensure that child care and early learning remain part of it? That’s a huge part of what you do at Zero to Three is to lead the advocacy efforts there on these issues.

PEREZ: Yes, and we would love to have people join us at Think Babies. So, the website for that is ThinkBabies.org, ThinkBabies.org. I do you wanna say, Rebecca, that I know that a lot of folks have been involved with other advocacy organizations. This is gonna be a major push. I would be surprised, if you are involved with any advocacy organization that has its feet in child care and is thinking about child care, that you would not hear about this push. And I think as a group, we are really trying to push people to encourage their members of Congress to vote on this, to say yes, to really understand that this is game changing for families and babies, as well as providers across this country and for our economy as well. We wanna push people to do that. You can do that at ThinkBabies.org, or you can do it through another advocacy organization that you’re already involved with.

VALLAS: And, of course, one of the hashtags that folks are probably already following, and which has lots of updates about these issues, but also about a lot of the other caring economy issues that Julie was helping fill in the gaps with earlier is #CareCantWait. So, lots of updates there in real time on the Twitters. But obviously, many more shoes to drop, as we were referencing before, we are sure before this thing is quite over. So, definitely not a moment to start celebrating and resting on laurels, exciting as the prospect of this historic progress is in this moment. So, that’s why both of you are working round the clock, and all of your colleagues in the coalition are as well, to make sure that we keep this incredibly important set of comprehensive reforms in the legislation as we all work to try to get it over the finish line.

Amanda Perez is the senior advocacy manager at Zero to Three, which works to ensure that all babies and toddlers get a strong start in life. And you can find links to Think Babies and the other resources she was mentioning, of course, in our show notes. And Julie Kashen is a senior fellow—a fellow senior fellow, I might even say—at The Century Foundation, where she’s the director of the women’s economic justice program. She’s also on the board of Vote Mama Action Fund. Julie and Amanda, thank you so much for taking the time to join the show this week and for all of your just incredible work on this issue to get us to this point. I hope that we all are getting to celebrate, as Julie put that optimism out into the world, come Thanksgiving or sooner. But it wouldn’t be without the incredible work of you two and so many other organizations that you work with. Without that, we simply wouldn’t be at this, on the precipice of this historic moment. So, just a huge thank you for all of your work.

KASHEN: Thank you so much, Rebecca. Thank you.

PEREZ: Yeah, it’s been a team effort, Rebecca. So, thank you for being a part and for everybody out there who’s done that advocacy piece. [bright theme music returns]

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your pods, and for the superfans, you can find a full archive of all past episodes and show transcripts over at TCF.org/Off-Kilter. Got an idea for a topic you’d like to hear us unpack or a guest you’ve been wanting to hear on the show? Send us a note at [email protected]. Or if social media is more your bag, give us a holler on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. It really does help. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.