Child care and universal pre-K have been central components of the Biden administration’s ambitious infrastructure package, and as lawmakers chip away at the proposals and grandstand about high costs and fiscal responsibility, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s at stake.
Those who have worked in early childhood education (ECE) for years trying to patch our broken system understand the opportunity that the administration’s proposals represent. Jessica Sager, co-founder and CEO of All Our Kin, has made family child care the focus of her work since she was in law school. All Our Kin trains and supports family child care educators around the country. Over the past two decades, All Our Kin has not only helped build and professionalize the child care sector; it has raised its visibility and helped give it a voice.
Family child care run by educators out of their homes (most of them women) is an approach that often gets less attention than other early care options, but it provides valuable support for families and communities. These small, home-based programs are the primary source of care for young children in many areas of the country, including many low-income communities. Early care experts believe family child care educators will play a critical role going forward, as consensus builds for the development of a national system of quality early childhood care and education.
Philanthropy has helped support All Our Kin’s work and expand its reach—including regional funders like the Robin Hood Foundation and the Lone Pine Foundation, and national funders like Pritzker Children’s Initiative, Imaginable Futures and Valhalla Charitable Foundation (see a list of supporters here).
Sager believes philanthropy has a key role in creating an infrastructure of early care in the U.S. “We need national philanthropy to spark innovation and build movements, and we need local philanthropy to shore up the programs in their own communities,” she said. “I am optimistic that with the inspiration of both those groups, we will eventually have government funding to build a lasting and sustainable child care system.”
“An impossible choice”
Jessica Sager went to law school to advocate for children, and while she was there, the Clinton administration introduced the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The act required recipients of welfare to work if they were to continue receiving benefits.
“The new law required parents to enter the workforce really quickly or risk losing their benefits,” Sager said. “Single moms faced an impossible choice between compromising their children’s well-being economically, or jeopardizing their well-being through lack of care, because it was immediately apparent that our child care system had nothing in place to meet the demand.”
At the time, Sager was doing research with a local advocacy group, and she began interviewing parents and caregivers around New Haven, Connecticut, about the impact of the new welfare rules. “We met parent after parent, primarily mothers, who were saying, ‘You are asking me to go to a minimum wage job where I have to take a bus two hours each way every day, and you’re not giving me a way to make sure that my young children are safe and cared for. How can I do this?’” Sager said. “The idea that women in poverty somehow lacked the resources or knowledge to make their own best decisions for their families was just so pernicious and troubling to us.”
Sager decided she had to do something, and she teamed up with a group of other advocates. “We said, ‘we bet there are mothers and caregivers in neighborhoods across New Haven and the country who just need training and support to be able to provide the care that children need to be successful,” she said. “If we could support them in doing that, other parents could make different choices about where to go to work and feel good about the way their children were being cared for.”
What started out as a “lab school” to prepare and support family caregivers evolved into a national organization. Today, All Our Kin works with 1,100 family care providers in Connecticut and New York. The organization offers family care educators a variety of tools, including training in health, safety and child development, on-site coaching, licensing information, and connection to the wider community—both the professional community as well as schools and other local institutions. The nonprofit also supports family child care educators in advocating for systems change at the local, state and federal levels. All Our Kin’s model is widely recognized, and it works in an advisory role with partner organizations around the country.
Sager believes family child care is undervalued in part because of a lingering stereotype about who family child care educators are. “We encounter it still; it’s not as universal, thankfully, as it used to be,” she said. “It is an ugly, racist, sexist, xenophobic stereotype. It maps very closely to the stereotype of the welfare queen: the Black or brown woman who is lazy, who is exploiting the children in her care, who is not actually committed to educating children and does not have the skills or aptitude to do so. In fact what you have are heroic women, many of them Black and brown, stepping up to fill a desperate need for child care, and offering nurturing, thoughtful, culturally appropriate, quality care. That is what we see every single day.”
Early childhood education has been in the national spotlight since the start of the pandemic, which shone a spotlight on a child care crisis that has been building for a long time. Many facilities are struggling to survive as they face COVID-related costs and labor shortages, creating a growing number of child care deserts around the country. Meanwhile, high fees make child care costs increasingly prohibitive for many families.
The Biden administration has acknowledged this crisis, and made early care and education a centerpiece of its infrastructure plan. The plan would limit child care costs to seven percent of family income for most families, for example, and boost wages for early educators, now among the lowest in the country. Whether President Joe Biden’s agenda survives the legislative wood chipper or not remains to be seen; as of this writing, paid family leave has been cut, but childcare subsidies and universal pre-K remain—for now. Conservatives on both sides of the political aisle are continuing to whittle away at the package, or refusing to support it at all. Meanwhile, child advocates—including many from the world of philanthropy—are stepping forward to defend the measures.
In a Washington Post article titled “Unless Congress Acts, Only the Rich Will be Able to Afford Child Care,” Elliot Haspel, program officer for education policy and research at the Robins Foundation, warned of the consequences if the child care measures are chopped out of the package. “There is a limited window to build a new system where the old one has failed: It cannot be allowed to slam shut on the outstretched fingers of the nation’s parents and children,” he wrote.
Advocates like Haspel and Sager would like to see the U.S. treat early care as a public good—as many other countries do—versus a private matter for families to figure out on their own. In a recent op-ed, Sager described the virtuous domino effect Biden’s plans will set off if enacted: “Parents have financial support so their children can be in care. Educators are supported to grow as professionals. And the children are the ultimate beneficiaries.”
On the macro level, the ongoing D.C. wrangling over Biden’s spending plans—including their child care components—highlights just how important it is for philanthropy to lean into advocacy, even if it means funding uncomfortably close to “politics.” As Sager pointed out, national philanthropy to “spark innovation and build movements” is essential, and that means support for organizations fighting for child care specifically as well as those advocating more robust social spending across the board. It can also mean democracy work and civic engagement—to make sure those most in need of child care services have some kind of voice in these debates.
President Biden recently observed that early educators are doing “God’s work,” as Sager pointed out. If it’s God’s work, shouldn’t we do more to support it?