Kids play with blocks in a classroom at Kimball Elementary School during the ample free time provided as part of Washington D.C.’s public preschool programs. Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

WASHINGTON, D.C. —Ameykay Stocks, a mail carrier and mother of five, has sent all of her children, now ages 5 to 16, to her local public schools here from the year they turned 3.

Few families in America have such an option. Nationally, only 68 percent of 4-year-olds and 40 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.* Most, but not all, preschool programs receive some public funding, which makes it difficult to say exactly how many students benefit from such funding, according to Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. Hardly any children younger than 3 are enrolled in publicly funded child care of any kind. These percentages are low compared to the rest of the developed world, according the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

But Washington, D.C. is one of a growing number of cities to offer public preschool and it is more generous than most: all 4-year-olds and most 3-year-olds living here, regardless of income, get a spot in a free public preschool program.

And though district officials say they are still working on improving the program city-wide, Stocks has been thrilled with what her children have learned.

“She’s mastered puzzles on her own,” Stocks said of her now 5-year-old. “She’s not into electronics, more with the whole fantasy land of kitchen and playing with pots and pans. Last year she had a whole pet center [in her classroom] and was playing chef and taking orders.”

Stocks and her husband, a sign installer, expect all five of their children to attend college. She credits some of the kids’ academic success to having a highly qualified classroom teacher since the age of 3. But the children aren’t the only ones who’ve benefitted.

When her oldest child, Justina, was born, Stocks was working at Macy’s and Kay Jewelers and having trouble affording the $68 a week she owed for day care after receiving child care subsidies for low-income families from the city. The day care offered long hours, but Stocks needed multiple forms of public transportation to get there, then to her two jobs and then back in time to get Justina. Some days, she’d end up spending $20 she could ill afford on a taxi to get back in time.

$337 to $495 billion — one estimate of the cost of a fully funded, high-quality, universal early education system

Things became easier in the fall of 2007 when Justina, then 3, was first eligible for the preschool program at nearby Garfield Elementary. The school was easier to reach, the cost of day care (Justina still went in the mornings before school) dropped and Stocks was happier with the quality of care.

“It relieved a lot of stress off of me,” Stocks said. “We’ve had Mr. Carter – he’s been there since Justina was in kindergarten and he’s had my last child. He’s wonderful.”

Stocks’ solution is unusual, but her need is not.

Nationally, 71 percent of mothers with children younger than 18 work and 65 percent of women with children younger than 6 do, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, the percentage of women with children under 18 who participate in the work force is higher than that of any other group of women. In addition, 67 percent of children under age 6 have either two working parents or a single parent who works, according to the most recent data from Kids Count, a database containing statistics about American children. This means a lot of kids — 21.3 million of them, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — are cared for regularly by someone other than their mother.

Related: How cities are convincing voters to pay higher taxes for public preschool

Two girls answer their teachers’ questions on a book about apples during their preschool class at Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

Despite these overwhelming numbers, the federal government does little to subsidize child care. That hurts working moms, who are more likely than working dads to leave their jobs when they can’t find child care, according to a survey conducted by the liberal think tank, Center for American Progress. And working moms were 40 percent more likely than working dads to say that child care issues had negatively affected their careers.

At the same time, working moms earn just 71 cents for every dollar earned by working dads, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. Compounding the wage gap is the country’s lack of paid parental leave, which sets it apart from the rest of the developed world and disproportionately affects working moms.

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“If women work, it’s difficult to earn enough to afford child care. But if they take time out of the workforce, both their family’s short- and long-term financial stability are harmed by that choice.”

“We don’t have the supports that women need to stay in the workforce consistently if they want to,” said Julie Vogtman, the director of job quality at the National Women’s Law Center, which argues that the dual roles of child care, providing both education for children and work support for women, are equally important. “If women work, it’s difficult to earn enough to afford child care. But if they take time out of the workforce, both their family’s short- and long-term financial stability are harmed by that choice.”

