People and Policy Makers Are Stepping Up to Support Low-Wage Workers and their Children

I remember when I was younger, my mother would act relieved when summer was coming to an end. I always thought it was because she wanted my siblings and I to be in school and out of the house, but that was not the case at all. Now that I’m older I understand that my mother’s relief was because school provided safe and reliable child care for us. Although school hours helped my mom have peace of mind for a little while, she had to think about our arrangement after school. She was home making dinner for us, but would have to leave to continue her second job and pick up my older brother who was taking English classes to enroll in college. I had to grow up fast and become a second mother to my little brother in order to support my mom and siblings.

In the year 2000, when my family migrated to this country, the minimum wage in Arizona was $5.15 per hour. My mother was working various jobs that allowed her to feed us and provide for our basic needs but that was not enough for her to afford consistent child care. She didn’t know about the child care subsidies she could have qualified for—which shows the gap in resources and information in immigrant communities—and care outside standard weekday hours is often hard to come by even when families have the resources to pay for it.

Our family situation is not unique. More than 40% of children in this country live with parents who work “nontraditional hours” when schools are not open. These hours are typically early mornings, evening, overnight or weekends, and work schedules often change at the last minute. Imagine my mother: an immigrant woman adapting to a new country, with a language barrier, trying to make ends meet and still having to figure out how she can balance work and family time. I know it was a struggle for my mother when one of us was sick and had to stay home—the same struggle that many other women face:  one in five women with children have said they or a family member have been fired or disciplined by employer for taking time off to take care of a sick child.

I worry that for too many families, especially immigrant families like mine, things are only getting harder. But today I have a reason to focus on the fact that in many places across the country, advocates, working people, policy makers, and even private companies are stepping up to help support families who are struggling to make ends meet and provide for their children. The National Women’s Law Center just released a report, Stepping Up: New Policies and Strategies Supporting Parents in Low-Wage Jobs and Their Children, that includes dozens of examples of policies, practices and strategies being implemented right now to increase families’ incomes; ensure parents are treated fairly in the workplace; make work schedules more stable and predictable; increase parents’ access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave; and expand children’s access to affordable and high-quality child care.

In my home state of Arizona, for example, voters passed a ballot initiative in 2016—the Fair Wages and Healthy Families Act—that would have been a big help to my own family years ago. Thanks to this measure, Arizona’s minimum wage is on its way up to $12 an hour by 2020, and 930,000 workers will have access to paid sick days. Massachusetts just became the latest state to raise its minimum wage all the way to $15 an hour, and to adopt paid family and medical leave for all working people in the state. In Oregon, the first statewide law to secure more stable and predictable work schedules for people working in the service sector just went into effect. South Carolina recently passed a law to ensure that pregnant workers have the right to reasonable workplace accommodations when they need them on the job. And in a rare victory at the federal level this year, the final spending bill for fiscal year 2018 included the largest increase in child care funding in history—which states are already using to help more low-income families get assistance to pay for child care and to raise pay for child care providers.

To be sure, millions of families today are still facing real challenges, and the current Administration and majority in Congress generally seem intent on making things worse. (See, for example, the Trump Administration’s absurd declaration that the war on poverty was so successful that we can now cut every program that helps low-income folks; the executive order expected any day now that is designed to make it impossible for immigrants with low to moderate incomes to enter the U.S. legally, and will deny health care and other vital services to millions of immigrant families; Senator Marco Rubio’s proposal to make people borrow against their own Social Security benefits to get a little paid time off to welcome a new child; and the list goes on.) But the victories in Stepping Up—and the work of all the people who made them happen—inspires me to keep fighting (and winning!) to ensure working parents and their young children have the opportunities they deserve.