‘Care’ is an incredibly loaded word in the United States today and conversations around who we care for, how we provide care, and how we support and fund care require as much nuance as the term itself. In some ways, the national debate around childcare has been as constant as any conversation around how systems in the United States work as designed — and how they work against those who need them the most.
How the hell do we make care work for us in the U.S.?
There have been several pushes to get us to answer this question as a country—during wars, recessions, and pandemics that have required us to change our normal ways of operating. During World War I, for example, our government made temporary investments into support for families while men were enlisted and women joined the workforce. During the late 80s and 90s, there was an upswing in the establishment of daycares and care programs thanks to federal and state investment in infrastructure. Today, we find ourselves at yet another important cultural moment as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our M.O.
All of these pushes for changes to how the U.S. cares for kids happened with heightened national discourse and funding—but none have succeeded long term. Today, the burden of care is still on families and communities, and the lack of national consensus can make it feel like care reform is a critical but impossible mission. Looking back on my own childhood, however, I don’t remember care feeling this fraught or desperate.
Growing up in the Caribbean in the 90s, rooted in a vibrant, large, and close-knit community of Nigerians, my family had a network of other families who could be reliably called upon to look after and help raise me and my sister. In our community, care looked like getting permission to walk the ten minutes to Auntie Ife's house, holding my sister’s hand the entire way there, and then running around with our cousins until we fell asleep. Care looked like falling asleep in the back of Mr. Singh’s car, the neighbor who worked close to our secondary school and could reliably pick us up if my mum was stuck on the other side of the island for work. Care looked like friends coming over on the weekends while their parents were out, and spending endless hours climbing the mango trees in our backyard or catching frogs in my mom’s potted plant garden, Igbo gospel music playing in the background. Care looked like all of our parents getting together every few weeks at one house, doors thrown open and music spilling out of windows, while adult conversation competed with whatever soccer match was riling up all of the uncles. Care meant that there was never a dearth of willing adult arms I could collapse into or laps to fall asleep on after we tired ourselves out.
In hindsight, I can recognize that this type of care system was (and still is, honestly) one that is rooted deeply in what it means to be Nigerian, diaspora or not. We adhere to the age-old adage that it always takes a village to raise a child. This was translated into aunts and uncles by blood and by love who were family; neighbors whose kids felt like cousins and whose houses felt like home; and streets that were safe enough for our families to let us run free for hours and hours.
Care, in the earliest part of my childhood, felt like community.
Our immigration to the United States was as jarring a shift for my sister and me as it was for our parents, who suddenly were dropped into a national culture that viewed caring for kids as a parents’ responsibility and their responsibility only. Instead of being anchored in community, care in the States is anchored in an individualistic view of childrearing, which is the root of why America now finds itself face-to-face with a care system on the brink of collapse. Basically, in moving to America, my family inherited a non-system.
What we have writ-large in the United States today is a very loose definition of care. Activists and thinkers have long documented the ways in which parents and guardians have struggled to stay afloat while taking care of themselves and their families, and how a woefully underpaid caregiver workforce is still reeling from the implications of a devastating pandemic. This affects us all, families, kids, care workers, and communities.
The childcare system is essential to our individual and collective ability to support ourselves and our families, get an education, and live a life beyond the home, and is therefore essential to the existence of all the rest of our systems and institutions. And yet, it is still not a cohesive system. Thousands of formal daycare centers exist across the country and adhere to different county and state rules, or have different definitions of what ‘quality’ means depending on region and affluence. Federal government’s stance on investing into this ecosystem wavers monthly, and state-level funding to pay caregivers or provide subsidies to families differs state to state.
Meanwhile, millions of families have care needs that the solutions in their cities simply cannot meet—which means that different folx in different places have built hyperlocal solutions out of necessity and scarcity that aren’t fully integrated into or supported by federal, state, and county institutions. Should a household move from Lower West Side NYC to downtown Kansas City, there is no single governing body to smooth out the process of finding child care in their new city. Even though COVID-19 brought the issue of care back to the fore—with working parents pointing out that there are hundreds of thousands more kids than there are daycare or HeadStart openings—those sitting at the highest echelons of power are slow to decide how much support families should get or take a stance on how much we should value and compensate those caring for and teaching our kids. And, to that point, no one can agree on who, exactly, is supposed to care about care.
Where else could we have landed but in a state of pending emergency, just as a global pandemic came along to expose fault lines in each of our institutionalized systems across the country?
