Without affordable, quality childcare, many women will be unable to get the jobs they need to raise them and their children out of poverty, a panel of women elected officials told a packed house at Commerce City Hall last Saturday.
For the first time in history, half of all U.S. workers are women, yet many still earn significantly less than their male counterparts and struggle to balance work and motherhood. With fewer subsidized spots available and unable to afford the high cost of private childcare, many low-income women are doomed to lower paying jobs with flexible hours or are forced to put off college, panelists said during the “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” discussion promoting an economic agenda for working women and families.
As a single mother, Congresswoman Janice Hahn of Los Angeles said she struggled every day to balance work and time with her children: “It was a constant struggle to fill my obligations as an employee and my obligations as a mom,” she said.
“Women should not have to choose between their job and their family,” said Hahn, calling for legislation to ensure working parents have access to quality and affordable childcare, triggering applause from the audience.
The reality is that often there is no parent at home to care for the children because they need to work to support their family, she said.
Since 2007-2008, $100 million for subsidized childcare programs has been slashed from California’s budget, said State Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles. That’s 40% of the budget for programs that provide child development services to low-income families, she said incredulously.
“Childcare is a critical pillar when talking about women succeeding,” said Mitchell, former executive director of Crystal Stairs, one of the largest nonprofit childcare agencies in the state.
Mitchell said the Legislature’s Women’s Caucus plans to focus on childcare availability for working mothers and to push for directing some of the state’s nearly $5 billion General Fund surplus to increase services.
“Without childcare, we [women] can’t go to work,” the senator said. “That’s a basic fundamental right that we as working women, working families and our children should have access to.”
Mexican American Opportunity Foundation Vice President of Operations Vicky Santos told EGP it is important to invest in childcare not only because is it is tied to a child’s development, but because it is also tied to the economy.
“The brain develops at a much faster rate during early exposure” to education, she said. “If we don’t prepare our children, they’re less likely to become productive citizens,” Santos said.
MAOF provides services to about 6,500 children a day through their CALWORKS childcare, general childcare and head start programs that on average care for children for at least eight hours daily.
Money cut from the budget has not been replaced, preventing three years olds from getting a chance to become school-ready, she said. The $100 million number equates to one-quarter, or 110,000 childcare slots for low-income working families being lost, Mitchell said.
“Those chairs are still empty,” Mitchell said. “Our investment in childcare is what helps keep California working.”
Caryn Hoopingarner said she observes daily the importance of quality childcare on the development of children like her three-year old daughter, who spends nine hours a day in licensed childcare.
“More than just convenience and affordability, it has given her opportunities that I couldn’t have given her,” said the Cal State Los Angeles student. “It’s more than having enough hours to study and going to class, it’s the peace of mind knowing that she is safe for that time.”
Parents who choose not to enroll their children in licensed childcare settings or preschool, will instead often leave them in unsafe environments or unlicensed homes that do not offer quality early childhood activities or curriculum, said Santos, inferring those children could fall behind their peers who do attend quality programs. Cost is often the reason.
Although total childcare enrollment numbers have gone up, Santo said the number of state sponsored preschool slots has actually dropped dramatically. She pointed to the state’s implementation of daily fees that range from $1 to $10 a day for low-income families, which for some families means a choice between childcare and putting food on the table.
California has the highest poverty rate in the country and one in four children in the state lives in poverty, according to U.S Census data.
“Being poor is not a crime, [but] hopefully a temporary state of being that we can establish appropriate government policies to help lift and support women and their children out of poverty,” said Mitchell.
The panel, which also included Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, whose 40th includes East Los Angeles, Bell Gardens and Commerce, and El Monte Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano, said raising the minimum wage is both a women’s and family issue, and long overdue. So is pay equity, said Napolitano, pointing out that in almost every industry, men earn more than women doing the same job.
“Women work twice as hard and are still earning less,” Napolitano said. “Equal pay would provide needed security and would put more money back into the local economy, which is good for individuals, families, and businesses,” she told the 200 attendees in Commerce.
“Today nearly half of all workers in America are women, and 40 percent of working women are the primary breadwinners in their families,” said Roybal-Allard. “It is unacceptable that women on average receive 77 cents for every dollar paid to male workers.”
Hahn pointed out that the country is “radically different” than it was during the 1950s when her father Kenneth Hahn, and Roybal-Allard’s father, Edward R. Roybal served in the Los Angeles City Council. “But our policies and our economic institutions are lagging far behind our reality.”
Roybal-Allard called on the women to make their issues known to politicians, especially during an election year when politicians want their votes.
“Your vote is your voice,” she reiterated. “We know it’s your vote that hires us and your vote against us that fires us.”
Napolitano said it’s time to “wake up” and put the pressure on politicians who are voting against women and family issues, and against funding for childcare. “You have a powerful sounding voice when it comes to families, we care and we can be very loud and obnoxious when we want to,” she said. “We have to be.”
Through government funding and other types of donations, nonprofits like MAOF provide childcare services to families at a reduced cost, saving them as much as $150 a week, Santos told EGP. “This is a God-send service to some families,” she said. “If they didn’t have access to it a lot of them wouldn’t be able to work or go back to school.”
For Mitchell, the issue is not only about the cost of childcare, but also making sure children of color are being treated fairly and are in supportive enriching environments that will help set the stage to their lifelong learning experience.
“If we don’t get it right the first time, we will pay for that baby indefinitely because we sold them short in the formative years,” she said referring to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Mitchell said that she does not intend on having the same conversation on income inequality, pay equity and another war on poverty 50 years from now.
“I don’t know about you, but we need to be spending the next 50 years talking about something else,” she said passionately. “We need to solve the problem now.”
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