While working at a public daycare during the pandemic, I once watched a coworker take an unopened cafeteria lunch out of the trash and eat it. Few of us could afford to order food if we wanted it, and those of us who packed our own were not given breaks to eat it. Some of my coworkers have quit because they were forced to work on days when public schools were closed—they could not bring their own children into the program and could not afford childcare elsewhere. Children have also dropped out of our public after-school program because their parents could no longer afford it or Social Services stopped paying for it. This is not unusual. In fact, a full 63 percent of working parents cannot afford childcare at all.
Childcare in America is provided by a patchwork system of unpaid family members, unregulated home-based daycares, for-profit centers, religious centers, after-school programs, and means-tested non-profits that operate like private businesses. The shortages created by this patchwork system not only hurts children, who may be placed in dangerous situations because their parents have no other options, but this system also hurts childcare workers who often lack adequate resources and compensation for their jobs. Many childcare workers in America are not paid a living wage and cannot afford to place their own children in the programs they work for. Many workers in the few federally-funded childcare programs that exist are not offered paid maternity leave. Even within public schools, many childcare workers make $10 or less per hour. While teachers are salaried, teacher’s aides, recess aides, special needs aides, cafeteria workers, and janitorial staff are often not. On average, childcare workers do not receive benefits from their employer, including the lower-tiered workers within public schools—over half of all childcare workers utilize Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid.
Low-wage workers supervise children during recess. They pack meals and distribute them to hungry kids. These workers ran the public childcare centers that popped up during the pandemic while teachers worked from home, revealing the stark inequalities and class divisions that exist among different groups of childcare workers.
The absence of free and accessible public childcare in the U.S. weighs heavily on working-class families, and forces us to rely on our own unpaid labor. This makes it more difficult for the working class to organize. Responding to the need for childcare where I live, I set up free weekly care sessions for members of our trailer park tenants’ union. I provided snacks, organized playtime, and bought constructive toys and books for the kids to read. This gave one of our main tenant organizers, a single mother of four, time to focus on organizing a safety petition among our community members. Care sessions were open to all children in the park and we informed their parents about it when door-knocking for signatures. While our childcare sessions gave working parents a well-deserved break and opportunities to organize, they were not enough to address the gaps in our childcare system. Our childcare system is broken and needs to be rebuilt. This is why I joined Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
In contrast to our current patchwork system, a universal childcare program would address the needs of children and the needs of childcare workers through publicly-funded centers democratically staffed by workers paid a living wage. By making worker-run universal childcare a national priority, DSA can begin to level gender and class inequalities and improve the lives of families in America.
The struggle for universal childcare in the U.S. is not new. In 1940, Congress passed the Lanham Act creating public daycares to enable mothers to join the workforce and support the war effort. But after the war ended, funding was cancelled and the centers closed. In 1965, the Johnson administration created Head Start, which operates non-profit childcare centers for low-income families, as a part of its “War on Poverty” campaign. In addition to being chronically underfunded, however, Head Start is not universal and cannot adequately address childcare needs. One attempt to address these deficits, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have built sliding-scale public daycares with five times the budget of Head Start across the U.S., was vetoed by Nixon in 1971. This dealt a devastating blow to the idea of universal childcare at the federal level and since then, no such bill has come close to Congressional approval.
Since the 1970s, universal childcare battles have largely been fought at the state level. Today, Oklahoma provides free preschool for four-year-olds, with some 91 percent of children in meatpacking towns using this public resource. Florida, New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Washington D.C. also provide free preschool for four-year-olds as well, with New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington D.C. offering means-tested programs for three-year-olds—with varying degrees of success due to inconsistent funding or flawed voucher systems.
One bright spot in the fight for universal childcare is the recent passage of a universal preschool program in Multnomah County, Oregon, where Portland is located. By a large margin, voters in the 2020 election approved the creation of a free, year-round, full-day preschool program for all three- and four-year-olds in the county, regardless of income. Multnomah County’s program will also rectify the wage gap in early childhood education: while Oregon kindergarten teachers earn an average of $74,700 per year, Oregon preschool teachers make only $32,430. This program will pay preschool teachers 135 percent of the local minimum wage, starting at $19.91 an hour in 2022. This would represent a $7/hour increase from the median wage for Oregon’s childcare workers in 2019. Funded by a tax on top-earning households, Multnomah County’s universal preschool program provides a model for other counties, cities, and states looking to pass similar measures. While the Multnomah County example is far from perfect—it does not include provisions for infants and toddlers—it is a significant step in the right direction.
Portland DSA played a big role in passing this universal preschool program, and their success could be replicated in other parts of the country. DSA members in Portland, along with community partners in the Universal Preschool NOW coalition, collected over 32,000 signatures during the pandemic to put this program on the ballot. At DSA’s upcoming National Convention, my “Childcare for All” proposal, Resolution #23, and its Amendment #10 (written with Universal Preschool Now organizers) calls for the creation of a staff position and funding to help local chapters get similar initiatives off the ground in their cities and states.
Childcare workers, parents, and socialists across the country can imitate what Portland DSA has done in Oregon. They should be able to look to the largest socialist organization in the U.S. for help. If the “Childcare for All” proposal passes at this year’s National Convention, it will jumpstart campaigns for universal childcare programs across the country. Families need universal childcare now, to ensure that every child receives quality care, and to ensure that every childcare worker makes a living wage and no longer has to starve.
We need to levy these demands for universal childcare not just on the state, but on our employers and our unions. While salting my childcare job, I was able to pull multiple conservative women into the teacher’s union that covered us. Our informal workers’ committee, with the help of Adam Ryan from Target Workers Unite, drafted a petition asking for raises and breaks on the job. Our demands were ignored by both our employer and our union. We struggled to figure out how to find other childcare workers to join us outside of our small, rural elementary school. Having a campaign like Childcare for All would act as a magnet for other childcare workers hidden away in their homes or disenfranchised in bureaucratic unions—and it would help bring a more diverse range of childcare-working women into DSA once they see that we actually support their material interests.
Popularizing Childcare for All could also jumpstart the process of forming militant childcare workers’ unions in our state. Virginia has a unionization rate of only 4.4% and is the worst state in the country for workers while being the best state in the country for businesses. Our campaign, DSA’s Virginia Childcare for All (VAC4A), will encourage childcare workers in public, private, and religious centers alike to form workers’ committees to agitate for the legislation we put forward. We will do this by setting up meetings with all childcare workers interested through an organized statewide campaign, led by DSA members and childcare workers alike. When the time is right, we will use the statewide Virginia DSA structure to make this a priority in other Virginia DSA chapters besides our chapter in the New River Valley. In this way, we can build out worker power and organize the unorganized across Virginia.
Other states with higher union density rates, where ballot initiatives are also possible—such as Oregon and California—will also be able to apply for this “Childcare for All” fund and use their state’s existing unions as a base to gather signatures and pressure their legislative bodies. In California, childcare providers waged an almost two-decade campaign in order to form their union, Child Care Providers United (CCPU). California DSA chapters could reach out to CCPU, whose workers support universal childcare, because it will benefit their work lives and their communities. The amended version of the “Childcare for All” resolution—with its pool of funding which DSA working groups can use to match their fundraising efforts, and its dedicated staffing—could help start these dynamic and flexible efforts for universal childcare, from coast to coast, through cities and small towns. Let’s do this for kids and for parents, and for the workers who have dedicated their lives to helping care for the most vulnerable members of our society.
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Sarah R. is a communist, artist, and childcare worker living on John's Creek Mountain in Craig County, Virginia. She is a Wobbly and co-chair of New River Valley DSA and co-founder of DSA's Episcopal Caucus.