The female workforce is shrinking and the birth rate is slowing, neither of which are good for the country’s bottom line. American women have been leaving the workplace slowly but steadily for the past two decades and have lost their long-held international lead. Just 57 percent of women work now, compared to a high of 60 percent in 1990, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Women have been having fewer children year over year for about the same amount of time, even though many report wanting more children than they have. Of adults (ages 20 to 45) who wanted more children, 64 percent cited the cost of child care as their primary reason for curtailing their family size, according to a 2018 survey by the New York Times.

Led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, once a single working mom herself, the Democratic presidential candidates are taking notice of these trends. Three of the leading candidates, Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, mentioned the importance of expanding child care during the South Carolina debate.

There’s no doubt that Warren’s real life predicament in 1978 — she was a recent law school grad and the divorced mother of two children — has fueled her conviction that universal child care is a national necessity. Warren’s solution, as she has frequently recounted on the campaign trail, flew in from Oklahoma in the form of her Aunt Bee. But Mary Poppins-like aunts are in short supply. Instead, Warren has insisted since early 2019 that what working mothers need is a national policy that would provide them with free child care.

71 percent — proportion of millennial voters in favor of spending more public funds on child care

In February 2020, Sanders followed suit. He released an even more expensive plan that would create universal child care and preschool for every young American, regardless of his or her family’s income. (Warren’s proposal includes a sliding scale fee to be paid by higher-income families to defray the cost to the federal government.) Like Warren, Sanders is now calling for higher wages for child care providers and higher standards for their qualifications.

Right now, the idea of free, high-quality child care for every kid is just as crazy a pipe dream for most working moms as an actual British nanny floating through their window clutching a talking umbrella.

Teacher Irene Taguian leads a 4-year-old preschool class at Lafayette Elementary School in an upscale neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

But in some states, such as Oklahoma and West Virginia, and a few cities, including New York and Washington, D.C., free preschool is becoming a reality. Universal preschool doesn’t solve the whole problem, but it makes public education available to children younger than five while closing some of the child care gap.

Related: Finding a good preschool isn’t easy: Try it.

D.C.’s preschool program, with its offer of publicly funded, full-day care for 3- and 4-year-old children, was responsible for increasing the city’s maternal labor force by 10 percentage points from 2008 to 2017, according to research published in 2018 by the Center for American Progress. Researchers determined that the bump in employment affected women at both the upper and lower ends of the pay scale. Interestingly, those in the middle, already a highly employed group, did not see much change.

Mary Charles and her husband, who have one child, live in Washington, D.C. She is an IT manager at a government office building and he is a government contractor. They are firmly middle-income earners in their city and say paying for child care in the years before their daughter could start preschool was a big stretch.

“This issue has come to the head in the last couple years because families can’t make ends meet with one full-time worker.”

“It was $20,000 a year and that’s considered not expensive,” Charles said. “For us, that was a significant part of our budget.”

To make more money, they rented out their basement, which meant sharing their kitchen. And Charles’ husband DJ’d on the weekends for extra cash. They were not eligible for income-based child care subsidies. Charles said the availability of public preschool, which Charles said has exceeded her expectations for quality, was a large part of their decision to stay in the city, rather than moving to the otherwise cheaper suburbs.

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“I think it should be available more places,” Charles said.

Nixon’s rejection of the bill reinforced the still widely held belief that if a woman works, it is up to her to arrange for a suitable substitute to care for her children although where poor women are concerned, legislators seem to forget about the supposed benefit of their staying home with children.

“We as a society are making a value judgment about who should be working,” Vogtman said. “There has been an expectation that low-income women, women of color, would and should go to work and white women, middle class women should stay home with their children.”

This judgement, signed off on by both the left and the right, has cleared the way for 50 years of “targeted” child care and preschool policies that divide working moms into two camps with different priorities and challenges.

Bags and jackets hang in cubbies at Lafayette Elementary School, one of the many locations 4-year-olds in Washington, D.C. can receive a free preschool education. Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

Accordingly, most children with working parents are not eligible for subsidized child care on any significant scale until the school year following their fifth birthday. The federal funding that does exist — about $22.2 billion — is meant to help poor families cover child care costs but only one in six eligible families get the aid because there is not enough money for all of them. And that figure does not take into account the many families who earn more than 85 percent of their state’s median income and are therefore ineligible for federal help but are still unable to cover the cost of child care.

