Affordable child care helped my family out of deep poverty. Can we save it?

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Pamela Covington

by Pamela M. Covington

We need to fix our fraying safety net so other families get the same chance.

On a good day in December 1983, I cooked Vienna sausages and grits on a borrowed kerosene heater that – in my poverty-stricken state – felt like another mouth to feed. Every day I had to buy fuel for it.

I’d vowed to lift myself and two boys out of destitution as soon as I could, either by getting a job or returning to school. But a severe lack of resources, primarily child care for my toddler, made it nearly impossible to envision either.

Our financial situation was far from secure compared to what it had been the year before. My partner and I both worked, and we enjoyed a comfortable life in a lovely neighborhood. However, his struggles with PTSD from his time in Vietnam led to unpredictable violent outbursts, prompting me to flee with the children for our safety.

With no concrete plan, we ended up briefly homeless, relying on a moving truck and strangers for shelter before ending up in a tiny, unequipped unit in a dilapidated cement tenement.

Sylvia, a friend at church, taught me about Pell Grants, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (SEOG) and other tools to help me afford an education. Thanks to her, I decided to attend community college.

Sylvia also had the answer to my biggest looming concern – the availability of child care for my toddler. She said the cost could be covered by a government-subsidized program. And she was right.

Without that support, I couldn’t have taken advantage of any of the other aid. Knowing my 2-year-old would be properly looked after enabled me to not only attend my classes but focus on my studies with peace of mind.

During my second year of college, I completed two unpaid internships: one in a television newsroom and another at a city lifestyle magazine. That experience helped me get a piece published in a major newspaper, which led to opportunities with local publications. My income increased and stabilized when I became a newspaper staff writer.

Affordable child care was the key. To this day, nearly 40 years later, I’m still grateful for having received that support and the opportunities for professional growth that came my way. Affordable child care is bound to be the answer to others’ success as well.

Accessible child care offers long-term benefits for children, families and society, including improved educational outcomes, greater workforce participation and reduced dependence on the social safety net. But unfortunately, the cost of child care has skyrocketed since I had young kids. Some families pay up to 30 percent of their income towards child care, making it unaffordable almost everywhere in the United States.

I urge members of Congress to fund, support and expand child care initiatives. The pandemic-era stabilization funds that saved up to 10 million child care slots ended last fall, threatening the child care sector as well as the families, children and businesses that depend on it. And we’re facing another cliff this fall.

This spring, Community Change Action organized the third Annual National Day Without Child Care, which gave a glimpse of what would happen if providers were all forced to close their doors for good. As a parent and grandparent, I stand in solidarity with them.

If we don’t make a change, all of us will pay the price.

Pamela Covington is a writer and journalist living in Atlanta. This op-ed was adapted from a longer version published by and distributed for syndication by