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Feminists Need to Focus on Child Care
Only enlightened public policy can lift this huge burden on working parents

The recent Women’s marches throughout the United States and the world were energizing and empowering.  My impression of the march in Washington, D.C. was that women involved in this huge display of solidarity wanted to send the message to the Trump administration that we will not be silenced and we do not want to go back to a time when overt discrimination against women was acceptable. Women expressed concern about the misogyny of Trump and others in his administration as well as fear that women’s reproductive health choices will be further restricted.  This march was an empowering experience for many women but, as noted by the organizers, is just the beginning of some long battles ahead. 

It is no surprise that women’s reproductive rights were a center piece of the march.  Trump’s threat to reproductive rights is real and profound. It is already clear that he will make appointments to the federal bench that will be heavily influenced by the religious right. However, to move forward this movement must embrace a broader feminist agenda that goes beyond reproductive rights.  It must be intersectional and inclusive and avoid the alienation of women of color that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.

A major issue that must be part of this agenda is child care, which should be understood as both a necessary social investment and an issue of labor rights for the many women working as child care providers. It has only been through the availability of child care many women have been able to stay in the paid labor force. However, this has often been accomplished on the backs of poorly paid care providers, most of whom are women; disproportionately women of color. In order to be more inclusive, the new women’s movement needs to put concrete universal child care proposals on its agenda and fight for better pay and working conditions for child care providers.

Child care is not and should not be considered “a woman’s issue.”  However, any feminist movement must understand the historical and current role that women play in child rearing and include child care supports and policies on its agenda.  Women with children earn 71% of what fathers earn.  Having children affects women’s treatment in the workforce and without proper support, it is difficult for many women, other than the very rich, to stay in the paid labor force. Many families have remained in the middle class solely as a result of a second household additional income, that of a woman.  Child care must be available to enable women to work or many more families will fall into poverty. 

Any new movement must also put the needs of child care workers, in the fore.  Child care employees are some of the lowest paid people in the country.  Forty six percent receive either Medicaid or Food Stamps.  A 2016 report by the Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment highlights the poverty of child care providers as well as the limited training many receive.  It describes new supports for child care providers across the country as “optional, selective, and sporadic.” The median hourly wage of child care providers in 2014 was $10.31, 39% less than that of all other workers.  Only 15% receive employer-based health insurance and even fewer receive pension contributions from their employers.  Many of these women face a loss or reduction in health benefits if the Affordable Care Act is revoked.  Many have limited or no sick leave.

Dr. Corey Shdaimah and I recently completed focus groups throughout the State of New York with child care providers.  Our research found that most need more financial support in order to provide the best care for America’s children. Though we did not ask their incomes, we were struck by the financial challenges that the home-based providers reported, many struggling to participate in trainings or fund fingerprinting of new workers (a federal requirement) that can cost between $50-200.

Immigrants make up a significant percentage of the early care and education workforce.  In New York and California, approximately 40% of all child care workers are immigrants.   Through the United States, 18% of all early care and education providers are immigrants.  Fifty percent of these women work in informal home child care settings. Many are undocumented.  An inclusive feminist agenda must ensure that these women remain safe, receive educational supports, and are fairly paid.             

The cost of child care is a huge financial strain for many families. Though proposed tax benefits may be helpful to some families, they fall far short of addressing the core problem that we face with child care in the United States.  If we want qualified well-educated people to care for our children, we need to be able to pay them a living wage.  We have not been able to find a way to use technology to make child care more productive or cheaper.  In order to ensure that parents can afford care and that providers receive a living wage, we, as a country need to subsidize child care.  No doubt, this will be expensive and cuts against the grain of lower taxes and less state and federal spending.  However, if we want to be competitive in the future, we need a well-educated public and this education needs to begin early. 

Subsidizing care is not a new idea.  In fact, much of the industrialized world provides both child care and health care as a basic right.  We could learn from Sweden, France, England, and many other nations throughout the world.  The last time this was considered on a national scale in the United States was during the Nixon administration when it was vetoed.  It is time for the feminist movement to add child care to its priorities and to work toward putting universal child care back on the national agenda.

Elizabeth Palley, JD, PhD, MSW is a Professor of Social Work at Adelphi University and the co-author of In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy (NYU, 2014).

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