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Virtual Town Hall Transcript

Jane Fillion (Press Secretary, FFYF): Hi, everybody and welcome. My name is Jane Fillion. I’m the press secretary here at First Five Years Fund. Thank you so much for joining us today. I just wanted to step in before we all get started to give you a quick rundown on what today will look like. First Five Years Fund Executive Director Sarah Rittling will be leading today’s discussion with Congresswomen Suzanne Bonamici and Ashley Hinson.

We’ll start with discussion, and then, for the final few minutes, we’ll open up the floor for questions in the Q&A, featuring some live questions and some you’ve already submitted. Thanks again, Sarah. Take it from here.

Sarah Rittling (Executive Director, FFYF): Thank you, Jane. I am Sarah Rittling, Executive Director of the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan advocacy organization working to sustain and expand support for child care and early learning at the Federal level. Our guest today are two incredible Congressional champions for America’s littlest learners and their families. They’re also very busy, so we’re very fortunate to have them here to discuss this issue I know they hold near and dear to their hearts — child care.

First, we are joined by Congresswoman Ashley Hinson of Iowa, who, in just her second term in Congress, has already established herself as an early learning champion, tirelessly visiting child care centers across her district and introducing meaningful legislation to help children and families

And we are joined by Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, of Oregon, who has spent her career advocating for and securing investments in key early learning programs, including sponsoring bills and leading letters for appropriations as the ranking member of the subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. She is one of Congress’s top experts.

Today they are here as the new co-chairs of the Congressional Bipartisan, PreK and Child Care Caucus which they lead with Congressman Castro of Texas and Congressman Fitzpatrick, of Pennsylvania. Congresswomen, welcome! Thank you for spending some of your day with us.

I know you were both very busy over the summer, which feels like an eternity ago. During your recesses, I know you prioritize visits to early learning centers in your districts. Can you share with us a little bit about that? Why is it so important for you to make that a priority when you’re home? And what are you hearing, seeing and feeling when you’re visiting with your constituents on this issue?

Rep. Ashley Hinson (R – IA): Thank you, everybody for jumping on and thank you. Representative Bonamici, and to our other co-chairs of the caucus. Obviously, this is an important issue for us to be highlighting and I have about almost a quarter of the State of Iowa, 22 counties in northeast Iowa that I represent, and a lot of them are rural counties. And so I think it is very important to think of the workforce, which is one of the top issues that I continue to hear about as I’m traveling my district. You have to figure out how to support the workforce behind the workforce, and that’s our child care system and child care workers. Truly, a labor of love for so many people, and all the folks that I meet in the industry are number one. They’re so compassionate; they’re selfless. They are taking their time to care for others, children, and help raise them. That’s really what this is about.

I’ve been through this. My boys are now 10 and 12, and I make it a point to hear directly from the providers about the challenges that they’re facing. So here are just a couple of the things that regularly came up.

Number one. It’s about high-quality child care and making sure you have dedicated teams and dedicated staff. One of my recent visits was to a child care center, the Romper Room in Dubuque, and their second location, called Romper Stoppers, which is for child care, specifically for those who don’t work 9 to 5 jobs. So, I’m continuing to hear about how we can support the workforce and accommodate non-traditional work arrangements.

I’ll turn it over to Representative Bonamici for her feedback.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR): Thank you, Representative Hinson, and and thank you to the First Five Years Fund for hosting this. This summer, I did spend time speaking with people in the district I represent, which is the northwest part of the State of Oregon. And even though my kids are grown, I’ve had this conversation and made this a priority for many, many reasons, including the fact that when we invest in young children it’s good for the children, it’s good for the families, and it’s good for the economy to get kids off on the right start and a good start in life.

I have a Child Care Advisory Board which I started pre-pandemic – now that was a long time ago – and from my Child Care Advisory Board I get the voices of providers, of experts, of people who are providing child care day in and day out. And also from people have worked on the policy behind child care because it’s so important to make it available and accessible.

