Feature

An Ambitious Urban Farming Program Aims to Tackle Hunger. Residents Aren’t Sure They Buy In.

Rachael Fox moved to the McGinley Square neighborhood of Jersey City seven years ago after being priced out of New York City. She has Lyme disease, which limits her ability to work, so she is entirely reliant on SNAP (which amounts to less than $200 per month) and disability benefits for her income. Last year, she got an electric scooter, which has made food shopping easier. In the past, she had to walk a quarter of a mile to visit the grocery store, only to sift through rotting produce, or plan her budget around a once monthly trip to Shop Rite, which required the cost of a cab one or both ways.

“If you’re like me, and you’re on food stamps or you’re low income, a lot of the way that you survive is, you have to know which stores to go to and what to buy where, and that option has now been taken away in the era of COVID. Anything that could help and provide food would be a huge boon,” Fox says.

Jersey City’s poverty rate is 18 percent — that’s more than 47,000 people out of a population of around 265,549 (by comparison, the national average hovers at around 10.4 percent). About 32 percent of those living below the poverty line — around 14,751 people — are African American; another 17,000 people who identify as Hispanic live in poverty.

Google Maps’ distribution of grocery stores throughout Jersey City shows at least 160 places to buy food, many of which are concentrated around the busy, densely populated Journal Square, McGinley Square, and West Side neighborhoods. In areas like South Jersey City’s Greenville, where 53 percent of the population is African American, and Bergen-Lafayette, where that number jumps to 62 percent, the choices thin out considerably, especially if you don’t have access to a car.

That startling lack of food access was the impetus for a new initiative: In partnership with AeroFarms and the World Economic Forum, 10 vertical farms located in senior centers, schools, public housing complexes, and municipal buildings were slated to begin opening at the end of 2020. The pandemic slowed the project’s progress, but Stacey Flanagan, head of the Jersey City department of health and human services, still expects “the first two farms to be ready by the end of [March 2021].”

The farms will grow 19,000 pounds of leafy greens such as kale and arugula annually. Flanagan says the program’s initial rollout focuses on providing nutrient-dense greens to residents, with a wider variety of produce in the future.

The greens will be distributed to the public for free — all that’s required is that the participants register for the program. The three-year contract with AeroFarms will cost Jersey City $1 million — half of the money will go toward building the farms, while the other half will be dedicated to maintenance once the farms open.

On the surface, the program seems like it will be an asset to a city plagued by food inequality issues. Fox tells me that, as a high-risk person during the pandemic, she’s shopping at outdoor farmers markets much more often, despite the expense. She feels that any produce that would supplement her SNAP benefits would be a blessing — especially if the city could find a way to deliver her allotment.

Still, some Jersey City residents are skeptical.

There was immediate backlash to the implication in initial press releases announcing the initiative that participants would be required to take nutritional classes or even attend health screenings. That raised immediate concerns about participant privacy, as well as concerns that it could be condescending to users.

“If there’s a signup table with one person sitting in the corner saying, get a health screening here, that could benefit people who maybe don’t have the ability, or don’t have the time to go to a doctor, but we need to understand how the city is going to use [that data] and where that data is going to be stored and, and how it might potentially be shared,” says Leslie, a Jersey City resident of 13 years  who asked that her last name not be used.

Still, some Jersey City residents are skeptical.

Flanagan told me that residents will not be required to participate in any outside programs in exchange for their allotment of free produce. Instead, there might be what she calls a “point of education,” at the pick-up location, where participants might receive a recipe for a smoothie along with their produce, or an offer to check their cholesterol, through the city’s partnership with Quest Diagnostics. She added that every aspect of the program involving data collection will be conducted by a “city or medical professional,” and that it will be kept “completely confidential as per HIPPA laws.”

Tatiana Smith, a single mother, doula, and founder of the Westside Community Fridge, says she has to travel to other parts of the city for food but she’s still decidedly unenthusiastic about the vertical farming program. She says that the city should drop the education portion altogether, because it feels disconnected from the needs of many low-income communities.

