‘Our Goal Is Universal Child Care in NYS’: AQE’s Stevie Vargas discusses the importance of free, accessible child care—and what proposed legislation will change.

Rise identified access to child care as a 2022-2023 policy priority and has joined the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), other community groups and child care providers in organizing to pass legislation to fund universal child care in New York State. Here, Stevie Vargas, AQE’s Upstate Campaign Coordinator, discusses the campaign for universal child care and what AQE heard from parents and providers during their 10-week statewide child care tour. She also explains what the proposed legislation will accomplish, why it is essential to end means testing, and how child care is an issue of racial, economic, gender and labor justice.

Q. Please tell us about AQE and the campaign for universal child care.

A. AQE is a coalition-based organization that works to mobilize parents across New York State. We focused on education equity for many years, working to ensure that New York State paid money owed to New York City public schools. We won that campaign and are now fighting for child care. Education is from birth to college—and universal child care is a huge component of the right to education. I’m also battling for access to child care in my own life, as a single parent living in upstate New York.

Our goal is to establish universal child care in New York State, which would make child care free and accessible to all parents. You need child care, you get it. No means testing. It is not dependent on your immigration status. It would also mean that child care providers would get the money needed to institute programming and child care educators would be paid a living wage. 

Universal child care in New York is possible and families depend on it. We live in the richest state in The United States. New York has a surplus of over $6 billion. Instead of investing it in the community, they’re putting it away for a rainy day fund—while we are experiencing a tsunami. We need those funds now for universal child care. 

Q. Why is it important to end means testing?

A. Means testing is an incredibly racist system where people have to prove that they are in need of assistance to get resources. When you apply for child care subsidies, they check your pay stubs and documents and use metrics to determine whether you qualify for assistance. If you make more than the maximum income permitted, you’re cut off. This means that if you would make one dollar over the limit if you were to work overtime, you have to turn down overtime so you don’t lose child care. It keeps parents in a chokehold, living paycheck to paycheck, and perpetuates cycles of poverty because it does not allow people to grow and thrive. 

During our child care tour, we heard from a caseworker who had to tell a single father of four not to work overtime and come back after eight weeks so that he could qualify for child care subsidies. She had to say, “I’m sorry. You’re going to have to struggle for eight weeks. Don’t work overtime—even though you need the income.” 

Q. What did AQE learn through your recent child care tour?

A. Before creating legislation, you need to hear directly from the people it will impact. As part of AQE’s education equity campaign, we did a tour of schools across New York State. We suggested using the same approach with the child care sector. 

We completed a child care tour over ten weeks, from September through December 2021. Meetings were held in person and by Zoom. It was important to involve Senator Jabari Brisport and Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, who chair the Children and Families Committee in their respective houses, because of their direct role in bringing forward universal child care legislation. 

We heard from all stakeholders—Legally Exempt providers, providers who run family-based programs, providers who run center-based programs, parents, child care educators and administrators who provide subsidy referrals for parents and providers. We heard about how the child care crisis has impacted them and how current systems make it hard to access care. It had to be a statewide tour to show that the child care crisis impacts families in every community—it is not a downstate versus an upstate issue or a rural versus suburban versus city issue. 

Both parents and providers spoke about the amount of paperwork involved in obtaining and claiming subsidies. We heard about the harms of means testing, child care deserts and lack of programming and afterschool care. We heard from providers who didn’t pay themselves so they could pay their workers, and providers who lost colleagues to suicide because they suddenly lost their livelihood after 30 years. We saw the pitfalls of failing to create a caring economy and society that prioritizes everybody’s needs. 

Q. What will the proposed legislation (S7595 sponsored by Senator Brisport / A8623 sponsored by Assembly Member Hevesi) accomplish if passed?

A. The proposed legislation gets to the heart of what we heard on the universal child care tour. It was born out of the feedback, criticisms and suggestions shared by parents, providers and child care educators. This legislation eliminates means testing, makes child care free, makes child care accessible to people who are undocumented and ensures that child care educators are paid a living wage. 

This legislation would give parents a choice of child care modality—they could choose a family-based child care provider, center-based programming or Legally Exempt child care. Some people are more comfortable having their child cared for by a trusted family member. Many family members provide this essential service and don’t get paid, or don’t get paid on par with other child care providers, even though they provide the same level of work. This legislation would mean that as a parent, you could choose your mother, for example, as a Legally Exempt provider and she could be paid. 

This legislation would also open up more child care slots so parents don’t have to go on astronomical waiting lists. We currently have child care deserts, which doesn’t simply mean there are no child care facilities in the area. A child care provider may have space for a child, but not for the age group you need. We heard from providers who said, “They haven’t expanded the age groups we can take. Because of the State’s guidelines, we have long waiting lists and have to turn families away, even though we technically have space for more children.” This legislation would help to address this issue. 

Q. What is your experience with the intersection of child care and family policing?

A. My nephew was in the foster system. I was able to become a relative resource and keep him in our family instead of losing him in the system. Anybody who has dealt with caseworkers, the court system and the bureaucracy and complete dehumanization of that entire system knows that it is very traumatic. 

A lot of parents are struggling and getting in trouble because of lack of child care—for example, they may leave their child home alone, get charged with neglect and then have their child taken away. While I cared for my nephew as a relative resource, the system paid for child care, 100 percent. Once I legally adopted him, the child care subsidies completely stopped. That raised questions for me. Why do we pay for child care for foster parents when we could just give that support to families, to keep families whole? 

