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Host of 'No One is Coming to Save Us' delves deep into child care crisis

Children sit in a circle at Liberty Winn's home childcare center in Carlsbad, May 18, 2022.
Claire Trageser
Children sit in a circle at Liberty Winn's home childcare center in Carlsbad, May 18, 2022.

As anyone who’s cared for young children knows, it's a very demanding job. But child care providers are generally paid very low wages, and the child care industry operates on razor-thin margins. There are few government subsidies for child care, and no public school for kids under 5. So, most parents are pretty much on their own.

But how did it get this way? The podcast "No One is Coming to Save Us" digs into the history of child care and what could be done to heal the industry. The show’s host, Gloria Riviera, sat down with KPBS to talk about the show.

The child care industry was already on the edge, and then COVID made it even harder with shutdowns, new rules and health concerns. Were you already working on this show when COVID started?

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Riviera: I think we did get lucky with the timing of the release of the show. It was May 2021, and parents across the country were — I was going to say — at their breaking point, but they were just beyond it in a place of total pain, and that had turned into an anger. So, it was a good time to release a podcast on child care.

So then, and I know this is a big question, but how did child care get to the state it’s in today?

Riviera: We say, how did we get into this mess? Yes, I think I can lay it out for you. I'll try to be concise. First and foremost, if you look at it from the perspective of race, just think about how we thought about Black families, Black women, Black children. Black women were hired to take care of white children. So think about all of what goes into that and in terms of how we value the role of a Black mother and a Black child. So that's one thing.

Secondly, I think it's really interesting — I did not know this — that the U.S. during World War II created incredible child care and early education, I call them pop-ups now, but all the men were going off to war. So a few smart people said these women who are now going to work to support the war effort, they will need help taking care of their children. And it was high quality. It was smart people. In some cases, they were in church basements, but in other cases, they were beautifully designed buildings.

And my favorite tidbit from that is that women would come home from their hard day in a factory and their child would be returned to them having had an invigorating day, a creative day, a happy kid, and they would also be handed in some places a warm meal because, God forbid they go home and have to cook dinner for their family. When the war ended, those schools went away.

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You also talk on the first season about a historic stigma around child care, where the women who needed it were lower-income and maybe had husbands who couldn’t work. Is that stigma still at play today?

Riviera: I think the stigma has a lot of elements that go into it. So, you look at the obsession with material wealth in our country. I mean, I remember on an ill-fated foray into law, I was a paralegal, and my lawyer that I worked for was sending presentations from labor, she was about to have her baby. She was in the hospital, and she was sending out presentations like right before or in the middle of contractions. And there's a part of our society that thinks that's kind of badass and like, thinks that's kind of incredible. And, "Go her. She's working to the last minute."

And that's so removed from a government, a country, a community that pauses to appreciate this moment in a woman's life when she's about to become a mother or a couple's life when they're about to adopt a child or anyone who becomes a parent. There's no pause in this country to say, wait a minute, how can we help you? I think that our societal obsession with achievement has gotten seriously off kilter.

We’ve reported at KPBS and you have as well about the staffing shortages issues that have plagued child care, especially during COVID. Are there areas that you feel like the government failed the industry?

Riviera: I think it's a really hard discussion to have. I think if you look at where we started, child care providers have never been paid a living wage. Even though we educate, you can go to college, you can get lots of degrees to qualify you to take care of kids under the age of kindergarten. So, the landscape to begin with was desolate and dire and then COVID happens and what a lot of places — like Starbucks or Walgreens or Walmart — there's a long list of companies that were able to increase wages. It started to look really good to go to a place that could bump up your minimum wage significantly. And these child care centers just couldn't do that.

So if your question is, where was the failure? I think the failure was in not supporting the small companies. If you were taking care of 50 kids, 100 kids, you got small business loans, home care providers did as well. But I feel like it was not as smooth a process as it might have been. We spoke to someone in Alabama, and in Alabama, there are a lot of child care providers who take kids who are on subsidies. I did not know this, but if a child who's on subsidies, meaning they're getting help from the state to pay for their place at these facilities, if that child doesn't show up — and think about how many kids didn't show up during COVID — the child care provider does not get paid. So it's like this domino effect that's lightning fast and devastating.

What are you delving into in Season 2?

Riviera: Season 2 is all about a weekly conversation. So when I talked about this wound that child care is, every week now in Season 2, we get to rip off the Band-Aid and look a little bit more closely. And what that looks like is conversations with people who are in this. I think that's the connective tissue we need right now because I really don't want to go back to my kids' early years. We got through them. Everyone is still standing. But I don't want it to be that way for my kids. And unless I make everyone move to Sweden or somewhere with a child care policy that's friendly to families, they will be facing this absolute desert.

This is the place to find news, information and resources to help you make decisions about the children under your care and support you in this adventure we call "parenting."