Beyond Rhetoric: Campaigns Need Real Answers to Child Care Needs Nationally

The furor over the recent abortion and punishment comments by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump reflect a hollow misunderstanding during the campaign of the state of parenthood and child care in this country. If abortion is illegal and forbidden, what happens to the children who are born? Who cares for them?

But this most recent verbal firestorm only reflects historically that children are seen as accessories and afterthoughts by most politicians. This election season — as in all presidential campaigns historically — we witness candidates having their pictures — and selfies — taken with babies.

It may be a surefire way to boost likability in the polls.

But such a move can possibly boost electability if the gesture translates into policies that will support those babies to achieve their fullest potential throughout their lives.

At a recent CNN town hall debate, Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders expressed his views on public schools vs. public charter schools, with a surprising point about the nation’s child care system: “Every psychologist who studies the issue knows that zero through four are the most important years for intellectual and emotional development, and yet we have child care workers who are making $9 or $10 an hour without any benefits. I intend to do everything that I can to create a first-class national child care system with well-paid, well-trained teachers so that the all of our little kids get a start in life that is worthy of children in the United States of America.”

As the statewide organizer for Parent Voices in California for 10 years, I was thrilled to hear a run for the White House include the connection between the needs of children from birth and how child care impacts them when they enter kindergarten and beyond.

But how will a first-class national child care system meet the growing demand of child care assistance?

Sanders’ campaign site states the goal to “provide all children… ages six weeks to kindergarten, with access to a full-time, high quality, developmentally appropriate, early care and education program.”

Democratic front-runner Secretary Hillary Clinton’s site states, “Hillary has called for doubling our investment in Early Head Start and Early Head Start–Child Care programs, which bring evidence-based curriculum into the child care setting to provide comprehensive, full-day, high-quality services to low-income families.”

And while Republican contender Donald Trump doesn’t publish any specific plans for a system on his website, he said at a townhall in November 2015, “It’s not expensive for a company to do it. You need one person or two people, and you need some blocks and you need some swings and some toys… I do it all over, and I get great people because of it… It’s something that can be done, I think, very easily by a company.”

Yet, a comprehensive 2014 national study of employers’ child care practices, only 7 percent of American businesses offer “on or near site” child care for their workers.

No child care plan is visible on GOP hopeful Ted Cruz’s site. Ironically though, when a woman asked recently about his thoughts on early childhood education on the campaign trail, he did the opposite of Sanders by talking about the importance of school choice.

All seem as easy as 1–2–3. If only it all were so simple.

In my work I have heard thousands of heart-wrenching stories of mothers who have not been able to access child care subsidies because of long waiting lists or because current policies can make it difficult to maintain a subsidy.

Recently Parent Voices surveyed 175 mothers on the waiting list and 72 percent indicated they had quit their job, turned down a promotion, or refused a job opportunity because they didn’t have access to a child care subsidy. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed either quit school or reduced school hours because of child care needs — making their journey to complete their degrees that much longer.

These numbers are important indicators.

Moving beyond rhetoric, the presidential candidate hopefuls need to turn to those directly impacted by our broken child care system not just for inspiration, but for answers. They need to discover from low-income mothers how to make a first-class national child care system.

Isabel is a mother of three who for four years worked as a day laborer in California’s Central Valley, home to one of the nation’s largest agricultural regions. Isabel would drop off her children as early as 3 a.m. at a neighbor’s home while she traveled 2–3 hours to work the crops.

She would return at the end of a very long day to retrieve them, but sometimes would let them sleep at her neighbor’s, because disrupting them was not in their best interest.

What most candidates suggest is a child care program offered during the day, during traditional work hours, often with strict policies about being late. The structure is aimed at middle and upper middle class families.

How will this system address the needs of today’s workforce that include low-wage jobs in retail, food service, hospitality, and home health industries that require 24-hour work and weekend shifts?

These jobs are predominantly held by women who are the breadwinners in more than 2/3 of America’s families. Typically these workers are immigrants and woman of color.

It is time to be bold and think about a comprehensive child care system that balances the needs of working families and the emotional, social and developmental needs of children. This can’t be a one-size fits all system.

There must be a mixed delivery system where a parent can choose a child care center, a family child care home, or a family, friend or neighbor. The system needs to support those providers with living wages, training that builds quality in all settings, and is affordable to all who access it.

Policymakers in this country need to build on the pre-school systems and ensure the child care offers full-day programs and links to subsidies for night and weekend care as well as transportation to and from programs.

The only way to make sure this system is accessible, is to listen to parents and find out what they need and then build a system around them.

Many may think this is pie-in-the sky fantasy and not realistic. But investments in this system will reap immediate short-term and long-term benefits.

To close the achievement gap, the next president needs to invest in child care.

To ensure we reduce the number of people who interact with our criminal justice system, we need to invest in child care.

To secure our national security interests, we need to invest in child care.

To end poverty, we need to invest in child care.

To have a reliable workforce, we need to invest in child care.

This need is urgent. We have a moral imperative to guarantee a new generation of children is not lost to hopelessness and despair.

Posing with babies makes for cute social media comments. But the next president needs to move past photo opportunities to bring a new comprehensive child care system to life.