It won’t be easy to fix America’s patchwork child care system. But reform advocates say there’s cause for optimism that big ideas such as paid family leave could finally happen.
There’s growing recognition of the problem in the business community. Last month, ReadyNation—a group of business executives—released a study showing the child care crisis costs the U.S. economy $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue every year.
Massachusetts and Washington state just passed paid family leave laws. In Illinois, new Gov. JB Pritzker wants to expand publicly funded preschool and access to child care assistance payments.
In Washington, President Donald Trump called for paid family leave in this week’s State of the Union. A new $12 million day care for House members and their staff just opened on Capitol Hill.
Will this momentum turn into action for Illinois families? It’s too soon to say. But no one can accomplish lasting reform alone—not an ambitious governor, or teachers, or the business community, said Miranda Lin, an early childhood education expert at Illinois State University’s College of Education.
“It has to be everybody. Everybody has to be on the same page. It has to be bipartisan,” she said.
There’s precedent for big ideas turning into big policy. The Head Start early childhood education program, which serves over 33,000 low-income kids in Illinois, was established as an anti-poverty measure in the mid-1960s. It grew again in the 1990s with the launch of Early Head Start.
And 50 years ago, Congress actually did pass bipartisan legislation to create universal, federally subsidized day care. It attracted unusually broad support from labor, religious, women's liberation and public interest groups. But President Nixon vetoed it, caving to a bizarre mix of political pressures that involved his trip to China and concerns about indoctrinating kids.
That left the U.S. with its current patchwork system—called "broken" by Child Care Aware of America in a sweeping 2018 study showing parents are being crushed by child care costs.
Paid Family Leave
While it doesn’t solve long-term child care issues, paid family leave is high on the wish list for many reform advocates.
Today, many—but not all—U.S. workers have access to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). But three months without pay is a difficult price to pay, and it leads many workers to come back prematurely, said Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy at Chicago-based Women Employed, which advocates on workplace issues.
"It would be good if employers can recognize that all of their workers have to balance work and family. When I say that, I’m emphasizing both men and women,” Josephs said. “All of their workers have something outside of the job. They can be dedicated, responsible, high-producing employees, but yeah, we have something else. There needs to be that acknowledgement."
The U.S. is one of a few developed countries without a national paid parental leave law. France offers fully paid leave to new mothers for six weeks before and 10 weeks after birth. When parents return to work, children can go to government day cares, which often have capacity issues. Parents pay on a sliding scale based on their income.
In Sweden, which has some of the most generous child care benefits in the world, parents are entitled to 480 days of partially paid leave when a child is born or adopted.
“They pay a lot of taxes,” said Lin, the ISU professor, who has traveled and researched early childhood education issues extensively. “They don’t mind paying taxes. Because they know that education is the key for all the kids to pursue their dreams or whatever they want to achieve.”
In Washington, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., enthusiastically shouted "Yes!" when Trump raised the prospect of national paid leave in his State of the Union. She supports a proposal that would allow people to postpone Social Security benefits to use that money to take parental leave now. Some Democrats oppose that, as does the Family Values @ Work coalition. Josephs' Women Employed is a member of that coalition.
The "proposal is deeply flawed, offering too little money to too few people from an unsustainable source," the coalition said.
After the State of the Union, Family Values @ Work said it's "encouraging to see so many politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize the need for a national paid leave program."
"With any legislation, however, the devil is in the details, and the plan proposed by the administration to date is devilish indeed," the coalition said in a statement. "We need paid family and medical leave that values all care and every family, with a fair and sustainable funding method. The plan proposed by the administration thus far addresses leave only for parents of a new child, excluding the 75 percent of leave-takers who need time to care for their own serious illness or that of a loved one. It relies on funding through state unemployment insurance funds and offers amounts that are too small for most families, a formula that would result in cuts to those who get laid off. We need solutions that eliminate, not exacerbate, existing disparities by income, race and gender."
With no federal law, a few states have stepped in. California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island offer paid family leave. Massachusetts and Washington state will soon join them. It generally works like unemployment insurance or Social Security, where small payroll contributions are collected for future use, Josephs said.
“So no employer is required to pay a person’s full salary when they take this longer leave. A lot of money is collected (in advance). It’s put in a pot, and then when you need the leave, workers are entitled to a portion of their wage,” Josephs said. It’s usually around two-thirds of one’s salary.
By providing 12 weeks of paid family leave—to care for a new baby or a sick relative—employers might avoid seeing employees quit a permanent job to address a temporary issue. Josephs points to long medical leaves taken by former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (after a stroke) and United CEO Oscar Munoz (heart problems). The Senate survived. The airline survived. And neither man was punished for taking leave, Josephs said.
“Twelve weeks may seem like a long time. But over the course of an employee’s tenure—a lot of people work many years—12 weeks goes by in an instant,” Josephs said.
A government-required paid leave is also fairer to small businesses, she said.
“For employers, particularly smaller ones who aren’t able to afford to provide this paid leave (on their own), it equalizes the benefits playing field by allowing them to be part of the state (system), and allowing their workers some partially paid leave,” Josephs said.
Changes in Illinois
Josephs said advocates are actively working on paid family leave in Illinois and are encouraged by Pritzker’s support for early childhood education on the campaign trail.
“We’re working with the administration and the offices that would enforce it and the legislature,” she said.
During the campaign, Pritzker promised to increase access to the state’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). It now helps over 118,000 families in Illinois, including close to 700 in McLean County. But the income eligibility rules are strict. A family of four must make less than $46,440 annually to qualify. Pritzker said he wants to raise that income cap to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Those working in child care in Bloomington-Normal say the state should also be less heavy-handed with how it regulates licensed providers. In the past year the state has increased the number of classes and other licensing requirements for child care workers, said April Steigerwald, director of curriculum at Little Jewels Learning Center in Bloomington-Normal.
It’s become a burden for her workers, she said.
“I just kind of feel like these people at the state level don’t know exactly what it is we do day to day sometimes. Instead of just putting these requirements on us, maybe come spend more time with us and see exactly what it is we do. We’re not saying our teachers are great and don’t need that (training). But I just wish sometimes they’d be a little more hands-on before decisions like that are made,” Steigerwald said.
There remains a lack of understanding among policymakers about the importance of early childhood education and why the first five years of life matter so much, said Katie Stelle-Mardis, owner of Katie’s Kids Learning Centers, which has two locations in Bloomington-Normal.
“Oftentimes we see policymakers making changes, and us in the field are often like, ‘Boy, they’ve never stepped foot into our shoes.’ Clearly. Or they wouldn’t have made that decision,” Stelle-Mardis said.
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