The Fiercest New Caucus in Congress: Moms

By Michelle McCready, Deputy Executive Director, Child Care Aware of America, with support from Rae Ann Pickett, Sr. Manager of Public Relations, Child Care Aware of America

The 102 elected congresswomen across the nation are not just facing a “business as usual” government attitude. Their presence and their pledged bills promoting better business practices will end the separation of government leadership from children and family issues.

When child care is too expensive, businesses lose. Businesses experience over $8 billion in lost wages due to lack of affordable child care. If we look inside this new and most female congress, we see far more than families and women who have just been through rigorous campaigns and are ready to lead. We see women struggling to pay for and find quality child care.

“Congress wasn’t built for members like me,” said Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), a newly-elected congresswoman from California and single mother of three. Congresswoman-elect Porter was prevented from using campaign funds to pay for child care expenses she would not have otherwise incurred if she were not running for office.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Chair of the House Republican Caucus, has given birth three times since being elected in 2004, and has faced many challenges with the existing family policies in Congress and across the country. When her first child was born, he required a stay in the intensive care unit (ICU), causing the congresswoman to work nonstandard hours and miss votes. “After I had Cole, I showed up immediately on the list of members that may not seek re-election [because I’d become a mom],” she said in a Cosmopolitan interview.

In fact, lawmakers, who earn $174,000 a year, are barred from using any official funds for child care needs. It’s true — Congress may not have been built for members like Katie Porter or Cathy McMorris Rodgers. But if anyone can change the way it serves us going forward, it’s Congresswomen Porter and the other 101 women elected to the 116th Congress.

In her new book, “Becoming,” former First Lady Michelle Obama recalls an instance when she brought her infant daughter with her to a job interview. Many headlines report that Mrs.Obama put her life on hold so that her husband could be president. One interview pointed out that “the partner who steps back to support the other’s career may not get the chance to step forward again. And because of the gendered nature of work and child care in America, the partner who gets short shrift in a heterosexual couple is often the woman.”

The Obamas have long been open about their struggles to find affordable child care to fit their nonstandard hours. She recalled of then Sen. Obama’s time in office: “It was almost as if every day, he were forced to cast another vote, between family and politics, politics and family.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) has been pictured with her children throughout congressional offices, at events and even protests. She won her fight to change longstanding Senate rules banning infants from the floor, paving the way for future senators who not only want to, but often may need to, bring their babies to work with them.

At times, parents are forced to reduce their hours or quit their jobs because they could not find affordable child care. Instead of quitting, our newly elected leaders are taking these challenges head-on.

The facts show that child care is a significant burden to families who earn double the federal poverty threshold (or $40,320). In many states, the cost for one month of infant center-based care exceeds the lifetime cost of diapers ($2,000), and in every state child care is unaffordable.

Now that primary caretakers have won seats at the table, the issues that all families have been burdened with for decades, will be thrust out into the light of day for all to see and face, once and for all. Child care should be at the heart of that debate because without child care, nothing works — not families and not Congress. Now that Congress looks like America, it must reckon with what decades of inaction has done to the child care infrastructure — this Congress can do it.

Nonstandard working hours have become the new normal with occupations requiring nonstandard schedules projected to see the most employment growth by 2020; however, child care during nonstandard working hours is non-existent and, often, unlicensed. As more families require nonstandard hours of child care, we must hold all of our elected officials accountable for addressing the evolving needs of parents and families.

These challenges aren’t only faced by women. They cannot be fully solved through family-friendly policies on The Hill and around the nation. But, subsidies and child tax credits offer temporary or reduced cost solutions for child care. Solving this complex systemic rot requires as a commitment from the private and public industries — and from each of us as citizens to hold folks accountable.

The child care landscape is a vast and intimidating one, and it can be hard to navigate. Child care fuels our nation and at the heart of filling that need are Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) agencies, who help families and providers every day and in nearly every zip code.

With over 400 community-based agencies serving over 860,000 families a year in securing child care, the CCR&R network is a trusted place to find child care. Families can search for the CCR&R that serves them by visiting childcareaware.org.

Access to high-quality, affordable child care is not a pipe dream. It can be a reality. It is up to those of us who have fought for child care for all and those who struggle with this burden now and in the past to demand that concern is not action — and the only action will help our kids and our families thrive.