The Unusual Alliance Trying To Fix America’s Broken Child Care System

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Over the 18 years Denise Doheny has worked as a child care provider, she’s experienced a number of tough financial spells. She was homeless twice, once living with her mother, another time with friends. She had a hard time affording food.

But now she has two young children she’s raising by herself and things have gotten even harder. One of her main priorities is “trying to give my kids the life that they deserve,” she said. It’s hard on her $12 an hour wage. “After you pay your bills you’re not really left with too much to give to the kids.”

A neighbor recently gave them a children’s bicycle but it had a flat tire, and it took her nearly a month and a half just to save up enough to buy a tube for the tire. “I couldn’t even afford to go buy my kid a new bike,” she said.

It’s not that she’s a low-skill employee. She has a Child Development Associate certification and is working on an associate’s degree, plus she has to do 20 hours of extra training each year. But this is one of the biggest challenges in the industry. “It’s really hard to find somebody who has education and knows the pay and still willing to say, ‘Hey, give me a job,'” she noted.

She used to work in a factory where she made much better money, but she hated every moment of it. She wouldn’t trade her current job for any other line of work. “I love my job,” she said. “Absolutely love it.”

Doheny has recently teamed up a new effort that’s bringing together child care providers who want higher pay, organizing as part of the Fight for 15 movement, alongside parents who need their services but struggle to afford child care. It’s a unique collaboration meant to push lawmakers to look at the whole picture: the need to make child care more available and affordable for parents while also making sure that the workers are paid enough to survive.

The partnership may sound odd. After all, higher wages for workers should mean higher costs for parents. But there is a lot of commonality between the two groups. “Families want to give the best they can to their children, and they know that that means they want to put them in a good child care situation,” explained Julie Kashen, senior policy advisor for the Make It Work campaign that’s part of the collaboration. “High-quality care includes high-quality jobs.” Without high enough pay, the industry will likely continue to see a 13 percent turnover rate, with half of centers losing staff in any given year, and even provider shortages.

The link between what parents pay and what providers make has also long been broken. Pay for child care providers only grew 1 percent between 1997 and 2013, far outpaced by inflation. Yet average weekly child care expenses rose more than 70 percent between 1985 and 2011. While most providers make just barely above minimum wage, families can expect to shell out as much as $16,500 a year for just one child.

“The price of child care keeps rising, so parents are paying more and more, but caregivers are still not being paid more,” Kashen pointed out. “There’s this disconnect there that people are starting to question.”

Her group released a proposal earlier this year that includes both subsidies for families to make child care affordable as well as a guarantee of at least a $15 minimum wage for caregivers. The only solution for them is government intervention. “Government has to play a role here,” Kashen said. “There should be a public investment in this public good that reflects both the needs of parents and providers.” The proposal calls for the federal government to spend about $168 billion a year. “What’s happened so often in Washington around this is we end up fighting for scraps for support for child care,” she said. The proposal “is much more about making a realistic investment that’s both aspirational but also more true to what is really needed,” she said.

Kashen herself is the parent of a 15-month-old child and has therefore seen the problem first-hand from the perspective of a parent. “Even going through this myself and being very educated and resourced, still everything about it seems challenging,” she said. “To figure out the right care for your child, find out who has spaces available, find out what’s affordable.”

Make It Work’s proposal has caught the attention of congressional lawmakers. In July, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced a House resolution recognizing the need for a more reliable child care system that also guarantees a living wage for workers. Now parents and child care providers are meeting with lawmakers in a multi-city tour of town halls and other venues to talk about the issue.

Doheny recently participated in one of those events with her congressional representative, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). And her involvement in the campaign has been revelatory. “At times when you’re broke and sitting there at the kitchen table with your head in your hands, saying what do I do now, you feel all alone,” Doheny said. “This opened up my eyes to see I’m not all alone and there are people out there who care about what I do.”

If the campaign were to succeed in securing a $15 minimum wage for Doheny and her fellow caregivers, that could make a difference. “Fifteen an hour would be great… That’s a significant amount, I’d be able to function,” she said. But she knows her talent for the job means she should be getting much more than that. “Am I worth more than 15? Absolutely,” she said. “If I was to get what I’m worth, I’d be able to give a life to my children.”