Back in January, I was on the phone with Amethyst Place Executive Director Kim Davis and Program Director Julie Carmichael, interviewing them for a blog post for this site. As we were chatting, Davis told me she was looking at the television screen for the security cameras to the parking lot of the nonprofit’s apartment complex.
“The lot is full,” she sighed.
It was 2 p.m. on a weekday, but it had snowed in Kansas City the night before and the Kansas City School District had called off school. It may have made sense nobody had left for work that day, but it’s actually indicative of a larger societal problem: The cost and availability of child care keeps families locked in poverty, especially single moms with small children.
I had wanted to talk about the issue of child care in the first few weeks of launching this blog because I had anticipated it would become a policy issue in this administration, mostly due to Ivanka Trump. It’s also an issue dear to my heart. However, I never could have predicted how tumultuous everything would be in the first few weeks of this administration, and other topics took precedence.
I feel like we’re settling into a routine here, if we can call chaos “routine.” Every day the Trump administration does or tweets something ridiculous. People get outraged. People react in protest. The administration denies or walks back. The next day the cycle starts over.
The problem with this is it sucks the oxygen away from other important issues that we need to talk about as a society. So, starting now, I want to reclaim some of the debate and talk about an issue I care about: the intersection of child care and poverty.
Listening to those who work with women
I met Davis and Carmichael by doing several stories at Amethyst Place, a nonprofit in Kansas City, Mo., which works with women who are recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. They have some great insight about why people, especially women, end up trapped in the cycle of poverty. I have learned so much from them.
Amethyst Place is an apartment complex which provides a home, mentoring and services to women in recovery, many of whom are also working to get their children back from foster care. In order to get your kids back, you have to prove you have a physical, stable home. Amethyst Place supports women establishing their households by providing an environment which will support them in their recovery.
Before a woman moves in, volunteers decorate and furnish each apartment especially for her family. When the woman graduates out of the program, she takes all of the furniture with her to her next home. If you think about it, one of the challenges for people trying to get back on their feet is not only finding and securing a place to live, but also affording all of the stuff you need for a home.
The whole point of these services is to help women break the cycle and build better lives for their families. Amethyst Place is tremendously successful at it. However, there’s one stumbling block for nearly every woman coming through their doors: finding and affording child care.
The child care cost dilemma
This is no new revelation if you have kids. You likely already know how expensive it is to afford good child care and how difficult it is to find. In fact, in its research, the Women’s Foundation of Kansas City found that access to quality, affordable child care was a concern for women that transcended all socioeconomic levels, as well as the rural versus urban divide.
Carmichael told me she believes part of the issue is that child care, especially infant care, is not a “free-market model.” That is, companies are not going to make money off providing infant care thanks to requirements for low staffing ratios for infants. Paying for extra staff increases the cost so companies just won’t offer it. It leads to fewer child care openings for infant care. Still, I don’t think anyone would advocate that those regulations, which protect kids, are a bad thing.
Many states do offer subsidies for poor families, but those aren’t structured in a way to help people get back on their feet. You’d think the subsidies would gradually go down as a woman makes more money. Actually, at least in Missouri, they don’t. Women lose their child care subsidies when they make just $11.88 an hour. This is something those who work with families in poverty call “the cliff effect.” As soon as they make enough money to start getting ahead, they lose their benefits so dramatically that it actually puts them further into poverty.
This traps many women from taking full-time jobs. Carmichael has watched women sob because they had to turn down raises because those raises would actually put them further in the red each month. That confines many single mothers to working only part-time or staying on government assistance and going to school until their kids are old enough to be in a more affordable child care situation.
“Child care dictates whether they go to work,” said Davis.
Which is why the fact that on a snow day in Kansas City the entire parking lot was still full is significant. When school was out unexpectedly, the women couldn’t go to work because they had no one to care for their kids. For most of them, since they’re in part-time jobs, that means they’re not getting paid, or worse, they’ll be fired. Some are forced to chose between staying home themselves or leaving their children with family members or friends. Carmichael points out that if those alternative child care options are not responsible, it can set children up for abuse or neglect.
Fixing the issue
Amethyst Place has worked to take on this challenge by starting a program called 100 Jobs for 100 Moms. Employers who are part of the program hear the woman’s life story and agree to act as a mentor, helping women navigate the workplace, their own sobriety and their home life. So far, they’ve placed 34 women with ten employers. One of the first women placed with a company is now off government assistance entirely. Many of the employers are extremely flexible with child care issues, however, that still doesn’t resolve the underlying issues affecting women.
Ivanka Trump has suggested she would like to see six weeks of paid maternity time and a tax credit for child care as part of a tax reform package. We haven’t heard much about that since January. I think there does need to be a discussion about maternity/paternity time that would enable parents to spend time with their newborn without going broke. And while tax credits will help many families, they will not help women who are in poverty.
I don’t know what the best answer is for solving this issue. I’d like to start a discussion about it as this is an issue that affects all families in the United States, no matter how much you make or where you live. In my mind, making sure families have access to affordable, dependable child care gives all families—and our country– a greater opportunity for success.
Postscript: I know there are other important issues that are being lost in the chaos of each day’s news cycle. I hope to keep writing about those. And I’d love to hear from you about the issues you care about that are being lost as well. What do you wish we were discussing right now?