It makes sense that this is where we’ve landed. It makes sense that where government and official decision-making have fallen short, philanthropy and human tenacity have stepped in to try and fill some of the gaps. Two groups who have been working to strengthen the system are the philanthropic funders pouring emergency funding into those providing care and building new solutions, and the people and organizations powering those solutions themselves. They’re making their own way forward.
Here at IDEO.org, we’ve found ourselves immersed in pieces of work that attempt to tackle some pieces of the childcare system, and have looked even further out to the intertwined system of foster care. What binds all of this work together is the core belief that the only way we fix this is by creating room for the folx building and caring and organizing to dream—which we know is hard to do when it’s taking everything you have to respond to the staggering need of the moms, dads, and babies right in front of you.
And yet, what we have found is that in the midst of creating solutions for their communities, committed individuals (whether part of formal organizations or not) have found ways to lean into some element of reclaiming and re-envisioning the future of care. I’ve had the honor of working with the Care Constellation Cohort, a group of folx from across the country who are doing just that—dreaming up or living into new models of being in right relationship with caregivers, families, and kids.
Down South in Atlanta is GoldenSeed Collective, who have sought to redefine and reclaim the act of caring as something communal, culturally affirming, and capable of bringing collective joy and connection to adults and children alike. Care Appalachia, based in rural Virginia, reconsiders childcare as an essential starting piece of the entire continuum of care (i.e. from childcare all the way to elder care) and recognizes how many of us have been raised by the generation of grandparents who stepped in when parents could not. Out in St. Louis, MO Gateway Alliance is redefining care as a community responsibility, building networks of home-based and formal daycare center providers across the city and county while advocating in places of power for funding to directly pay a workforce that needs our love and attention.
Our Colorado consortium (represented by folx from Colorado Children’s Campaign and Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition) and Family Forward Oregon are neck-deep in building political power to get their policymakers to pass law and implement existing policies in ways that shift things across their states at large. The folx behind Texas-based RISE Inc. and Oak Park-based Collaboration for Early Childhood both reframe the practice of caregiving as one that should be anti-racist and healing. RISE seeks to instill anti-colonial and anti-racist methodology into how folx practice care, and Collaboration for Early Childhood is thinking about how to bring more formerly justice-involved black and brown men into the classroom to disrupt the preschool-to-prison pipeline at its very root.
Young Women’s Freedom Center, based in the Bay Area, has refashioned care through the lens of trusting in the self-determination power of parents. They offer the provocation that if we just designed care and related systems—like universal basic income—to meet the needs of trans, cis, street-involved, and justice-involved parents, we would get much closer to a system flexible enough to serve us all.
I could offer many more examples beyond just the ones I’ve had the privilege to manage and support. The stories of these folx would be just as inspirational, and the takeaways about how much of our system simply doesn't work for many communities would be equally as apparent. What feels evident in the ways these individuals, teams, and organizations have had to build something for them and by them points to the truth that what we have today is a product of many intersectional and institutionalized isms. We can thank racism and xenophobia, capitalism, classism, and sexism for our systemic childcare and education problems, and the folx whose work stand in direct opposition to all of that are the ones we need to uplift, fund, and continue to follow.
We have a choice: continue to perpetuate the brokenness of care, or don’t. I do not pretend to have any of the answers around what it would look like to completely overhaul the care system of this country. But, I believe with all my heart that the collective ‘we’ does.
Just like the Care Constellation Cohort, there are a myriad of bright spots in our patchwork system lighting the way to what care should be like in this country. Care can feel like parents and grandparents and guardians who are happy and whole and thriving, caregivers who are valued and nourished personally and professionally, communities where everyone is in the ‘business’ of looking after those around them, and kids who grow up affirmed in the entirety of who they are and connected to the earth they stand on and the communities they come from.
I know that because I had that.
And I truly believe that we all can have it, too. It’s going to take an incredible amount of work. It’s going to take us seriously investing into our existing bright spots—the teams in the Cohort I described above and countless others just like them who are leaning into living out a different way of caring and being cared for. It’s going to take the existing rallying cries in neighborhoods and cities and counties that coalesce into something that looks like a movement strong enough to push our decision-makers into making better choices.
Most importantly, it’s going to take all of us—in our different roles and positionalities within the care system and in all the other interconnected ones—to figure out how we make care a collective and joyful responsibility. The only way we get there is together.
Illustrations by Uche Offomah.