By Madeleine May Kunin
Editors note: Madeleine May Kunin was the 77th governor of Vermont, serving from 1985 until 1991. She is the author of “Coming of Age, My Journey to the Eighties.”
In the old days, back in the 1970s, issues like child care, equal pay and paid family and medical leave, were labeled “Women’s Issues.” Feminists fought for them, almost alone.
Today they are economic issues. The availability of safe, affordable child care can determine whether a family will live in poverty or not.
When I was a freshman legislator, I attended an evening hearing in the basement of a Montpelier church. It was a snowy night and the room was packed with mothers and kids. They made their way to the capital because of a child care crisis. Federal funding had been cut off and several child care centers were about to close.
I remember the words of one woman. The sound of a baby crying could be heard in the background.
She walked up to the microphone, and said, “I’m so nervous. I’m not used to public speaking, but I have to tell you that if I lose my child care, I can’t go to work, and if I lose my job, I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent or put food on the table.”
The crowd murmured its assent.
I decided something had to be done. The next morning, the appropriations bill was being debated in the Vermont House. I offered an amendment to increase child care funding. It was immediately shot down by Rep. Emory Hebard, chair of the Appropriations Committee. Unfortunately, I had taken the money from the highway fund to put into child care. If there was a sacred cow, the highway fund was it.
Emory told a folksy Vermont story about fixing the front steps. If this money was not appropriated from the highway fund to fix the steps each year, the steps would collapse.
Two years later I was appointed to the Appropriations Committee and made the same proposal. This time, Emory backed me up. His daughter had recently been divorced and needed to go back to work. Suddenly, child care was essential.
Fast forward to 2021. President Biden allocated $39 billion for child care providers in the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill. It is now law.
The Vermont Legislature took it from there.
It recently approved a bill, H.171, that states no family receiving subsidized child care would have to spend more than 10% of their gross annual income on child care. The price tag was $12.4 million in state and proposed federal funds. The vote was an astounding 146 to 1.
The bill flew by because legislators had learned that women who could not find child care had to stay home to care for their kids. A nice luxury for some, poverty for most.
Those so-called “women’s issues” are now essential economic issues that have gained wide support. Access to child care can make the difference for a family, whether it slips into poverty, or holds on to the middle class.