“What would be engaging is to take a community member and have them come in and talk about a recipe from their culture and pass it on. But not to give out random recipes. People already know how to cook,” she says. In fact, nearby community gardens all over New Jersey and New York frequently host community potlucks —  some specifically aimed at the neighborhood’s international community —  in which residents are invited to share a favorite dish, meet each other, exchange recipes, seeds, and vegetables, and ultimately build bonds of closeness between neighbors.

Smith is still undecided if she’ll be signing up for the program herself. If she does, she says she’d ask city officials why they never consulted directly with community members about whether or not they even wanted a program like this.

“It’s typical of these types of initiatives that want to help but don’t bother to tap in into what the community is doing and how they live,” she says. “There is this idea that black and brown people seem to not care about their health, but black people have had a long history of food justice work, and now [the city is] saying, ‘We’re gonna introduce healthy eating to you.’ We’ve been eating like this for a long time, but because of systematic racism, low income people have had to resort to poor quality food.”

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Feature

The Latest Stimulus Bill Had Tax Breaks for Race Horses, But Left Stable Workers Without Help

In addition to enhanced unemployment benefits, $600 stimulus checks, and renewing the eviction moratorium, Congress’ most recent $900 billion coronavirus stimulus bill included some unrelated surprises. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state hosts the Kentucky Derby, added a last-minute rider called the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. The act would improve the welfare of thoroughbred horses by ending the practice of medication abuse, which often leads to horse injuries and deaths. Additionally, Congress extended tax breaks for the racehorse industry that would allow all racehorses to be claimed as depreciable property over three years, translating to tax write-offs of up to $500,000.

Yet, despite Congress’ concern about the welfare of thoroughbred horses, they have all but ignored the plight of the frontline backstretch workers who are responsible for their training and care. They have spent months facing down coronavirus with little financial or public health support. Backstretch workers are predominantly immigrant workers from Latin America and the Caribbean. Many live on-site with other workers, often crammed two to a room with the kitchen and bathrooms shared communally. Yet, many of the workers who care for these prized animals subsist on low wages despite the fact that in New York State alone, where the famous Belmont Park is located, the thoroughbred industry generates more than $2 billion in annual revenue. And when COVID-19 arrived, they weren’t ready.

Since immigrating from Chile in 2002, Caroline Klicey has spent most of her time in America working at Belmont. As a hot-walker, every morning she would take thoroughbred racehorses out for morning walks to stretch out their tense muscles before a race. The work is challenging and the pay is low but, in addition to her husband’s income, the $450 she earns a week is sufficient enough to raise her four children comfortably.

The track is also more than just a place of work; it has become her community. Most of Klicey’s friends are also backstretch workers, she met her husband at the track, and her children frequently spend time at the track after school and on weekends. Prior to the pandemic, she found it hard to imagine a life away from the backstretch.

“Everyone who works here is like a family. We treat each other well. In the morning everyone greets you with a smile. It’s a beautiful thing to work there.”

Yet, when the pandemic forced New York to temporarily shut down live racing last March, many backstretch workers like Klicey, who took great comfort in their “recession-proof” jobs, suddenly found themselves out of work and on food pantry lines.

“Early on it was really difficult for us. My husband was laid off for a few months and I had to stay home with my kids. We lived off our savings but getting food was difficult, but thank god for the food pantry, we got through it.”

As the pandemic spread like wildfire throughout the New York City metro area, Belmont’s backstretch community proved to be a ticking time bomb. About 800 people are employed at Belmont’s backstretch, with nearly 600 workers living in dormitories on the property, where the cramped quarters created the perfect environment for the virus to propagate. At the peak of the virus, between March and April, 100 backstretch workers were infected.

In response, The New York Racing Association (NYRA) suspended all racing at all New York State tracks in March until it was able to contain the virus. Joe Appelbaum, President of The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen Association (NYTHA), an organization representing horse owners and trainers, found himself with the unprecedented challenge of mitigating a possible public health catastrophe as well as maintaining animal welfare.

