FEDERAL WAY — You would think that Jessica Heavner would be happy about an upcoming raise at the accounting job she landed with her local school district not long ago.
You would be wrong.
Heavner is worried the automatic annual raise may push her just above the income limit for state-subsidized child care, which means the Federal Way mother of three will earn slightly more while losing about $3,000 per month in child care assistance, almost wiping out her take-home pay. Unless she can reduce her hours, she may need to quit and search for a lower-paying job.
“It’s like trying to keep me in poverty,” said Heavner, 36, one of 10 parents who flew Friday from Washington state to Washington, D.C., to join parents from other states in lobbying Congress for more help with rising child care costs and staffing shortages. “I don’t want to go backward.”
Though Washington state’s child care assistance options are more generous than many other states’ thanks to a bill the Legislature passed last year, the need for help has grown. The median monthly cost of child care in King County for an infant increased from $1,625 in 2019 to $1,905 in 2021, according to data collected by the nonprofit Child Care Aware of Washington.
Heavner and the other D.C.-bound parents live in communities from White Center to Spokane and are ambassadors with a state association for child care providers and preschool teachers, which is paying for the trip. They’re supporting a new proposal by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that would ratchet up federal child care spending by as much as $200 billion, raising wages for teachers, funding centers and expanding assistance for families.
The Murray-Kaine proposal is a scaled-back version of a child care plan in the Build Back Better package that stalled in a deadlocked Senate last year. It would add to existing child care subsidies for low-income families. It also would aim to cap child care costs at 7% of household income for families making up to 250% of the median income in their state (in Washington, up to about $270,000 per year for a four-person household). States would opt in by covering 10% of the costs.
“The child care crisis … is impacting every part of our economy,” Murray said in an emailed statement Friday. “I have spoken to moms and parents in Seattle who had to quit their jobs entirely because they either couldn’t afford child care or they couldn’t find it, and to child care workers who are being paid poverty wages.”
Last year’s COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, included $635 million for child care in Washington state, Murray’s office noted.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat whose swing-vote opposition to Build Back Better helped doom that package, could decide whether the new Murray-Kaine child care proposal gets traction, and he has other priorities.
Manchin “remains seriously concerned about the financial status of our country and believes fighting inflation by restoring fairness to our tax system and paying down our national debt must be our first priority,” his spokesperson, Sam Runyon, said in a statement.
The prospects for Murray-Kaine proposal are uncertain, though pressure is building, with parents across the country struggling to find and pay for child care, said Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.
“We don’t have a single Republican vote for this, even though child care tends to be a pretty bipartisan issue,” Kashen said. “That’s why we need parents and early educators going to Congress to talk about this.”
Though Heavner, the Federal Way mom whose kids are 2, 4 and 8, has never lobbied Congress before, she did speak to state lawmakers last year before they passed the Fair Start for Kids Act. It raised the income limit for state-subsidized child care assistance to 60% of the state median income, with monthly copays now ranging from $0 to $215.
State Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Federal Way, who sponsored the act, said COVID school and child care shutdowns made some privileged people pay more attention to longstanding problems.
The act’s changes have made a difference, including for Heavner, said April Messenger, who manages the parent ambassador program at the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP, a nonprofit, and is leading the D.C. trip. (Head Start and ECEAP are government-funded early learning programs that are free for low-income families.) But there are still gaps in the child care system, she said.
One parent on the trip became ineligible for assistance when she stopped working to focus on nursing school, Messenger said. Another stays home with her kids because child care costs would consume her whole paycheck.
The new limit for state-subsidized child care assistance — about $5,400 before taxes for a family of four — is the threshold Heavner will soon cross, she said, based on the cost-of-living raise she expects in September and child-support payments she recently began to collect, even if her raise is less than $1 per hour. She may qualify for a slightly higher limit because her family is already enrolled.
Sitting at her kitchen table, where the place mats are decorated with photos of her kids playing soccer and T-ball, Heavner said she loves working as an accounting technician for the Federal Way School District. She feels like she’s helping her community. Since getting the job, she no longer relies on food stamps.
Heavner said her message in D.C. would be: “You want people to contribute to our economy, but we can’t do that without child care.”