Another world is possible after the pandemic emergency
[Ed note: Conservative leaders in Australia just decided to make childcare free to ensure everyone who is working can access care during the pandemic crisis. The policy is set for three months but expected to last six months. Australia already gave high rebates to offset fees for lower-income parents. The new policy has no means test.]
Not having stable child care is a losing situation for families, communities and the nation. A lack of social investment in child care and early education limits future achievement for kids and opportunities for mothers. The coronavirus epidemic has dramatically changed the face of child care in Washington State, but also offers clues for repairing a steadily worsening system.
Access to childcare is essential to a viable economy
Child Care Aware Washington, a statewide referral agency, says COVID-19 has contributed to the closure of 1,303 child-care programs statewide. This is catastrophic for families and small businesses. Child-care venues that remain open are struggling to meet the need while helping children navigate the disruption.
Governor Inslee has eased pressures on providers by waiving several requirements for licensed child-care workers, including requiring federal fingerprint background checks before completing the licensing process.
The King County Council invested $2.2 million to provide free child care for eligible families of essential workers—medical professionals and support staff, first responders, child-care providers themselves, and others such as grocery, pharmacy and transit workers.
The City of Seattle has earmarked $1 million per month for child care that will serve over 700 kids of healthcare professionals, first responders and grocery store workers.
Early steps to mitigate lack of childcare are insufficient
These are important first steps, but they are not enough. All of these measures apply only to preschool and school age kids. What about the infants and toddlers of essential workers? What about the children of transit workers, taxi and rideshare drivers, and Instacart delivery personnel?
State officials are urging workers not deemed “essential” to keep their children at home. And for many parents laid off or telecommuting, this feels like the safest option. But what is wrong with this picture? Once again it assumes women will find a way to provide this essential labor free of charge as they always do – on top of working for 79% of men’s wages, plus cooking, shopping, cleaning, and caring for sick family members and elders.
Affordable, quality child care allows women to lead full and productive lives, which is why my organization, Radical Women, is committed to gaining it. Mothers who cannot get child care are pushed out of the workforce, required to stay at home with no hope for economic independence and no escape from violent situations.
Child care is a class issue
Over 60% of working-class and poor women work outside the home. There are many unions that have mostly women members and should take the lead in demanding that child care be a part of every contract. Families struggled to pay for child care even before the COVID-19 crisis blew up the economy. Ninety-seven percent of child-care workers are women, many of them people of color and immigrants. Their incredibly low wages illustrate the continued devaluing of “women’s work.”
Another world is possible
Hope is not lost. This crisis presents the opportunity for a better scenario, especially if we learn from the militant spirit of past struggles for childcare.
The fight for child care was a big part of the second wave of feminism. In Seattle, Radical Women helped take over a physics lab at the University of Washington that was turned into a childcare center. When the university administration forced the center out, it was moved to Radical Women’s organizing hall. Then the feminists created a community and student coalition to fight for university-funded childcare. Through this alliance’s tactics of sit-ins, pickets and negotiations, money was won to build a child care center near the campus.
Childcare is a public policy issue that needs a public solution
The ultimate solution needed now and going forward is a system of publicly funded, free, 24-7 child care available to all families. Washington State must overhaul its regressive revenue structure to tax the rich and corporations to pay for it. Working-class and poor people lose the most in the current scenario.
Change the tax code
Nearly 60% of all wages and capital gains paid to Washingtonians go to only 20% of the people. In 2018, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that people in the bottom fifth of incomes in Washington State pay 17.8% of their income in taxes compared with the 3% paid by the richest Washingtonians.
With sales tax revenue down and state coffers depleted, now is the perfect time to push to change the state constitution to allow taxes on wealth—as all but 9 other states do.
Recognize childcare as valuable labor
Large employers should provide child care on site. Enacting a state-wide policy of 30 hours work for 40 hours pay would also recognize the load on working parents and child-care providers.
In the current statewide emergency, child-care programs must be significantly expanded and opened to all workers and children of all ages. This means fully funded and expanded food and support services including for children with disabilities and those experiencing abuse. No more piecemeal measures with different requirements!
Extra funding should be offered to small child-care businesses struggling to stay open. Families who are providing free child care in their homes should receive state compensation and social support for each child now and permanently.
Childcare providers and parents know what is needed
Laid-off child-care providers should be hired as unionized public employees to staff programs. According to a report by Child Care Aware, only 1.1% of the state budget is currently allocated for early learning and child care. By asking the rich to pay their share, funds would be available to meet these needs.
Child-care workers are at great risk of infection and need the best safety precautions using the latest scientific practices and recommendations from the workers themselves. This includes plenty of cleaning supplies, protective equipment, adequate space to spread children out and enough staff to reduce staff-to-child ratios. Unionization is crucial to give workers a strong position to negotiate protections.
Take the first step
The failing Washington State child-care system can be fixed. As a first step, let’s put the pressure on Governor Inslee and Washington State legislators to change the tax structure to provide the funding for child-care and all necessary social services.
Times of crisis can produce immense changes. Such changes are critical for the future of children, families and workers.
Gina Petry is a Social Worker, Radical Women Organizer, former employee of Child Care Resources, and coordinator of the Sisters Organize for Survival child-care campaign.
Percentage of women in workforce:
Percentage of women childcare workers: