Funds for child care are a critical part of a spending bill that's making its way through Congress, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said during a recent discussion at a Whatcom County YMCA child care center.
Murray, a former preschool teacher, got her start in politics by advocating for a state-funded preschool program that was threatened by budget cuts, according to biographical information provided by her staff.
At a recent meeting in Bellingham, the Bothell Democrat discussed her efforts to make child care affordable for working families and establish a universal pre-k program nationwide.
"There's a huge need for child care. We are a child-care desert in Whatcom County," Murray said during a discussion last week with staff and parents at the YMCA's Barkley Early Learning Center.
Money in the bill under consideration in Congress will help establish new preschool programs, pay child-care workers a living wage and ensure that low- to moderate-income families pay no more than 7% of their income for programs that allow parents to hold jobs outside the home.
"They want to go to work, but if child care takes 30% of their salary, it doesn't make any sense," Murray said at the Sept. 7 event.
Katie Stanford of Bellingham was among the mothers with children at the YMCA who discussed the importance of quality early-learning programs.
"This impacts people at such a critical time, especially with COVID," Stanford said at the meeting. "Child care in our county is so broken and so unfair."
Stanford acknowledged that she and her husband are lucky to be able to afford the child care that allows them to have careers.
"All children deserve the education that my daughters had," she said. "It's really important for both of us to work outside the home. But that's impossible for single moms."
She also said that she doesn't think day-care programs, such as the Y's, are simply letting someone else raise their children.
"It's offered our girls so much that we couldn't have done alone. They've learned to trust other adults, make friends" and broaden their education, Stanford said.
"That's something that we couldn't have done without the support of the Y. Just being able to access it is a privilege," she said.
Bill Ziels, CEO of the Whatcom Family YMCA, said he'd welcome federal help to fund new programs and pay preschool teachers.
"It's cost-prohibitive to even open up a center," he told The Bellingham Herald. "We have to have staff that make enough money so that they feel like they can make this a career. We can't just pay them more and raise our rates."
Lori Stacy, director of the YMCA's Barkley center, said during the Sept. 7 discussion that higher pay will allow child-care centers to retain qualified teachers and expand their offerings.
"They're taking care of 15, 17, 3- and 4-year-olds every day and they might have to take on a second job," Stacy said.
"I've had sobbing parents on the phone as I have to inform them that their child-care wait list is two years long. There just aren't a lot of options. The need is just immediate," Stacy said.
Murray, who heads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also helped add $635 million in child-care funds for Washington state as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus measure that President Biden signed in March.
In addition, Whatcom County wants to boost child-care programs with some of its ARPA grant money, which is separate from those statewide funds.
"We had a child-care crisis before the pandemic," Murray said. "The pandemic has ripped it wide open."