“We were presented with a very difficult challenge because it’s not like college dorms where they just shut the doors and send everyone home,” he said. “These are these guys’ homes or their permanent residences might be in Mexico or Guatemala. Plus you had a horse that needed to be cared for.”

At the backstretch, we always take care of our own.

Although racing was temporarily suspended, some backstretch workers continued to be employed, as care for the animals was deemed an essential service. But with no races scheduled, workers like Klicey who prepared horses for races were left without work altogether. For those who were still employed, many had subsidized their wages with second jobs at the track, such as concessions. With live racing suspended, and many unable to collect economic recovery payments due to their immigration status, those workers were forced to find other means of supporting themselves.

Karen Chavez, the General Manager of NY Race Track Chaplaincy, which provides services for the backstretch community, saw a sharp spike in need of their services. Chavez saw the toll the pandemic was taking, firsthand.

“When racing was temporarily canceled, financially it was tough for many of the families,” she said. “We saw a lot of men and women with panic attacks and anxiety disorders. Our food pantry services grew from 60 families to 360 families in just a couple of weeks.”

Since last April, NYRA has been able to rein in the virus, with no new cases currently among backstretch workers. Still, they are not taking any chances.

“NYRA is following all New York State Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance regarding social distancing,” said Patrick McKenna, Director of Communications for NYRA. “Facial coverings are mandatory for anyone on the property.”

With the virus under control for the most part, in June, racing resumed throughout New York State, albeit without crowds in the grandstands. In turn, horseracing saw a minor resurgence in popularity. As the pandemic initially brought most professional sports to a halt, with many players such as in the NBA choosing to opt-out, horseracing was able to fill the void. On the first five days racing resumed, Belmont handled $76,264,891 in online wagers, an 84 percent increase from last year. On its opening day in June, Belmont’s handle of $10,972,254 set an opening day record, topping the previous record of $10.7 million from 2010.

Still, with the money rolling in, the army of immigrant, low wage backstretch workers continued to labor behind the scenes with little public recognition. As owners enjoyed federal tax breaks and the horses benefited from increased safety regulations, workers continued to endure low wages, occupational hazards, and wage theft, without the added benefit of hazard pay. However, many are reluctant to work anywhere else. Despite its flaws, the backstretch offers an opportunity for a close-knit immigrant workforce who have few other options; like five million other essential workers, many are undocumented.

Caroline Klicey proudly describes the intimate connections workers have formed with one another in the backstretch. When one worker falls sick, others will bring them soup. When one needs to borrow money, another will be quick to help. Marriages, christenings, and Quinceañeras are performed regularly amongst the stables full of horses. With workers hailing from Central and South America, on the backstretch they form a vibrant mosaic of cultures, creating its own unique cultural identity. Admittedly, Klicey acknowledges that the pandemic has brought with it challenges she had never foreseen, but she’s adamant that because of the culture of self-reliance fostered at the backstretch, they were able to get through it.

“At the backstretch, we always take care of our own.”

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Analysis

It’s Time to Retire the Word ‘Addict’

“The mother and father are both on drugs. The mother is a heroin addict. The father uses heroin and crystal meth.” This description was cut and copied repeatedly on official documents pertaining to my child services case, beginning with the April 2018 shelter petition, the mechanism by which my two young daughters were first taken from me. That handful of paragraphs, written out by an inexperienced Broward County Sheriff child services investigator, followed me for the next two years.

My husband, on the other hand, was never referred to as an addict, even though he was actually being accused of using one more illicit substance than me — methamphetamine in addition to heroin. It may be hard to understand why something like this matters. After all, don’t people use the word “addict” all the time?

