Assistant Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Katherine Clark, serves the Fifth District Of Massachusetts. She was first elected in a special election in December of 2013. Her career in public service is driven by her commitment to helping children and families succeed. She is a vocal advocate for ending wage discrimination; protecting women’s health care; and providing access to affordable, high-quality child care, paid family leave and safer schools; and other reforms to address the challenges women and families face. In Congress, she brings her experience as a state senator, state representative, general counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services, and policy chief for the state attorney general. In the fall of 2020, she was elected by her colleagues to serve as Assistant Speaker after serving as the Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus during the previous session.
You have championed the issue of accessible, affordable child care for many years. What role do you hope federal funding can play in transforming this issue for children and their families nationally?
For too long, America has failed to recognize child care for what it is: essential economic infrastructure. Just like our roads and bridges, child care enables parents to work and businesses to thrive. But without appropriate federal funding, the system has operated on razor thin margins where providers and families face impossibly high costs and early educators are paid impossibly low wages.
Then, the pandemic came along and broke our already fragile child-care system. With federal pandemic relief funding provided through the American Rescue Plan, we finally shifted the paradigm from child care as a private industry to a public good. The Build Back Better Act takes this a historic step further: It lowers child-care costs for families, creates a universal Pre-K system for all 3- and 4-year olds, and invests directly in child-care providers while guaranteeing livable wages for early educators. This is the transformation we need to ensure our kids, parents, and economy can flourish.
Why hasn’t the issue of high-quality early education and child care been a priority investment in the United States as it has been in so many other countries?
In America, child care has always been viewed as a nicety instead of a necessity. Overall, we have failed federally to put the basic needs of working families first. Misogyny continues to play a significant role in our economic policies. We are the only country among our global economic peers that does not have a paid family leave system. Women, especially women of color, are still earning less than men for equal work.
But what the pandemic made clear is the vital role of women in our economy. A majority of essential and frontline workers are women. And without child care, women were forced to choose between paid work and caring for their families. Ultimately, two million women were pushed out of the workforce. When parents across the country can’t find child care, the economy loses a staggering $57 billion per year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue.
This forced a national reckoning of what has long been known: accessible, affordable child care is how we build a stronger, more inclusive economy. Across the nation, in the beltway, and from the White House, we are now hearing a universal call: Child care is essential infrastructure!
How do you see these issues impacting women, particularly women of color?
Investing in child care is an economic issue and a justice issue. Our child-care system is owned and operated by women and women of color: women make up approximately half (47 percent) of the overall workforce, but are 95 percent of the child-care workforce. On average, these women make minimum wage, and as I have heard directly from the many educators in my district, many struggle to afford care for their own family members or basic necessities on their salaries.
Parents—especially moms—are also held back and left behind by our inadequate child-care system. Look no further than the September 2021 Jobs Report: All the net job gains went to men. That’s right: 309,000 women left the labor force. In 2021, we hit a 33-year low in women’s workforce participation. The lack of care is at the heart of this crisis.
If we want true economic equality, we must invest in our parents and providers and in turn, the care economy.
What role can civic leadership and philanthropy play in improving early education and care in Massachusetts and nationally? What role can and should businesses play?
Civic leaders, such as the Boston Foundation and other community stakeholders, are essential partners in our campaign for the Build Back Better agenda. I encourage everyone to call on the Senate to pass this crucial bill that includes family first policies, like universal Pre-K and affordable, accessible child care, and the tax cut for working families, the Child Tax Credit. I also encourage our business leaders to make space at the decision-making table for women and working moms—inclusive businesses are productive, successful businesses. And it’s about more than just representation; when we have working parents and women in leadership roles, their perspectives can help shape policies like paid leave, flexible work hours, and on-site child care that helps workers balance parenthood and their professional duties.