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News / Northwest

Can the child care crisis be fixed? Q&A with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: May 26, 2024, 12:26pm

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has been working on child care since the 1980s, when she taught preschool in Shoreline. Now, the Washington Democrat, who’s served in Congress for three decades and chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, is one of the country’s most powerful politicians.

But parents in Seattle and beyond are, more than ever, struggling to find care they can afford, with the median cost hitting $2,000 per month for infants in King County child care centers. The Seattle Times spoke with Murray last week about what Congress is doing to fix the national child care crisis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

  • What’s your personal connection to preschool?

I got a degree in physical education coming out of WSU (Washington State University) and as my kids got into that age group, it was something I was interested in. I got a job at Shoreline Community College teaching parents and preschool kids. I saw the importance of having that stable place for kids to come every day. I was working with parents and I saw the stress in their lives as they were trying to balance an income and taking care of their kids. Helping them work through that became a huge part of my life.

  • How did child care lead you into politics?

The (parent-child education) program was state-funded and the Legislature decided to cut it. I heard about it and just naively put my kids in the car and drove to Olympia to tell them, “Don’t do that.” The reaction I got there was what propelled me into politics, because I had a legislator tell me, “Nice story, but you can’t make a difference. You’re just a mom in tennis shoes.” That put-down and that philosophy that kids don’t count just made me so angry that I started organizing a statewide coalition to go back to the legislators and educate them about why it was so important to fund the program.

  • Did you have trouble making progress after you got to Congress?

Absolutely. I remember when I came into the Senate there were only a handful of women, so your voice wasn’t being echoed constantly and I remember people saying, “The only reason you want to be here is to talk about ‘women’s issues.’ “ That was how people treated [child care] at the time. You couldn’t get broad support. But I’ve continued to work on it and press the fact that it’s good for families to know their kids are well taken care of. It’s good for our country to have a well-educated younger generation.

  • Did the COVID-19 pandemic change the conversation about child care?

One hundred percent. Up until that time, a lot of parents didn’t step up to talk about it and fight for it. They didn’t want their employers to think it was a problem for them. They didn’t want to lose their jobs or not get promotions because of their kids, so they didn’t complain. They worried and stressed, but they didn’t talk about it until the pandemic, when it became a more visible issue. We had people who had to be at work, including nurses and doctors, who lost their child care because centers had to close. People started talking about child care and not just moms or dads but also businesses.

  • You helped secure emergency help during COVID. Then what happened?

I think we met the moment when we had the COVID pandemic and our child care facilities were shutting down and our essential workers didn’t have a place to take care of their kids. We did include stabilization funds to make sure those centers kept their doors open. But the funding ran out and Republicans refused to extend it and now we’re seeing some of the impacts of that. There’s a survey out this month that shows the number of parents without child care has risen since last fall. That says our child care industry cannot keep their doors open if they don’t have consistent funding.

  • In losing that battle, did you miss your chance to fix child care?

As long as people are still trying to go to work and can’t find a safe, stable, affordable place to have their kids, then this is going to be a problem in this country and I’ll continue to fight for it. I don’t see it as backsliding as much as people thought, “Oh, we fixed it,” and now they’re realizing, “No, we didn’t.” That’s why I just got in the appropriations bill, with bipartisan support, $1 billion [more for child care]. People are saying, “Whoa, wait a minute, this impacts our economy. This impacts my neighbors and friends.” Sometimes you have to backslide a bit for people to know what they just lost. I just got off the phone with (the owner of) Molly Moons Ice Cream and the first thing she asked me was about child care. It’s an economic issue for businesses. They can’t keep employees, they can’t stay open, they can’t promote people. They see the real impact of the lack of strong infrastructure.

  • You mentioned $1 billion. But you don’t think that will fix the crisis?

It’s definitely just a step and I would say a temporary Band-Aid, because you have to continue to provide that funding each year just to keep you where you are. That money provides support through states to child care centers to keep their doors open and pay teachers and make sure there are slots.

The real answer, I strongly believe, is my national legislation (the Child Care for Working Families Act), which will essentially set a floor that no family pays more than 7% of their income. Also, you can subsidize child care tuition, but if there’s no place for kids to go then it doesn’t meet the need. So my bill will provide grants to communities to build those child care centers and provide additional funding for teachers so they’re paid, because if they can get a better job at McDonald’s, the whole thing falls apart.

  • How much money would your bill cost?

What we’re focused on now is getting the support we need. The cost will be determined on what’s in the final package and where we are at the time. I haven’t asked the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) until we have a firm commitment to move forward. To this point, I’ve not been able to get Republican co-sponsors for it. That doesn’t mean I won’t.

What effect could November’s presidential election have?

First of all, President Biden is someone I talk to a lot and I push him hard on this and he understands it. I know it’s part of his agenda. For it to be part of an election process, voters need to be asking about it and pushing it.

  • What if former President Donald Trump wins?

I’m not doing “what ifs” about that at all.

  • Are you any closer to fixing child care now than decades ago?

I think it’s become part of the national conversation in a way that has really helped us to get where we are, and we have to keep that conversation going. What parents have to do is not retreat to (make it) the silent issue that they talk about (only) in their house. We need a strong, vocal community that stands up to say, “This is a problem for me.” We need to hear about it from families, from businesses, from lawmakers.