There is an ongoing debate among the addiction treatment and harm reduction communities about which terms should be used when referring to drug use and addiction, and in what settings. In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook updated their recommendations for reporting on addiction and drug use to exclude potentially stigmatizing terms such as “addict,” “alcoholic,” and “drug abuser,” except in the form of direct quotes. Instead, they recommend using person-first language, such as “person with a substance use disorder” or “people who are addicted to opioids.” These changes aligned with updates to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as well as recommendations by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Others followed suit: a 2018 update to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s blog specified that they no longer use terms such as “addict” or “substance abuser” (though the institute’s name remains unchanged), and in 2020 dictionary.com updated their website to replace all uses of the word “addict” as a noun with terminology such as “person with an addiction” or “habitual user.” They also updated their definition of the word “addict” to note that some might consider it offensive, and added a lengthy sensitivity note explaining: “addiction is the complicated result of genetic predisposition intersecting with dysfunctional behavior, neurochemical modification, environmental factors, and social influences,” and that many members of the treatment and recovery communities advocate against its use.

Controversy around terms such as “addict,” “alcoholic,” and “substance abuse” has been boiling for years. Many members of the medical, recovery, and harm reduction communities are happy to see changes like this implemented. For example, Olivia Pennelle, founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen and a journalist in long-term addiction recovery who covered the language debate for The Fix in 2018, said the dictionary.com changes are “important,” adding: “Only 10 percent of people [with a substance use disorder] get access to treatment…[and] a major factor is stigma. If we can do anything to change that, we should.”

On the other hand, Amy Dresner, also a journalist in long-term addiction recovery who authored an autobiography titled My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean, said she considers the use of language such as “junkie” and “addict” to be empowering when reclaimed as self-identifiers. And she says terms such as “person with a substance use disorder” fail to “convey the horror” of what she experienced during her active addiction.

“All that PC language feels like putting lipstick on a pig and hiding it more…[the changed terminology] sounds better, it sounds like you have empathy but does it really change somebody’s opinion?” she asked.

How you speak about the person you’re representing is how other people will see them.

Recent research backs the moves by dictionary.com and the Associated Press. A series of studies published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2018 found that several terms, including the word “addict,” were associated with negative social perceptions. It also found that these terms produced negative biases significant enough to impact people’s access to healthcare; for example, both treatment professionals and members of the general public were more inclined to recommend incarceration or other punitive measures to those labeled an “addict” or “substance abuser” while a “person with a substance use disorder” was more likely to be deemed in need of medical care.

Robert Ashford, the lead researcher in the language studies, explained a potential cause in a story I wrote for Filter Mag. “[Language is] the primary way we communicate…The cliché ‘words have power’ is the truth.” Regarding language employed in court settings specifically, he added: “It’s not that those [terms such as ‘person with substance use disorder’] are inherently positive; it’s that they are less negative than the pejorative terms that have been created over time. These things have a really strong emotional reaction to most people. We don’t need to do [courtroom actors] any favors by…using language that has come to mean something biased.”

“How you speak about the person you’re representing is how other people will see them and so using the correct language is extremely important,” added Dinah Ortiz, a harm reduction-oriented parent advocate located in New York City. “Language is like a stepping stone, then comes the harder stuff, but it starts with language…if we don’t care about calling a person a ‘junkie,’ a ‘dope fiend,’ a ‘crackhead,’ then we don’t care about that person.”

In my Florida State child services case, my husband and I both received the same charges — neglect and imminent risk of harm — and we both had our parental rights terminated in early 2020. On paper, we shared the same nightmare outcome at the end of a case riddled with misrepresentations of fact, blatant bias, and government overreach at its darkest. But there was a palpable difference in the courtroom between his treatment and mine. While my every word was interrogated with suspicion — I was never even counted as having income despite clearly being able to pay my bills and child support — my husband was rarely questioned. I was criticized for circumstances he and I shared, such as not having a car and relying on his parents for rides to our supervised visits, while he usually escaped mention.

At the disposition for our initial trial, when the judge determined that our daughters were unsafe in our care and should remain with their paternal grandparents while we completed a slew of tasks to try to regain custody, the judge cited as her reasons for issuing these charges against me: “The mother is an extraordinarily educated and gifted individual. You have a gift for language, both oral and written. Unfortunately, the Court finds that you could probably sell ice to an Eskimo.”

Although she issued the same charges against my husband, the judge stated that she “found the father’s testimony essentially credible before this Court,” and mentioned that he acknowledged having a “substance abuse history,” something I likewise acknowledged about myself (though I clarified it as a substance use disorder, as per the DSM IV and V).

