Valuing our youngest residents

This column originally appeared in The Alpena News on October 21, 2020

I’m a young kid on the car ride home. My mom has just picked me up from daycare. I must have had a tough day, because I pout and ask from the back seat, “Mom, why do you have to go to work? Can’t you stay at home to take care of me?”

While I don’t remember her exact response, I remember the feeling — this guilt trip I was trying was not going to work.

The conversation led to more questions than answers. Why didn’t I ask my dad this question? Why did I feel that my mom should stay home? Why did some moms have to work a job and others didn’t? Are these fair choices?

Decades later, families — and especially moms — are still asking the same questions.

Last week, I was able to attend the virtual ZERO TO THREE conference. The conference connects people across the world to share strategies for advancing the well-being of infants and toddlers. In my role at Kids Count in Michigan, I was excited to learn how policy change could improve the lives of kids and families.

In session after session, the presenters spoke about the vital importance of early care and education to child brain development and to the economic and social well-being of families. I thought back to how having child care meant my mom could provide for our family and build her own career.

Despite all of the evidence, early childhood educators and caregivers continue to be undervalued. And the experiences of families with young children, especially those with lower incomes and who face systemic racism, have often gone unaddressed by policymakers. Kids Count in Michigan and the Michigan League for Public Policy have highlighted those issues. The cost of child care is a burden to many families. In Alpena County, the cost of full-time child care per month has averaged about 30% of the income from a full-time minimum wage job in recent years. The numbers are similar in other counties in the area, and research shows that care is even more expensive and less available for infants and toddlers.

As a result, many parents rely on friends and family to provide care for their kids, or choose not to work at all. Since the pandemic, many families have had to give up work to take care of kids, with women being most affected. Due to a long history of racist policies, women of color, particularly Black and Latina women, face the greatest burden of any group, as they are “more likely to be the family breadwinners, more likely to hold low-paying jobs, more likely to be considered essential workers, and more likely to live in child care deserts.” Black and Latina women also comprise a large portion of both child care workers and providers.

Families are having to make unfair choices, if they have any choice at all.

During the pandemic, families have also experienced work, school, and play blending together at home. As my mom, an early childhood educator herself, has said, “Learning doesn’t start and stop at school.”

Young children, just like their K-12 peers, learn and grow each day, throughout the day. The many early childhood educators at the conference acknowledged a need for policymakers to see early education as on par with K-12 and take action, increasing funding for wages, training and development.

Even though early childhood educators provide essential services to families, those jobs are undervalued. Data show early childhood educators make tens of thousands of dollars less than K-12 educators.

As we look at the policy needs of young kids and their families, we’ve recently seen some big wins worth celebrating, like the income eligibility for child care subsidies raising to serve more families in the 2021 state budget.

We must continue the momentum.

To not only recover but thrive after this pandemic, we must value babies, infants, and their families, as well as the caregivers and educators working alongside them. What could that look like? Universal child care and paid family leave? A child income benefit and living wages? Culturally relevant programs for families of all backgrounds?

We should envision the future we want for our youngest community members and demand it.

After learning so much more about her profession, I texted my mom and asked if she had heard of the ZERO TO THREE conference.

It turned out she had attended herself some years ago. While I never thought I would end up going to the same conference as my mom, it makes sense, after some reflection.

We all start off at age zero, and caring for those littlest ones is some of the most important work there is.

Here’s to asking the tough questions, and pushing forward when the answers leave us wanting more.


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