Q. Why is access to child care important to you as a parent?

A. I’m entrenched in this fight on both a professional and a personal level. I’ve lived it and so have my mom, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. I don’t have generational wealth. They think a single parent making $53,000 a year can afford almost $1,300 a month in child care for one child—that’s more than most people’s mortgages or rent! I couldn’t afford it and didn’t qualify for subsidies. I can see the impact it’s having on my child, not to have outlets to engage with other kids and learn developmental skills. 

Even with everything I’m struggling with, I’m privileged in that I don’t work a nine-to-five job. I used to work at a call center where if I didn’t have child care, I was out of luck. Now I work from home at a job that allows me to prioritize my family. Not everybody can choose their work schedule around their family’s needs. 

Q. How would universal child care contribute to family well-being and safety?

A. Applying for subsidies is a dehumanizing process. It creates panic and stress, affects our mental health and forces parents to struggle to prove they need child care.

Child care also supports child safety. As an example, there was an incident where a mother who worked at Tim Hortons didn’t have child care, so she brought her child to work. Unfortunately, he got out and they couldn’t find him. He fell into a grease trap and died. That really hit home for me because he was the same age as my child, and there were many times my mom brought me to work with her. This could happen to any parent. Unfortunately, it ended in a complete tragedy. We force parents to choose between work and their family, and then blame them when they don’t have the resources they need.

Q. How is child care a racial, economic, gender and labor justice issue?

A. Child care providers are largely Black and brown women. The child care they offer allows other parents to go to work and provide for their families—while child care educators are also working to provide for their families. Yet, child care educators—the people who we entrust with our children—make below minimum wage, below $15 an hour. In upstate New York, it’s even less because our minimum wage is not $15 per hour here. 

We need to invest in the educators we entrust with shaping young minds. That work takes an abundance of patience and care. Imagine a child care educator who is responsible for 15 kids—and we pay them less than $15 an hour? We still have people in the sector because this is their passion and what they’re good at, but we’re not giving them a living wage.

Q. What did the recent Child Care Advocacy Day achieve?

A. The Empire State Campaign for Child Care’s Child Care Advocacy Day was phenomenal. About 600 people joined our virtual event to call on electeds to invest $5 billion to bring forth universal child care. Child care providers and advocates spoke about the campaign, and child care champions like Senator Jabari Brisport, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, Congressman Espaillat, Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Sarah Clark voiced their support. During the event, we took to social media. If you’re on Twitter, you probably saw #NYSUniversalChildcare trending because everybody was tagging their electeds and the Governor, saying, “We need $5 billion for child care.” 

We also held in-person actions. Parents wanted to show that we’re serious: We will leave work, speak to the media and call people out as needed to make sure that we get this investment. In Utica, Buffalo, Albany and New York City, parents and organizers gathered in front of child care centers and at the capitol building. They made boxes that looked like toy blocks and spelled out “Universal Child Care Now.” Parents spoke to the media about how lack of access to child care forced them to turn down job opportunities. We heard from parents living in shelters who had to turn down full-time work because they didn’t have access to child care or had to stop working part time because of the restrictions of means testing. It is important to get those stories out to the press and that our representatives hear how lack of care impacts their constituents. It was hugely successful and we are very proud of the work.

Q. What are the next steps in the campaign? 

A. We were incredibly disappointed by Governor Hochul’s budget proposal, because her recommended investments for child care don’t nearly meet the needs. It was a slap in the face after she promised to work to bring about a transformative child care sector. To start, we pushed the Senate and Assembly to include a $5 billion investment in child care in their one-house budgets, which is their version of the proposal, so that it goes to negotiations. They recently released their one-house budgets, which created a ceiling of $3 billion for child care. We are currently combing through both proposals to pull out the strongest pieces to push to ensure that not a penny less than $3 billion is included in the enacted budget. Three billion would be a good step in the right direction, but the fight still continues—we cannot leave this budget session without robust investments for child care. We want to make sure that they invest the full $3 billion that is proposed in the Senate one-house budget in the final enacted budget, which will come out April 1st. 

We have a small window of time to be influential and ensure that Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins continue to be vocal about the need for universal child care and make sure child care is not short changed in the enacted budget. We will continue to lobby, talk to elected officials and write op-eds and letters to the editor to make sure this conversation does not die down. In partnership with Citizen Action of New York and other coalition partners, we are planning more in-person actions in collaboration with parents and providers across the state.

Q. How can parents and community members support the campaign for universal child care?

A. Keep up the good fight! Team up with an organization like AQE that is doing the work. We love engaging parents in whatever way is comfortable for you. Not everybody can leave work during the day to attend an event, but there are other ways that you can be involved. You can email your elected official saying, “I’m your constituent. Are you signed onto this bill? Are you being vocal about robust investments for child care?” They’re really responsive to calls and emails because they’re held accountable to their constituents. We have to remind elected officials that they work for us!

We are seeing a wave of support from both the Senate and the Assembly. They released a letter calling for robust investments and calling out the lack of child care investments in the Governor’s proposal. They’re with us, and we need to ensure that they remain with us as they fight for the enacted budget. We have to show them that we will back them and together, we can get the funding we need for universal child care.

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