We have 36 counties in Oregon, and every county has some bit of a child care desert. That changed somewhat with the funding that came from the American Rescue Plan, but we know there’s still incredible challenges coming up as that funding has expired on September thirtieth. But we know it is important to continue funding and making sure that people can afford child care, but also making sure that people doing this work – as Representative Henson said – people who really care about our children are paid a salary that keeps them in the job, because, unfortunately, they’ve been underpaid and could go somewhere else to make more money. Many times, they can’t even afford a child care for their own kids.

So, it’s great to be able to get out there to talk to people. I want to highlight a visit to Neighborhood House in Oregon, which I visited with Senator Wyden to talk about the importance of connecting child care with affordable housing. Neighborhood House has affordable housing with child care on site, and we heard from a mom about what a difference that makes in their life. She doesn’t have to pack up her kids, get them on transit, or in a car, or on a bus, or on a bike, to a distant location before she can go to work because the child care is co-located with the affordable housing. So I have a bill, the Housing with Care Act, to address that. We have a housing, affordable housing shortage, and as we’re building affordable housing, if we build child care into the housing, it’s great for families and it also is a stress reliever for those working families. So those were some of the visits I had meeting with my advisory board.

I was even talking with friends who have grandkids, and they were talking about how It is so expensive for their grandkids to be in child care. One friend has twins, and it was staggering how much they pay for the two infants to be in child care, Seriously, it’s more than their housing. So we have some challenges to do. But I’m grateful that we have the Bipartisan Caucus working together on this key issue.

Sarah Rittling: Yes, exactly. And I think you know, obviously, we see a lot in the news about partisanship these days, but this has truly been an issue that has been wildly bipartisan, before the pandemic and during pandemic and obviously now, as we sit here today, having this conversation. The caucus right now has almost 60 bipartisan members

in just this first year of the Congress. There have been roughly 30 bipartisan bills introduced that touch on child care or early learning. We’ve seen so much engagement at the federal level across both sides of the aisle, and you two have teamed up on the After Hours Child Care bill. Rep. Hinson, do you want to talk a little bit more about that legislation?

Rep. Hinson: Sure. Well, that specifically came out of the pandemic. We heard a lot from a healthcare providers, from law enforcement, from people who are not working traditional 9-to-5 jobs. When I started my own professional career, I was a morning news anchor, so my shift was 3AM to noon. Pretty hard to find child care literally in the middle of the night. So we’ve definitely been hearing that, hey, not everybody works a traditional schedule. And we do need to find options, because we want to engage with those working families so they can stay in the workforce.

So really, this is about flexibility. It’s about making sure that we’re incentivizing businesses to offer child care. If they, for instance, have a shift that they need to incentivize people to come work, this would provide them the flexibility to do that. And I can let Suzanne talk a little bit more about it, too, but our bill really just opens up existing grant dollars for additional purposes so that they could use it for non-traditional work hours to offer child care.

We certainly don’t want child care to be the barrier to someone taking a job that may not offer that same flexibility.

Rep. Bonamici: Yeah, thank you. Yes, this is something that I’ve spoken about for quite some time with my advisory board, and when I’m speaking with people in the field. 

Child care is not a one-size-fits-all model. Some people prefer big centers. Some people want home care. Some people want culturally responsive or culturally appropriate care for their kids. We have to look at all of the models to see what works best for the family.

And it’s actually saying people don’t work those 9 to 5 hours. They’re really struggling. It’s already hard even for people who work traditional hours, so it’s even more challenging for those working other hours. So the After Hours Child Care Act does as Representative Hinson said, it sets aside some of the funding from the Child Care Development Block Grant program for after hours child care needs. It’s gonna make a big difference.

We still have more work to do, but this piece of bipartisan legislation is one step in meeting the needs of families.

Sarah Rittling: It is a really interesting thing. And we’ve obviously seen all of the challenges that families face, including the lack of options that are available that work for them. And there are unique challenges and unique solutions. As co-chairs of the Caucus, what are hoping you can do with this platform that you have? Certainly adding additional members to the Caucus and raising awareness, but what else?

