Tessa Buttram

On Thursday, March 7, the House Ways and Means Worker and Family Support Subcommittee held a hearing entitled, Leveling the Playing Field for Working Families: Challenges and Opportunities. Chairman Danny Davis (D-IL) opened the hearing saying that “Lack of affordable child care and paid leave are not “some of us” problems but “all of us” problems.” The Illinois Congressman then highlighted several statistics, only about one in six eligible children receives federal child care assistance; less than half of Americans have access to paid medical leave; less than a fourth of American workers live in states where they can earn temporary disability insurance; and less than a fifth of workers can get paid leave when they need it to care for a loved one. Davis, the new Chairman of the key House subcommittee, finished his opening statement by stating that he hopes that Congress can find a solution to help support grandparents and parents across the country.

The four witnesses at the hearing included Ms. Yvette McKinnie, grandmother, raising two grandchildren, Mrs. Tameka Henry, parent and wife caring for her husband, Dr. Jane Waldfogel, Professor of Social Work at Columbia University, and Ms. Kelly Schulz, Secretary, Maryland Department of Commerce.

Ms. McKinnie began by giving her testimony on her current situation of raising two grandchildren, Matthew and Isaiah. Matthew’s mother is currently working in a different state, and Ms. McKinnie has volunteered to step in and raise him while she is gone, so he did not have to uproot his life, and so he can stay in a stable home. Isaiah was believed to be Ms. McKinnie’s biological grandchild, through recently she has found out they are not biologically related; she has still stepped up to raise him. Ms. McKinnie has a full-time job, and when she applied for governmental assistance, she did not qualify for benefit because Isiah is not her biological child and she is not a parent. Isaiah has special needs, and it is $600 a month for special care. She described how hard the early morning and late nights have been for her while raising these two boys. She stated that she stepped up because she did not want the boys to go into the foster care system.

Mrs. Henry testified about her caretaking challenges due to her husband’s medical conditions, requiring hospitalization 10 to 12 days out of the month. This has caused her to have to take unpaid time off from her job. She estimates that over the years she has lost $200,000 in wages due to having to take time off to care for her husband. She said that family leave should be accessible and affordable.

Dr. Jane Waldfogel began by testifying that the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act only allowed for paid leave and only 60% of Americans would benefit. Only 40% of Americans have access to affordable child care, and only 10% receive federal help to pay for child care, and those numbers have stayed the same for the past few decades. She said that quality child care would improve children’s lives for the long term.
Ms. Kelly Schultz discussed a program she conducted in the state of Maryland entitled, Empowering Advancement Right Now (EARN). This program helped working families to establish strong career paths and help with child care needs. She stated that for every $3 the state spends on the program the state earned $18 back. Congresswoman Walorski (R-IN) asked about the EARN program and if it could be recreated in each state; Ms. Schultz stated yes.

Chairman Davis began his questioning by stating that only 11% of grandparents can find affordable child care for their grandchildren. He asked each of the witnesses, how having affordable child care can affect a family? Dr. Waldfogel responded that childhood poverty effects children at a young age and quality child care could help to improve a child’s wellbeing in the long term. Congressman Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) shared a personal story about his childhood when he was sick and needed to stay in the hospital for a week. His family did not have insurance, and his stay almost bankrupted his family. He asked the witnesses if they thought the federal government had to choose between job training programs or family leave, and all the witnesses said that it did not have to be one or the other and that both could be provided.

Congressman Dwight Evans (D-PA) asked Ms. McKinnie what she thought could better support grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Ms. McKinnie offerred that funding for child care would be helpful and that there are programs that only recognize parents and that she would like more recognition for grandparents. Many committee members shared a personal story of how their family made sacrifices to take care of another loved one in the case of a death or health concern. Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY) stressed the importance of the power of family. Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) discussed a study that was completed in California showed that increasing maternity leave for mothers decreased infant mortality and improved mother’s mental health.

Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) discussed reintroducing the Sarah Grace Farley-Kluger Act. The legislation would amend the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 to include taking up to twelve weeks of leave due to the death of son or daughter.