While it is impossible to pinpoint my classification as an “addict” versus my husband’s as a “person who uses heroin and meth” as the reason for our differences in courtroom treatment, it can’t be ignored that this experience aligns near perfectly with the outcomes of Ashford’s experiments.

And, as explained by Sheila Vakharia, a former social worker and the current deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance: “When you refer to someone as an ‘addict,’ and you make salient one person’s single relationship with a drug or several drugs, what happens is you then start to see that person through that lens of that one characteristic or trait, and it can make it hard to see the complexity of a person’s identity.”

Still, it’s hard to know how much, if at all, my case would have changed if I’d not been labeled an “addict” at the outset. Would my daughters be home today? Or would I merely have had a slightly more comfortable courtroom hanging?

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Feature

Philadelphia Colleges Are Using Trump’s Opportunity Zones to Speed Up Gentrification

The West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua, where more than 1 in 5 buildings and lots stand vacant, seems like a classic picture of an economically distressed community. The median income is about $21,000, right at the poverty line for an average-sized family, and nearly 90 percent of neighborhood residents are Black. The community has been designated an opportunity zone, a program introduced by the Trump Administration in 2017 that allowed developers to avoid or reduce capital gains taxes as an incentive to invest in neighborhoods like Mantua.

President Trump describes the opportunity zone program as a prime example of how his administration has helped African Americans. This June, Trump claimed that since 2017 “countless jobs and $100 billion of new investment, not government investment, have poured into 9,000 of our most distressed neighborhoods anywhere in the country.” Opportunity zones have also been talked up by the few prominent African American Trump allies, including Sen. Tim Scott (one of the bill’s original co-sponsors) and HUD Secretary Ben Carson. Scott called opportunity zones “the first new, major effort to tackle poverty in a generation.”

Yet the program has been troubled since the beginning. Governors were permitted to select their state’s opportunity zones, with few criteria: 95 percent of the zones had to have a 20 percent poverty rate or a median income that is 80 percent or less of the metro area’s median income. Governors could also designate five percent of the zones in areas that are not low income. That latitude resulted in developments ranging from luxury apartment buildings to a ”superyacht” club being designated as eligible for opportunity zone tax breaks. Reporting from the New York Times, ProPublica and other news outlets revealed that friends and relatives of the president — including son-in-law Jared Kushner — stood to benefit from the opportunity zone tax break, and Treasury is already conducting a corruption investigation.

Governors looking to tout the success of opportunity zones in their state had incentives to pick areas with development projects already planned or underway — such as areas adjacent to or including a college or university. Adam Looney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, found 33 opportunity zones in areas where 85 percent or more of the population are enrolled in college. The zones meet the low-income threshold, but that’s because students don’t typically earn much while taking classes.

Designating these areas as opportunity zones because of students’ lack of income is a cynical use of an antipoverty program. Universities have been creating pockets of wealth near their campuses for decades, driving up rents without benefitting the long term residents who will remain long after each class graduates.

The average selling price of a home rose from $78,500 in 1995 to half a million dollars by 2018

In West Philadelphia, for instance, real estate investment in areas near universities has already changed the face of the historically African American neighborhood. West Philly is home to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. The University of Pennsylvania lured professors and students to the area with tactics that ranged from installing streetlights to offering low-interest loans to encourage faculty to buy in the area, and even created a new public elementary school to offer an option for an elite education in the neighborhood. Their tactics were so successful that the average selling price of a home rose from $78,500 in 1995 to half a million dollars by 2018. Drexel is now borrowing directly from Penn’s playbook, including building a new public middle school.

Drexel is just one of the 33 universities mentioned in the Brookings report. In the opportunity zone that includes Drexel, the poverty rate is 66 percent and 88 percent of residents are enrolled in college full time. Those statistics are reflected in college towns selected as opportunity zones across the country. The University of Southern California, surrounded by a historically low-income area of Los Angeles, is located in an opportunity zone with a poverty rate of 88 percent. A whopping 99 percent of residents, however, are full time college students. College students at small private universities (such as Liberty College) and behemoth public institutions alike (such as Texas A&M) are making their towns and neighborhoods eligible for a designation intended to help areas that have struggled with generational poverty.

