Investing in Our Littlest Learners
By Sarah Rittling
We celebrated Mother’s Day this month. And after the past 14 months living through this pandemic, I see a lot of things very differently as a mother, as a woman, and as an American. Women have played such a crucial role in caring for the people around them this past year. Mothers, sisters, teachers, grandmothers, co-workers – you name it. In my experience, it is primarily women who have been the glue holding everything together for families, businesses, and our economy. The vast majority don’t even question this. Yet, here we are, in 2021, after a year where millions of women have been forced to or have made the difficult decision to leave the workforce – often because they lacked the capacity to truly fulfill all of the care demands placed on them. And now we are fielding rhetoric about whether parents (see: women) should prioritize caregiving over career.
Some recent doozies:
- Idaho State Rep. Charlie Shepherd: “I don’t think anybody does a better job than mothers in the home, and any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going.”
- JD Vance: “This is class war against normal people. Most people when they have young kids, they want to spend more time at home with their children, not be forced into the workforce. When you compare that to the words of Susan Rice who says this plan is meant to get as many parents – especially mothers – into the workforce, I stop and say, well, why do we want that?”
- Tucker Carlson: “Elizabeth Warren argues that the American dream is not raising your own children. The American dream is outsourcing their upbringing to government caretakers, while their parents scurry back to work as good little servants of globalized market capitalism… Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow: more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, and fewer families formed in the next generation.”
My day job is Executive Director of a federal advocacy organization, First Five Years Fund, which for over a decade has focused on increasing access to high-quality care and education for our littlest learners. We should have everything in our favor: there’s libraries of research and indisputable brain science demonstrating the benefits to children’s healthy development; Nobel laureates have studied and reported on the economic return on investment; the broader business community has identified the importance of these years from the perspective of “the workforce today and the workforce of tomorrow;” and voters and policymakers on both sides of the aisle agree we should be doing more to ensure families who need it have access to high-quality early learning and care opportunities. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, creating chaos for millions of working parents and devastating America’s already-unstable child care industry. This crisis also, however, reinforced for the nation how essential child care is for families and our economy.
It is an inescapable economic reality in this country that many parents must work. It is also true that many parents want to work – including moms! Almost 70% of children in America have all available parents in the workforce. Why, then, is it acceptable for these people – mostly men – to publicly shame and demonize the choices women make for themselves and their families by condemning child care, which is literally essential to working parents’ ability to work?
It isn’t in my DNA to give people like Tucker Carlson any airtime. At least I didn’t think so. But given the audience of this unbelievable group of women who care deeply about solutions, supporting each other, and improving the overall position we find ourselves in, I guess I am writing today to vent. The decision to go to work or stay home should be made because we choose to, not because we lack options. But as women, too often that decision is made for us due to a lack of affordable, quality child care.
Fortunately, Republicans and Democrats from Senator Ernst to Senator Warren are working to prioritize the child care industry. In fact, every single pandemic relief proposal from both parties included child care. Even before the pandemic forced us to recognize the needs of America’s children, families, employers, and child care providers, Congress in recent years has taken an unprecedented interest in finding bipartisan solutions to challenges in early learning and care. I have full faith that we’ll see more from Congress this year.
I am fully willing to engage in a meaningful policy discussion about how best to ensure families can access the care options that work best for them. In fact, I’m begging for one! What I won’t do is entertain the idea that we shouldn’t be making it easier for women to work.
Right now, we have the attention of Congress and the Administration on this issue, and it’s up to us to be part of that solution so we drown out the voices of those who would prefer to take us back to the 1950s.
Sarah Rittling is the Executive Director at the First Five Years Fund.