The Guardian (USA)

For many parents, it was ‘a saving grace’. Now, California’s childcare subsidy is expiring

- Courtney E Martin, The Fuller Project

Like many working mothers, the first months of the pandemic were a nightmare for Andria Kemp-Sellers. The state of California­declared her husband’s job at a sugar factory essential, so he continued to go in for 12-hour shifts. She stayed at home in Vallejo, juggling raising their three children and teaching 25 four- and fiveyear-olds online in Oakland.

“The kids were eating me out of house and home because they were bored,” Kemp-Sellers said, laughing. “Eating became an event!”

Even with two parents working full-time in unionized jobs, the family struggled to afford the basics. They needed high-quality internet for their children’s schooling and her teaching, which wasn’t cheap – about $50 a month.Along with their food costs, their electric bill also went up. KempSeller­s, who grew up in Oakland but left after getting priced out, took on extra work and cut back in other areas. But the family still struggled to keep up.

“It’s a terrible feeling when you have to essentiall­y introduce poverty to your kids,” she says. “When you have to explain: ‘well, I could make you that extra peanut butter sandwich, but then we won’t have any bread for tomorrow.’

“It does something to your psyche as a mother. It makes you ashamed.”

When the federalchi­ld tax credit– $500 for each child –arrived in the mail, it was “a saving grace”, she said. The Pandemic EBT card – a federal program that supplied $200 a month a childfor food to parents with school-age children who would have otherwise qualified for free and/reduced lunch – also helpedthe family to get through.

Then came the Golden Gate Stimulus – a one-time $600 or $1,200 payment each tax return for residents of California who earned less than $75,000. It was the biggest direct cash payout a state has ever offered taxpayers, ultimately reaching 8.4 million people. A childcare subsidy also came as part of the relief package. For a brief moment, Kemp-Sellers felt she had room to breathe.

The impact of the relief initiative­s led anti-poverty advocates to call for them to be made permanent. Instead, these state and federal relief dollars have all but disappeare­d, with criticssay­ing the policies are too sweeping and should instead be targeted towards a middle class struggling to cope with inflation.

Today, only the childcare subsidy remains. But that too is set to expire this June, setting up a confrontat­ion between a state legislatur­e which overwhelmi­ngly supports making the subsidy permanent and a governor strongly opposed to doing so.

The legislatur­e has already had one effort rebuffed. Last year, a bill by assemblywo­man Eloise Gómez Reyes, Democrat from San Bernardino, was passed with no dissenting votes and strong support from parent and child care advocates. Gavin Newsom, the California governor, vetoed the bill in September, saying it would be too costly.

Those pushing to make the policies permanent say the consequenc­es of ending programs that buoyed so many women of color and their families during the pandemic – particular­ly Black families – could be profound: the loss of jobs and homes, hungry bellies, toxic stress.

“At the end of the day, politician­s and policymake­rs still do not trust Black and brown women to do what’s best for their families,” says Jhumpa Bhattachar­ya, founder of the Maven Collaborat­ive, a grassroots organizing group centered on Black women.

A time of unpreceden­ted aid

This wasn’t the first time Kemp-Sellers had to face up to harsh financial realities. Though she teaches transition kindergart­en at a public school in Oakland, the city where she grew up, rising rents forced her to move to nearby Vallejo in 2013.

She’s not alone. A recent study of the Bay Area found that 58% of women of color are “housing cost-burdened” – a federal designatio­n for households that spend more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage. California’s housing shortage is the leading cause of poverty and homelessne­ss in the state, and experts warn that the displaceme­nt of women of color like Kemp-Sellers is especially damaging as they act as an informal support system that keeps their communitie­s alive.

“What people don’t understand is that another pandemic was happening before the [Covid-19] pandemic – the pandemic of economic struggle for the people who, as soon as the check comes in, it’s going back out,” says Keta Brown, a Black mom raising four kids in Oakland.

Brown knows the “pandemic of economic struggle” first-hand; now, as an organizer who helps mostly Black, single moms advocate for their children’s educationa­l rights, she saw how Covid-era relief helped some women get by.

“When some of these women got

a little check in the mail, you best believe it went to good use. They’re calling PG&E [the electricit­y company] and saying, ‘I know I owe $300. I can send you $100 now and you keep the lights on. I’ll send more later,’” she explains. “That little check changes the whole game. They stretched every dollar.”

The pandemic hit these women of color hard. Black, Latinx and most other women of color suffered disproport­ionately – struggling to juggle jobs and kids out of school, and working risky and unpredicta­ble jobs in retail, food services and the in-home care space.

These women were often not set up to weather a financial crisis. And during these last two years, more than 40% of women of color in the state struggled to pay housing costs or afford food, according to the California Budget and Policy Center, compared to 29% of white women. In fact, this was the first recession in which more women than men lost jobs, and Black and Latinx women and women who are immigrants lost their jobs at especially high rates in the early months of the pandemic.

Inflation is only making things worse. About one-half of Black, Latinx, and other California­ns of color reported struggling with basic expenses in recent months, compared to about 30% of white California­ns.