Mantua and Drexel’s campus are in the same opportunity zone. A $43 million project dubbed the Village Square on Haverford got the go-ahead from the city in late 2019. It will bring 166 new apartments and townhomes to the opportunity zone in Mantua, with 80 units flagged as “workforce housing” with their selling price capped $230,000. That’s significantly higher than Philadelphia’s average home sale price of $188,000, and well out of reach for Mantua residents, whose income is less than half of the city’s median. The development will include 32 rental units of affordable housing, though there has been no word as yet about what definition of affordable the developers will use. The new development is located just a few blocks away from an off-campus housing complex marketed to students at Penn and Drexel.

Mantua residents have organized to have a say in how their neighborhood changes. They settled on a push to rezone most of the neighborhood as single-family housing, which they intended to prevent developers from buying up blocks of Mantua and converting the area into student housing for Drexel. They were successful, but the rezoning may not pay off in the long term. “It’s really a conundrum for the community to be in,” Wright said. “Multifamily [zoning] could potentially create naturally occurring affordable housing in the neighborhood because you can have apartments that might be available to lower-income or moderate-income people.” Focusing on protecting single-family homes means fewer available rentals — and higher rents.

That’s a problem, because people in the rental market may be the most vulnerable to changes in the housing market, according to sociologist Susan Clampet-Lundquist, professor at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s University and University City resident. Overall, changing neighborhoods are a mixed bag for longtime residents. The changes do bring more amenities to the area. The Village Square on Haverford, for instance, will include a supermarket and a coffee shop. Homeowners will likely see the values of their property go up. But the story is different for renters. When people leave a rental, they are unlikely to find another unit at a similar monthly cost and may have to leave the neighborhood, a process of indirect displacement.

“To me, the most important part is indirect displacement, a reduction in affordable housing,” said Clampet-Lundquist. “That creates the demographic change that you end up seeing.”

Mantua residents aren’t necessarily opposed to college students in the neighborhood, Wright said. They don’t begrudge the developers now showing up because they will turn a profit. They just want to make sure they can stay in their homes and enjoy the benefits of those changes, too.

Politicians ranging from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Joe Biden have proposed changes to opportunity zones, from defunding the program (AOC) to reforming it (Biden). Biden’s reform plans don’t include specific housing protections for people in opportunity zones such as Mantua. And existing local and federal programs could help with this particular problem, including rent control, Section 8 housing vouchers, and assistance programs for long-term residents that subsidize the inevitable rise in property taxes, Clampet-Lundquist said.

Using these programs to help in cities where opportunity zones meet skyrocketing real estate prices could limit the damage to low-income areas. So would an acknowledgment that incentives designed to maximize return on investment for the wealthy may not be the best way to address poverty.

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Analysis

How Child Care Became a Centerpiece of the 2020 Election

It’s been six months since it was reported that nearly half of the United States’ child care — 4.5 million slots — is at risk of disappearing. For half a year, child care centers and homes have either been struggling to stay open or closing altogether.

“We’re really holding on with raw knuckles,” says Jasmine Henderson, a child care organizer with Ohio Organizing Collaborative. “Ninety percent of working adults in the state of Ohio are working parents. If we lose child care, we pretty much can guarantee that we’re going to lose probably a large number of our workforce in Ohio.”

Nationwide, more than 42 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds have faced a negative career impact due to child care issues, personally or in their household. That burden is falling harder on women: In September, 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce, compared to 216,000 men. Millennial mothers in straight couples are three times as likely as Millennial fathers to name child care closures as the main reason they are unable to work.

The longer it takes for Congress to fund child care in a pandemic relief package, the worse the crisis becomes. As more programs close permanently, millions will be forced to leave the workforce, prolonging the recession and likely resulting in increased racial, geographic, gender, and educational inequities. “It’s about to get worse if we don’t infuse money into child care,” says Henderson.