Now that middle class moms are facing many of the same challenges low-income moms have faced for decades — unaffordable, unavailable or unsatisfactory care for their children while they must work to put food on the table — the needs of the two groups may be aligning in ways that could drive real change.

“This issue has come to the head in the last couple years because families can’t make ends meet with one full-time worker,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank. “People are beginning to realize that it’s not their fault or an inability to manage their own finances” that is making the cost of child care unaffordable for them.

46 percent — proportion of child care workers who receive some kind of public assistance

Meanwhile, the women who do provide most of the nation’s young children with care often live on the edge of poverty. The median wage for early childhood educators is $11.17 per hour or $23,240 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly half, 46 percent, make so little that they qualify for some form of public assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid and child care subsidies, according to the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

Both Warren’s and Sanders’ plans would address the qualifications and pay of child care providers and preschool teachers in addition to offering subsidized care to a broader swath of the public. On a smaller scale, so would the Child Care for Working Families Act of 2019, sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, both Democrats. The bill boasted 174 co-sponsors (including Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, a Republican, and Democratic presidential primary candidate Klobuchar), but has not made it out of committee.

All of these plans depend on the federal government spending significantly more money.

“I absolutely would be willing to pay higher taxes, not just so that my own kids could attend pre-K, but also to give the same opportunity to other kids and other moms in my position.”

President Donald Trump has presided over one of the most significant increases to subsidized child care funding — more than $3 billion since fiscal year 2017. And though Republicans in general are supportive of expanding child care subsidies, making the bolder Democratic plans a reality would require a new wealth tax that is unlikely to gain conservative support.

The Economic Policy Institute report that calculated current federal spending at $22 billion per year  estimated that a national early childhood system that compensated caretakers in line with K-12 teachers and served all age-eligible children would cost $337 to $495 billion a year. The report also predicts increased tax revenues from moms returning to work and providers earning higher incomes.

Warren’s plan, at an estimated cost of $1.07 trillion over the coming decade, would cost less on an annual basis. Her proposal includes a privately funded off-set in the form of higher-income families kicking in a portion of the cost for their kids to attend the programs. Sanders’ plan, which his campaign has estimated would $1.5 trillion would not include the private offset.

A poster lists the rules in teacher Pyrrha Hallums’ 4-year-old preschool class at Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

Still, plans as bold as theirs are what’s needed to really jolt the economy, according to experts. “I get how you think you might want to expand eligibility on the margins,” Gould said of politicians’ tendency to propose incremental solutions. But offering subsidies only to the poorest families saves the government money but “doesn’t get at the workforce issues for the providers or the parents,” she said.

Increasingly, no one is left out of the delicate balance of how to afford having kids, ensure they are well-cared for and work the hours necessary to make a living.

Jamie Smith is a lawyer by training but hasn’t worked full-time in law since her oldest, now 13, was born with severe disabilities. The mother of four said securing a place for her youngest, now 4, in her local public school’s preschool program in Washington, D.C., marks the first time in more than a decade that she is able to contemplate saying yes to exciting new work prospects.

“Up until this point, I haven’t really been able to pursue a career and I’m hoping that with these new opportunities, I’m on track to be able to do that now,” Smith said. “This is not the track I thought I would be on.”

Smith and her husband, who works as a union lawyer, live in upper Northwest, one of the city’s more upscale neighborhoods. Still, preschool was out of reach for them before their son started public school this year.

“I absolutely would be willing to pay higher taxes, not just so that my own kids could attend pre-K,” she said, “but also to give the same opportunity to other kids and other moms.”

This story about working moms was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

*Correction: The statistic from the National Center for Education Research regarding preschool attendance for 3- and 4-year-olds includes students attending both public and private preschools.

Lillian Mongeau

Lillian Mongeau is the West Coast Bureau Chief. Her future as a writer was not a forgone conclusion, according to her first grade teacher, Miss. Gill. "I would like to see her put more effort into her...

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