Demonstrators gathered Saturday morning on Boston Common carrying babies, toddlers, and a question: Why is child care for the youngest among us so hard to find and afford?
Efrain Vazquez, a father from Holyoke, shared his story with the crowd as he held his 17-month-old son, Zion.
“We’re struggling trying to get day care for this young man,” he said. “We’re on the waiting list. We’ve been on the waiting list for a long time.”
Vazquez said in an interview that he and Zion’s mother take turns watching their son and juggling their work schedules while they wait for an opening at a child care program that they can afford.
“They charge an arm and a leg,” he said.
Vazquez’s predicament was a familiar one among the demonstrators who participated in the rally organized by the Common Start Coalition, a network of groups that is pushing state lawmakers to adopt publicly funded, universal early-childhood education.
The status quo, the advocates said, cannot stand. The average annual cost for infant care in Massachusetts is more than $20,000, and on average families spend 30 percent more on infant and toddler care than they do on rent, according to a study released last month by a special state legislative commission. Despite those high costs, the industry pays low wages to its workers, whose pre-pandemic, average annual salary was just over $30,000, the study said.
The study offered recommendations to improve early education that could cost up to $1.5 billion annually.
The Common Start Coalition has endorsed the commission’s recommendations as a “reasonable place to start,” said Andrew Farnitano, a spokesman.
“We think we can get started in this year’s budget. We’ve heard promising comments from Senate and House leadership that they’re looking at this seriously, and we’re here today to urge them to put a down payment on this vision in this year’s budget,” said Farnitano, who spoke while holding his infant daughter, Tessa.
Farnitano said his daughter just finished her first week in day care. Annually, he said her tuition will cost close to $30,000.
“We really like the center. The teachers are great. We feel like we’re leaving her in a safe place that we can count on, but the cost is not sustainable,” Farnitano said.
The coalition supports legislation unveiled last year that would publicly fund child care, boost teachers’ wages, and limit families’ child-care costs to 7 percent of household income. Families with children ages 5 and younger would see the most benefits. In Massachusetts, that’s about 425,000 children, according to the coalition.
The legislation does not include a funding plan, but advocates said they expect federal money would help cover the cost. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education is currently reviewing the legislation.
Last month, House Speaker Ronald Mariano called the $1.5 billion price tag for a sweeping overhaul a “bit staggering,” but suggested that lawmakers could take certain elements of the proposals to “do right away.”
The landscape for federal funding to pay for early education and child care has shifted. Late last year, advocates had hoped their efforts would get a big boost from President Biden’s social spending and climate bill known as “Build Back Better.”
The version of the bill passed by House lawmakers promised to provide Massachusetts nearly $1.3 billion to pay for child care over three years, but the legislation was effectively frozen in December when US Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said he wouldn’t back it. Without Manchin’s support, the bill didn’t have the necessary votes from all 50 Democratic senators to become law.
On Thursday, US Representative Katherine Clark of Revere sent a letter to Biden urging him to reduce child care costs for families down to 7 percent of their annual income, provide universal pre-kindergarten to all 3- and 4-year-olds, and invest in the early childhood workforce, her office said. More than 150members of Congress joined Clark in signing the letter.
“As you know, the high costs of child care and the difficulty of finding quality, affordable child care are challenges facing too many families across the country,” the letter said.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, who is running for governor as a Democrat, was among the demonstrators on Boston Common. Early education and care should be held in the same esteem, she said, as public education for students from kindergarten to 12th grade.
The Massachusetts economy can’t thrive on an early-education system that charges families exorbitant fees while paying wages that qualify some workers for public assistance, Chang-Díaz said.
“Massachusetts is already paying for early education and care,” she said. “It’s just that parents are paying for it alone. Workers are paying for it in the form of poverty wages and their forgone prosperity and stability. And the economy is paying for it in the absence of a workforce.”
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.