Multiple bills have been introduced, but each one has stalled in the Senate. In early July, the House passed the Heroes Act, which included $7 billion in funding for the child care industry. It never got off the ground in the Senate, with both the White House and Senate Republicans criticizing it as too liberal. In late July, the House passed the Child Care is Essential Act, (S. 3874/ H.R. 7027), which would provide the $50 billion actually needed to stabilize the industry. While House members have urged Congress to include the act in any upcoming stimulus package, Senate Republicans continue to denounce House-proposed stimulus packages as too costly. October 1, the House passed an updated version of the Heroes Act, designating $57 billion in total for child care stabilization and to subsidize child care costs for families. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to bring it to a vote.

Before the pandemic, the child care crisis was slowly gaining attention as policymakers built the case for a publicly-funded child care system to replace the underfunded patchwork that exists today. In 2017 and 2019, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, (S.568/H.R.1364), which would provide low-income families with free child care, limit what middle-income families pay, build more centers, and support livable wages for early educators. During the 2020 primaries, several Democratic candidates made child care the centerpiece of their campaigns, from Elizabeth Warren’s universal child care plan to Kirsten Gillibrand’s Family Bill of Rights.

72 percent of young voters want Congress to provide funds to child care providers

The pandemic has turned the demand for reform into a rallying cry for parents, providers, and advocates, with countless articles and prominent figures demanding a better system. If lawmakers do not address the now-deepened crisis, it is unlikely that they will remain favorable with their constituents, especially those belonging to younger generations. The Center for American Progress [Editor’s Note: TalkPoverty is a project of the Center for American Progress] found that 72 percent of young voters want Congress to provide funds to child care providers who are facing financial ruin during the pandemic.

Even after this immediate crisis is resolved, a long-term solution to rising child care cost will remain an essential issue. Survey data from Next100 and GenForward reveal Millennials and Gen Zers named the cost of child care — alongside student loan debt and lack of affordable housing — as a key factor affecting Millennial and Gen Z decisions to have children.

This is at least in part due to how poorly the current system serves many populations. Pre-pandemic, Black, Latinx and Indigenous families were paying larger percentages of their paychecks to afford limited child care options, and were more likely to experience job disruptions due to problems with child care. Furthermore, the child care crisis was already disproportionately affecting children with disabilities; and, pre-pandemic 60 percent of rural families were living in child care deserts.

“Let’s be clear,” Henderson states, “if you’re in the fight for racial justice and equity, [child care] is your fight…when we talk about the cycle of poverty and the intimacy it has with racism, sexism, et cetera, we are absolutely talking about [child care].” Whether politicians are courting younger generations or not, stabilizing child care and funding it properly is key to gaining greater support from racial and economic justice movements.

That extends to supporting early educators. The child care industry is 93 percent women, early educators are 2.5 times more likely than the overall workforce to be Black women and Latinx women, and 1 in 5 early educators is an immigrant. Early educators only earn a median of $11.65 per hour, with Black early educators earning an average of 78 cents less per hour than white early educators. More than half of all early educators live in families that rely on public income supports, such as food stamps. Even pre-pandemic, Henderson says, “Providers were already tired. Most of the parents were already overworked.”

As early educators and families continue to do everything they can to care for children in the face of this crisis, it cannot be underscored enough that lawmakers need to intervene urgently and substantially with federal funding. If they don’t, this crisis will only escalate.

As of now, providers meeting pandemic public health requirements are facing an average of 47 percent cost increases — costs too high for providers to shoulder alone and even higher than what most families already cannot afford. A National Association for the Education of Young Children July survey of nearly 5,000 child care providers revealed that without support from Congress, two out of every five respondents — and half of child care businesses that are minority-owned — are certain that they will close permanently. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation survey found that approximately one in five working parents remain uncertain if they will be in a position to return to their pre-pandemic work situation due to a lack of child care.

With the industry on the brink of collapse, and the economy struggling to restart without it, the time to delay is gone. Henderson made the stakes clear: “Now, there’s this urgency to survive.”

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