Parents fed up with exorbitant child-care costs and the difficulty of finding care for young babies are about to get something they may never have imagined: their own political action organization.
A Boston-based advocacy and lobbying effort is being launched Monday by the Neighborhood Villages Action Fund to push for transformative changes to the child-care system that have already been proposed on both the state and federal levels.
In Massachusetts, the Common Start bill before the Legislature would publicly fund child care, boost teachers’ wages, and limit families’ child-care costs to 7 percent of household income. In Congress, a vote is expected later this month on a $1.85 trillion Build Back Better package that would pour $400 billion into child-care subsidies and create universal pre-kindergarten for all the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds.
Massachusetts has higher costs for infant care than any state in the nation, averaging nearly $21,000 a year, behind only Washington, D.C., according to a 2020 analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
With a populace keenly attuned to the need for reliable child care after a year and a half of pandemic-related closures and crises, the Action Fund aims to harness parents’ frustration and flex newfound political muscle on Capitol Hill and on Beacon Hill.
“If you talk to parents, know parents, everyone’s talking about it,” said Latoya Gayle, senior director of advocacy for Neighborhood Villages. “I’m excited to bring all those voices together so they can be one, big loud voice, a voting bloc of parents.”
Child care has never been a cachet political issue, but the closure of centers and schools during the pandemic highlighted its centrality to the economy, particularly as women lagged in returning to the workforce. Massachusetts has 10 percent fewer child-care slots than before the pandemic, and centers still can’t fill all of them because of understaffing. Low-wage child-care workers abandoned the demanding jobs over the past year, limiting centers’ ability to fully reopen even after pandemic restrictions were eased.
Finding convenient and affordable child care was always tough in Boston’s expensive market. These days, ”It’s like finding a four-leaf clover,” said Gayle.
At the same time, child care has never been more front of mind for voters, parents, and policymakers trying to stabilize an unsteady economy post-pandemic.
The effort to mobilize parents as “child-care voters” comes amid a national wave of activism at K-12 schools. Parents fed up with pandemic policies have been pushing school boards for more parental control; Republicans rode that anger to win the governorship of Virginia last week.
It’s unclear how the political dynamics will play out on child-care funding, which could be viewed as an expensive new entitlement program by taxpayers warily eyeing Biden’s spending proposals. And advocates may have a whole new battle to fight: Democrats had hoped to push through the domestic policy package that includes child-care funding on Friday, along with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. But with moderates balking at the price tag, the House passed the infrastructure plan alone and Democrats had to settle for assurances that the second expensive package will be considered over the next two weeks, provided the Congressional Budget Office determines the costs are consistent with estimates.
Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, cofounder of Neighborhood Villages, said polls show that support for child-care funding is popular across every demographic.
“There is a very high buy-in from the American people that this is long overdue and would make a monumental impact on children and families,” she said.
Kennedy, who is married to former representative Joe Kennedy, cofounded Neighborhood Villages as a Boston-based nonprofit with early-education leader Sarah Muncey. The organization works to pilot programs and find innovative solutions for the economically challenged child-care industry. During the pandemic, when government-sponsored COVID testing was limited to K-12 school teachers, Neighborhood Villages piloted a COVID testing program for child-care staffers.
The action fund is being formed so the nonprofit can legally do political advocacy, as it partners in Massachusetts with the Common Start Coalition, which is pushing for the state bill. That coalition includes some of the business, union, and social justice leaders who negotiated a deal on paid family leave in Massachusetts in 2018.
The Common Start legislation would tap into the new federal funding and address the overlapping crises of limited staffing, underpaid workforce, and unavailability for parents, said Andrew Farnitano, a spokesman for the coalition.
“It’s not just about the fact that child care is unaffordable right now,” he said. “A lot of times the problem is, there’s just not enough child care because providers can’t afford to pay competitive wages and they’re having to close or have limited hours or classrooms.”
The Common Start legislation would mandate that early educators earn salaries on par with public school teachers.
In Massachusetts, child-care workers earned a median hourly wage of $14 an hour in 2019, according to a survey by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. An estimated 15 percent of them live in poverty. The workforce is 92 percent women and 41 percent people of color, according to the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.
Common Start advocates are working together to build grass-roots support for the bill before a virtual legislative hearing scheduled for Nov. 23. In a child-friendly twist, on the weekends leading up to the hearing, they are staging regional organizing rallies that will double as playdates. Think Frog Pond get-togethers with face painting and music, in addition to petitions and signs.
The advocacy effort would put a friendly family face on an issue that typically only has policymakers in its corner.
“This is something that’s new for the field, for families, that you feel that sense of empowerment, to say, ‘This is what I deserve’ and ‘This is what I demand,’ ” Kennedy said.