Let’s build a movement for quality, publicly funded childcare!

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Stephanie, a mother of four, stays at home with her children because the cost of childcare far exceeds any income she can earn from a job. Diane is a single working mother; she cannot afford to pay the full cost of preschool for her four-year-old daughter. She qualifies for state-subsidized care, but has had to turn down higher paying jobs to keep it.

Few choices exist for millions of women like these. In every state in the U.S. the cost of sending both an infant and toddler to a childcare center is more than mid-range rent payments. Including all types of care, families with kids under five pay an average of $9,300 a year. Costs have nearly doubled in 20 years, bleeding families dry.

Neither government nor large employers are making a social investment in our young. But there is something to be done about it — get together and organize!

The poverty of childcare. Low-income families, most of them racial and ethnic minorities, spend nearly 50 percent of their income on childcare. Unsubsidized school-age care is almost $10,000 a year. Infant care can cost over $20,000 — more than college!

The U.S. is close to the bottom among industrialized countries in support for early childhood education. Publicly financed programs such as Head Start reach only about 40 percent of those who are eligible. Now Congress’ across-the-board austerity is making even more cuts.

State childcare assistance is not enough to make a difference for most families. In 2011, only one in seven children was eligible to receive childcare assistance, and 22 states had waiting lists to get it! Despite the ever increasing cost, wages of full-time childcare workers remain flat at just over $21,000 per year.

There is something wrong with this picture. Tiffany, a mother of seven, says that even though her husband has a good job, they cannot afford childcare. They receive some assistance, but will be cut off if she finds a job. Tiffany says her family’s situation is “common for many other families. It is a vicious cycle that is almost impossible to break out of.”

Research shows that quality care and early education are important predictors of student success in school and life. Those who get it are less likely to drop out of high school or go to prison and more likely to be employed. So what is being done to help children whose parents can’t afford care?

President Obama has proposed expanding early childhood education by $75 billion over the next decade to help provide preschooling to low income kids. This level is far below what’s actually needed. And the plan ignores the cuts now being made.

The funding comes from a “sin tax” on tobacco products. Instead of nickel-and-diming working folks, why not redirect funds from the bloated trillion-dollar military budget? Families and children deserve better!

Quality care for all children! The U.S. has provided more childcare in the past. During World War II, Congress spent $50 million on childcare in order to get women into the workforce. Nearly 1.5 million kids were served. After the war, federal funds disappeared and centers closed.

The fight for childcare was a big part of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s. In Seattle, Radical Women helped take over a physics lab at the University of Washington, and turn it into a childcare center. When the university administration forced the center out, RW moved it to their organizing hall.

They helped create a community and student coalition to fight for university funded childcare. This alliance’s tactics of sit-ins, pickets and negotiations won money to build a childcare center near the campus.

This kind of militant spirit is exactly what is needed today. The fight for childcare is a feminist issue. Having it allows women to lead fuller, more productive lives. Mothers who cannot get childcare are pushed out of the workforce, required to stay at home or go on welfare with no hope for economic independence. Those who stay in the workforce are often forced to find makeshift arrangements or leave children unattended.

Further, 97 percent of childcare workers are women. Their incredibly low wages demonstrate how little “women’s work” is valued.

Seattle RW is again mobilizing for childcare, with its Sisters Organize for Survival (SOS) campaign. Parents, feminists and concerned activists are working to build a movement for comprehensive, state-funded childcare. SOS calls for: 24-hour, publicly funded, comprehensive childcare on a sliding scale affordable to all; living wages, benefits and union representation for childcare workers and providers; boosting funds for childcare, jobs and human services by taxing the rich and corporations and shutting down the war machine.

With sufficient funds would come good wages, so that highly trained workers could stay in the field. Taking care of children is a vital social responsibility.

A movement worth fighting for. Childcare is not only a women’s issue, but a class one. Over 60 percent of working class women are employed outside the home. The lowest paid, mostly women of color, have the most difficulty finding childcare they can afford. It is the job of organized labor, children’s advocates, feminists and leftists to demand that the needs of all parents and children be met.

Besides publicly funded childcare, large employers should be required to offer it on site. Small business childcare providers that are struggling to cover costs and provide good care should get subsidies. Unions with many women members need to take the lead in demanding that childcare be a part of every contract. The dismal state of childcare in the U.S. can be fixed. It is critical for the future of children, families and workers to fight for it.

Gina Petry is a social worker and the coordinator of the Sisters Organize for Survival campaign of Seattle Radical Women. Send her feedback at ginap77@yahoo.com.

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