The impact isn’t just economic: half the women in the state report experienci­ng symptoms of anxiety and depression. Among women suffering throughmul­tiple hardships, such asthe loss of household income or the inability to pay for food or housing, as many as three-quarters report these symptoms.

But the pandemic has also been a time of unpreceden­ted aid.

Federal stimulus payments prevented 1.7 million California­ns, particular­ly people of color, from falling below the poverty line between 2019 and 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.Unemployme­nt insurance helped an additional 1 million California­ns avoid poverty.

The state itself – one of the largest economies in the world – pushed through an array of support programs. On top of the Golden Gate Stimulus payments, California offered critical rent relief of nearly $4bn to about 431,000 households so far, and eviction protection­s.

The state also provided childcare subsidies and led the way nationally when it permanentl­y repealed a series of controvers­ial legal fees, including what states call “supervisio­n and programmin­g fees” – whereby people on probation or parole have to pay for their own mandatory supervisio­n, drug testing and electronic ankle monitoring. These fees disproport­ionately hurt already vulnerable families of color.

The relief measures seem to have made a difference. The Public Policy Institute of California found that disparitie­s in poverty between minority groups and whites narrowed during this period – particular­ly for Latinos. In 2019, Latinos were 2.3 times more likely to be in poverty than whites, compared to 1.8 times more likely in 2020.

Researcher­s have found that the expanded child tax credit reduced child poverty nationally by 26% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Childcare is the highest household expense in all California counties, except for five Bay Area counties that have the state’s highest housing costs.

These numbers led to a push among many local groups to make pandemicer­a policies permanent. What took place was the opposite – the state has allowed almost all of the initiative­s to expire.

A battle over who deserves the money

At the heart of the dispute is disagreeme­nt over what type of role the state should play in providing support. Opponents of extending the policies say the state has misplaced its priorities with such universal programs, instead demanding more targeted policies such as an also controvers­ial gas rebate proposal that would be much more focused on helping middle-class voters.

“California can’t afford to waste state resources providing unneeded assistance to those with higher incomes, assets and wealth. Instead, policymake­rs have a responsibi­lity to provide targeted relief using proven paths to the children, families, and individual­s blocked from the opportunit­y to thrive in our communitie­s,” wrote Sara Kimberlin and Alissa Anderson of the California Budget & Policy Center, arguing that the universal nature of the relief programs funnel money towards more well-off families who don’t need it.

Supporters of extending the policies believe opponents are acting out of their own unchalleng­ed bias, noting that the state’s relief programs have been crucial in helping middle-class women like Kemp-Sellers survive. From their perspectiv­e, the argument that the relief efforts unnecessar­ily help rich families is a smokescree­n to bash programs that in practice overwhelmi­ngly support poor families and people of color.

Candice Elder, an Oakland native and executive director of the East Oakland Collective, a group that advocates for food security, says her group has had to become more creative since state support dried up in March, grabbing leftover meals from empty Silicon Valley offices or from food festivals. But that hasn’t been enough to meet the needs of the community.

“We’ve had to tell some of our elders, ‘You can come in for hot food on Mondays, but that’s it. We no longer have hot meals to provide on other days. You gotta stop coming other days’,” Elder says.

Many extension advocates look to New Mexico as an example of a state that’s doing it right, or at least better. In early 2020, the state spent $300m to create an Early Childhood Education and Care Fund – an endowment which draws on oil and natural gas taxes. It is projected by area lawmakers to be worth $4.3bn by 2025. A new program, which started on 1 May, makes childcare free for most residents (families of four can earn up to $111,000 and still be eligible) through June 2023, what

Michelle Lujan Grisham, the state governor, calls the next step on the road to universal free preschool for the state.

For women like Kemp-Sellers, a little support meant basic dignity.

“When we had that extra money, it actually helped me learn who my children were. I could take them to the grocery store and say, ‘Pick out what sounds good to you,’ and they loved knowing, ‘These are my strawberri­es. I picked them out and I can eat them,’” she said. “If only we could live like that all the time.”

The Golden State is expected to overtake Germany as the world’s fourth-largest economy this year, but not all of this wealth is being shared equally. In this series, the Guardian and the Fuller Project look at the lives of women, especially women of color, who help drive the economy of the US’s second-most racially diverse state but don’t get their fair share of the pie.

This article is published in partnershi­p with The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to the coverage of women’s issues around the world. Sign up for the Fuller Project’s newsletter, and follow the organizati­on on Twitter or LinkedIn.

It’s a terrible feeling when you have to essentiall­y introduce poverty to your kids

Andria Kemp-Sellers

 ?? ?? Golden Gate Stimulus was a one-time $600 or $1,200 payment each tax return for California­ns. Photograph: Simone Hogan/ Alamy
Golden Gate Stimulus was a one-time $600 or $1,200 payment each tax return for California­ns. Photograph: Simone Hogan/ Alamy
 ?? Illustrati­on: Susie Ang/The Guardian ??
Illustrati­on: Susie Ang/The Guardian

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