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici: Yes, I mentioned I’m grateful for the After Hours, Child Care Bill, but there’s a lot more work we can do. One of the things I want mention that gives me hope is that this is, you know, child care has long been a bipartisan issue. And now it’s also coming up in more and more meetings and conversations, particularly with the business community.

We have a manufacturing center in the district I’m honored to represent. It’s in a fairly rural county and it’s a wonderfully advanced and additive manufacturing center. And I was up there recently speaking with people around the table about the challenges, and they said, we need child care is when for people to come to work. They need to have that assurance that they have a safe place for their child. So this issue used to come up when I’m talking to families and now it comes up in business conversations as well.

So I know that broadening the conversation is going to help. And we need to invest in solutions that help families afford the care that they need.

But again, we also need to build the workforce. We need to understand that people in early childhood education, many of them at some of the centers that require college degrees, they might have student debt. And it doesn’t pencil out if they’re not making enough to meet their own living expenses. And that’s why the Federal investment from grants, like from the American Rescue Plan, helped sustain the system. Because we can’t just raise the tuition, so we can pay the providers what they deserve. We need to have that investment.

So I’m hopeful that we can continue the conversation and when I talk about it, it is as an investment. It’s a good investment for people who like to look at return on investment, ROI as economists and experts say. For every dollar we spend under early childhood education, that’s about $7 we save later. And when kids have a good, strong start in life, we spend less in other areas. So again, it’s a great investment.

And it’s great that it’s bipartisan. And it’s really important, as I mentioned, not just to kids and not just to moms, but it affects the whole family. If the mom can’t go to work. If the mom is stressed or if mom has to stay home, it affects the whole family. And the caregiving workforce is primarily women, nationally women of color. They’re doing this really important work, and they deserve to be paid what they what they are worth for taking care of a nation’s kids.

Rep. Ashley Hinson: I would just expand on that a little bit. Obviously, I agree with everything you said, Suzanne. And I think, you know, when I found out I was pregnant with my second baby, one of the first calls that I made was to my child care center to make sure that they had a spot. I actually started off with one in one center and one in another, and that’s not an uncommon story.

As I’m certainly out there talking to moms in my community, but you’re right, it is a small business issue. Child care is a business retention and employee retention barrier and . it is an economic issue. So I think, taking a look at whether it’s a rural or urban setting, we need to make sure that people have access to quality care options and work with our state and local partners to make that happen. That means focusing on flexibility and affordability without compromising safety. I think that’s the bottom line of every policy we want to put forth. We want make sure the workforce is safe. And we also want make sure our children are safe.

But there have been a lot of really innovative things happening across the country in child care, too, and so I think we need to take a look at the regulatory environment around child care. As we know, every regulation does have a cost with it. Let’s make sure those are actually about safety. Let’s take a look at what states are doing. If they’re doing something innovative, or they’ve tried something good, maybe there’s a solution for us to take a look at. That’s where this Bipartisan Caucus and growing that, and having additional voices from across the country about what’s working, is a great opportunity for us to continue to expand this conversation.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici: I’m glad you mentioned that Representative Hinson, because one of the issues I’ve been working on for several years is streamlining the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) that provides meals for low-income students and children in care. We could get rid of that duplicate paperwork and streamline that program to get kids an extra meal or stack so they’re not hungry. That’d be a win/win. So I’ve been working on that on a bipartisan basis for years. Hopefully, we can get that over the finish line.

Sarah Rittling: Before we lose you, I want to make sure that we’re taking any questions that might have come in while we were talking. Jane?

Jane Fillion: We do, indeed. I will start with one that came through the RSVP lines. “What can constituents and parents do to help make sure that this remains a priority for members of Congress and for your colleagues as you’re out there advocating for this issue?”

Rep. Ashley Hinson: Call your member. Make sure they know it’s a priority. I think we certainly hear it all the time, you know. As Rep. Bonamici was saying. she’s hearing it from employers. I certainly hear it from employers. It’s housing, and it’s child care. And those are both workforce issues. So I would say, if you’re watching, no matter where you’re from in the country, contact your representative and let them know it’s important to you.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici: Right! Call, email, and let people know this is a priority. If we don’t hear from you. We don’t have your voice, so make your voice heard.

