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Sophia Bracy Harris Montgomery, Alabama

Women’s equality and quality child care

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This piece was originally posted in the Montgomery Advertiser

By: Wendi C. Thomas

Women’s History Month is about more than celebrating phenomenal women in history; it’s also about honoring the women who have dedicated their lives to breaking down barriers so that future generations of women can thrive.

Sophia Bracy Harris believes that our nation cannot thrive without a system where the child care providers and caregivers are paid a decent wage and low-income parents can afford the quality care their children need. This is the theory that drives Sophia’s work as the executive director of the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama (FOCAL).

From the mothers who rely on child care for the daily care of their children, to the child care workforce, of which women make up 95%, child care is and has always been a women’s issue, affecting low-income women of color in particular.

“We don’t expect patients who are in need of medical care to build the hospital. We don’t expect the people who need police protection to provide the training. We don’t expect people who are going to work to pay for the roads individually,” said Sophia.

“We treat child care as if it’s the responsibility of the parents, which gets passed on to the child care provider, which gets passed on to the worker in the form of low wages,” Sophia said. “We need to invest in child care like we invest in other industries that we see as essential to the foundation of our community.”

And despite the immense impact this industry has on the lives of millions of women and families across the country, elected officials regard child care as an entity that should function with minimal public dollars.

According to the advocacy organization Child Care Aware of America, the average annual cost of child care for children four and under in Alabama hovers around $5,750.

“When you’re talking about families who are making minimum wage, then that’s a significant cost,” she said.

She’s right. For the 900,000 Alabamians living below the poverty line, this expense would eat up, at minimum, nearly a quarter of their annual income.

Alabama offers subsidies for low-income parents, she said, but “a parent making slightly over minimum wage would not qualify. And still we have a waiting list of more than 5,000 families.”

Actually, a waiting list that size would be a dramatic improvement. As of January 2015, 7,936 children were waiting for care, according to the Alabama Department of Human Services.

It’s not just the parents who are stuck. Child care providers fall in the lowest income tier, next to parking lot attendants and dry cleaners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2013, the average income nationwide for a full-time child care provider was just $21,490. In Alabama, that figure falls to $18,360.

Low wages plus state requirements for formal training creates an unwinnable situation for many providers.

“You can’t expect a person to get a degree and still go back and make minimum wage,” she said. “We have a revolving door because they have no increased compensation or benefits to support the advanced education.”

During Sophia’s earliest days with FOCAL, the state of Alabama passed the Child Care Act of 1971 which established minimum standards for providers. But officials often gave African American providers the run-around when they tried to learn about the new rules.

The providers worried that the regulations were merely a guise to shut down black-owned child care centers and prevent these communities from being in a position to access dollars from an anticipated national child care bill, later vetoed by President Richard Nixon.

The community wanted child care facilities that were controlled by their community, so FOCAL delivered, offering training sessions for providers anxious to meet the state’s new licensing standards.

Along with training on classroom management and writing lesson plans, Sophia and her team taught providers who their legislators were and who shaped the regulations they had to abide by. FOCAL supplied paper, pencils and envelopes for the providers and parents to write their elected representatives about child care policy.

“People began to feel a sense of empowerment from taking those kind of actions,” she said.

In the 1980s when child care funding was on the chopping block in Alabama, FOCAL found allies in predominately white organizations concerned with protecting adult daycare.

Together, they marched on the capitol and were successful in sparing child and adult care from budget cuts.

FOCAL has exposed the risks of unlicensed child care, helped to keep the child care subsidies for 28,000 children and influenced national child care policy. Any observance of Women’s History Month would be incomplete without Sophia’s story.

In December, she will step down as executive director to set up the organization’s archives. But after more than 40 years as an advocate for childcare reform, it’s unlikely she will ever quit building a movement.

“I am most proud that I have been given the privilege to be part of this creation… and that this vehicle is still alive and well.”