Here is the deal: my kids are both in high school. I can feel the ache and hope that is coming: the graduations, my empty arms, home, washer, refrigerator. My empty nest.
I am a long, long way from that wild time of searching for childcare when they were age zero to 5 — heck, conception to kindergarten might be more apropos. But even now, despite having nearly-grown sons, my 2020 vote will go to the candidate with the best plan to fix America’s broken child care system.
I’m not really a single-issue voter. Not at all. In fact, I care deeply about lots of issues: suicide rates, mental health, toxic masculinity, #metoo, common sense gun laws, mass incarceration, college costs, equality, health care, and general policies that create a society full of good people living good lives. Yet all of my issues, there’s one that I would wager would produce positive outcomes across the board and impact all of our issues — if only America would invest in positive, healthy, loving, and intentional early childhood development.
When my kids were little, we patchworked childcare together each week (and sometimes every day!) with a combination of trade-offs, shuffles, favors, and paid help. We couldn’t afford the well known, magical in-home daycare where the kids made organic food with the loving couple who ran the program. My mom moved in with us after her divorce and we all banded together to figure out childcare each day. Sometimes, that meant relying on Sesame Street’s blend of entertainment, education, and engagement. Thank God for Sesame Street. I would vote Sesame Street 2020 if I could. And Mr. Rogers as VP for sure.
As parents, we did our best. So do most people. But the system is broken, and not just for lower-income folks like we were at the time. The cost is enormous, and it’s risen more than 70% since the 1980s, more than college tuition in a majority of states. Availability is often nil — parents are regularly told they should have gotten on a waitlist before conception. Educators are burning out, with the average program lasting just three to five years and average childcare workers earning $11.50 an hour.
This leads to compromises. One parent quits his (or more often her) job because the return on investment isn’t there. Staying home to care for kids is cheaper. Or both parents have to work, but can’t afford or access quality care, so they compromise and accept an unlicensed program. Add in the chaos of having a sick kiddo, and the house of cards that is America’s childcare system crumbles. It is an impossible equation where no one wins. Not parents. Not educators. And certainly not, our kids.
Society at large isn’t winning either.
A child’s brain is most impressionable during the first three years of life, forming more than 1 million new neural connections every second. This has huge implications on everything from rates of incarceration and suicide to high school graduations. It’s also a major workforce issue, with U.S. businesses losing $3 billion annually due to employee absenteeism that is the result of childcare breakdowns.
A comprehensive early childcare solution is the biggest lever to pull to effect change, at all levels, for all parties. All Americans need to understand that this problem isn’t one that can wait until you have your own kids, or forget about once your kids are grown up. We are far beyond that.
My sons are 17 and 14. My oldest will be voting in the next presidential election, and guess what — the issues that matter to him are also directly impacted by the outcomes driven by high-quality early childcare solutions. My son and I are about equidistant from worrying about daycare, and yet here we are, staring down the ballot box at the same issues Washington should have addressed decades ago.
I am not (fingers crossed) a grandmother yet. But I embody many other great roles — a mom, wife, an entrepreneur, a friend, daughter. There’s not one hat I would take off. And that’s why I can’t give up. Every role carries a certain responsibility and weight, and sometimes it is all very, very heavy. I am often overwhelmed with the needs around me. There is so much to build. I want to fix too many things, right now, the broken hearts in Dayton and El Paso, and all around our country.
For each problem I long to fix, there are a lot of things I would love to break. To maximize and balance my building, fixing and breaking urges, I need to find the most elegant, effective and empowering place to put my energy. I need one thing to dig into that affects each of my (often contradictory) roles. It is a bit like a magic trick. America, we have one hat, and many rabbits need pulling out of it. One solid plan could solve so many issues.
So woo me, candidates. Show me your plans. Show me you care. Show my son. Show me that you understand the foundational work that needs to be done. If we want to talk about infrastructure, start here. Our future is crumbling. Fix it.
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