Jane Fillion (FFYF): And then we had another person ask, “What is something that most people get wrong when they think about child care in this country?”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici: Well, my first instinct is to think back to some of the conversations where people thought, you know, child care is a place to park your child. I look at it as early childhood education. We want quality, child care where kids learn how to thrive. So I don’t just look at it as, you know, here’s a place where you can leave your child so you can go to work. This is a place where your child will be nourished and thrive and learn social skills and all the things that set kids off on a good start in life. So we need to look at providers as professionals.

Rep. Ashley Hinson: I would echo that many of the folks working in my kids daycare center, for example, had degrees from Kirkwood, a local community college. They had gone for early childhood education, and they really cared, and they don’t call themselves child care providers. They call themselves teachers for a reason. I think that’s certainly a misconception about folks who are there. It’s not really that much different than a school. Maybe the level of care, you know, is a lot bigger when there are diapers and bottles involved, then when you’re in kindergarten, the biggest challenge is keeping focus and tying shoes.

But I think there certainly is a stress on these folks. As you mentioned, many of them are experiencing challenging issues in their own lives as well, and yet they still continue to show up and are educators through and through.

Jane Fillion (FFYF): Thank you, guys. Now for one in the chat. “What do you see as one of the biggest hurdles fixing child care in this country and how in Congress are you approaching that?” 

Rep. Ashley Hinson: I just say consensus building right? It’s hard to get consensus around a majority of people because there are so many different priorities. I think that’s the biggest challenge. And this is why I think the bipartisan caucus is really important, because we can, as a Caucus, unite behind specific legislation, which can serve as kind of an endorsement to the rest of our colleagues. Having that laser focus on what policies are going to be the right ones and have bipartisan support. It’s a lot easier to get something across the finish line when you have co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle than a truly partisan bill which, maybe, is not really going have the likes to go someplace.So I would say it’s probably a challenge to get to 218 votes, let alone 435.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici: And I also think, just emphasizing that care work is what makes other work possible. We need to really build on that message that our child care crisis and these child care deserts stem from the fact that this has been historically underfunded and overlooked central economic infrastructure.

But with more parents in the workforce and more needed care, it is an investment that is worthy. And convincing people, that is why we’re here. That’s why we’re a Bipartisan Caucus, to say our kids are a good investment.

Investing in early childhood education, making sure that parents can get to work without the stress of not knowing where their child where will be that day, is really important not only for the kids and the families, but also for our economy.

It’s an economic issue. Child care is infrastructure that really makes the other work possible.

Sarah Rittling: Thank you.  I know we’re going to lose you to other important issues of the day, but I’d like to end by saying what brings us hope on this issue. For me, my hope is knowing that both of you are leading an effort like this.

What are you hopeful about?

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici: I’m hopeful from my meetings with people in Oregon but, also, you know, from the conversations that we’ve had here on Capitol Hill. It really gives me hope that more and more people understand that providing quality child care that families can rely on is a good thing.

And I think about all the workers and providers out there. They really pour their heart and their soul into the work that they’re doing. And they’re really helping to build up a better future for kids and families and for the economy. So that gives me hope.

Finally, here we are, in an otherwise very challenging time in Congress, having a bipartisan conversation about this issue. The people who are going to be the next leaders are our kids of today.

Rep. Ashley Hinson: And I would just close by saying, I’m lucky that I have so many great colleagues and so many great organizations like First Five Years Fund that share our passion, certainly, for helping the youngest Americans. And I’m hopeful that we can continue this good work across the aisle. We have so many good efforts to expand access to affordable child care and really work together to make a difference for American families.

And I think we’re seeing that with the policies we’re talking about today, and there certainly is more to come in that space. And, as Suzanne said, this is a very challenging time for us here in Congress right now, so that certainly gives me something to look forward to.

Sarah Rittling: Thank you both for spending time with us today and keep it up.

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