Can the rest of us follow Alabama?

Here are two terms that you don’t expect to see together: “the state of Alabama” and “progressive leader.” The Camellia State has flowered as a model of progressive action in one area of critical public importance: Quality child care.

Both in providing safe places for children of working parents and for boosting the education of pre-kindergarten tykes, America’s child care system is a national disgrace. The failure of state and national officials to meet this basic social need is spreading inequality, rolling back opportunities for women and severely restricting economic recovery.

How impressive is it, then, that Alabama officials have been setting the national standard? Alabama’s investment in 4-year-olds operates statewide. It prepares 21,000 children each year to be “kindergarten-ready.” A major factor in its success is a two-generation approach, providing support materials and coaching so parents engage as their children’s “first teachers.” Producing results year after year, the state’s investment in children and families gets bipartisan support and funding from the Alabama Legislature. The program is voluntary, free and available to all. Rather than treating the teachers as low-paid babysitters, Alabama is paying them as the professionals they are and investing state money into their career development. If one of our poorest states can rise to meet this basic human need, what’s wrong with the richest country in the history of the world? Nearly every other nation with an advanced economy treats child care as a fundamental public good essential to nurturing children, families and the economy. But our US of A relegates millions of working parents and 21 million kids under 5 to the tender mercies of a for-profit market, with providers ranging from impossibly expensive to the helter-skelter messes of unlicensed Kiddie Korrals. The right-wing super-nationalists who mindlessly salute the U.S. as “exceptional” fail to note what is actually exceptional about our “child care system”: It is such a shambles that it can’t even be called a system, much less caring. For the past decade, independent journalist and economic analyst Bryce Covert has documented the worsening social crisis caused by this abject failure. Her recent report paints a dire picture of huge and obvious need:

• Two thirds of pre-K kids have both parents in the workforce, meaning care outside the home is essential.

• 85 percent of the parents say finding quality, affordable child care in their area is a problem somewhere between serious and impossible.

• The annual cost for a 4-year old’s day care averages about $13,000. In 28 states and D.C., an infant’s care center costs more than an 18-year old’s public college tuition.

Despite millions of working families finding this essential service unaffordable or even unavailable, political leaders have ignored their plight. What federal spending there is hasn’t even kept up with inflation. At its lowest level in a dozen years, child care aid reaches only 15 percent of qualified kids. In 2017, 40 percent of America’s children lived in “child care deserts” — zip codes with zero programs or so few that two-thirds or more of the area’s children are unable to get in. We need to do better for our children; they are the future, after all.

Jim Hightower is a nationally syndicated author.


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