The following is a conversation between Jessica Sager, the Founder and CEO of All Our Kin, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: One of the most significant challenges for a low-income family with young children is finding high quality, safe, and affordable child care. All Our Kin, based in Connecticut, is one of the few organizations in the country that addresses child care needs and workforce development simultaneously. And here tonight to tell us about it is Jessica Sager, the Founder and CEO of All Our Kin.
Good evening, Jessica, and welcome to the Business of Giving!
Jessica: Good evening! Thank you for having me.
Denver: What is the mission, and what are the goals of All Our Kin?
Jessica: All Our Kin is really setting out to transform the supply of high-quality, sustainable family childcare. This is care that is offered primarily by women in their homes; so it’s a home-based childcare business that really meets the needs of working families and of our very youngest children. So we’ve built a model for helping these women develop truly high-quality early learning settings that are also sustainable businesses that help themselves and their families succeed.
All Our Kin was created as a recognition that the women providing care in neighborhoods across this country are a tremendous support of strength and can help fill the gap that was created to meet the needs of these children and families.
Denver: Fantastic. Was there a moment or an event that inspired you to start All Our Kin?
Jessica: Yes. All Our Kin really began initially as a response to welfare reform. So, at the end of the ‘90s, welfare changed dramatically in this country. Until that time, women could receive cash assistance to stay home with their young children and, suddenly, there was a requirement that they enter the workforce very quickly. This placed a tremendous burden on our childcare system and forced many families to choose between their family’s economic survival and their children’s learning and well-being.
So, All Our Kin was created as a recognition that the women providing care in neighborhoods across this country are a tremendous support of strength and can help fill the gap that was created to meet the needs of these children and families.
Denver: Yes, and that legislation was passed I think in 1996.
Jessica: That’s right. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.
…children’s brains are literally built in the first three years of life.
Denver: Well, before we get in too deep about the work that you do, let’s talk about a child’s brain development. Tell us what occurs in the first few years of life.
Jessica: This is really a profound shift in our understanding of how children learn because 10 years ago, all we talked about in early care and education was sort of the years 3, 4, and 5. But what we’ve learned is that children’s brains are literally built in the first three years of life. That lays the foundation of so much of what comes after: children’s cognitive development, but also their social/emotional development, their executive development– so that means their ability to set plans and follow through, to have grit, to be resilient… their physical health. This all starts in the very earliest years, which is why it’s so critical that they’re in high-quality learning environments during this time.
Denver: What would the approximate cost for center-based care be for a child under four years of age?
Jessica: It varies a lot by state, but pretty much in any state, families can expect for child care for an infant and toddler to be their single biggest cost, or one of their single biggest costs. It’s equivalent to the cost of a mortgage, maybe even more. Usually, it’s more expensive than tuition at a state college. So, it’s a huge burden for families.
I think as a matter of moral and ethical responsibility, if we want to be a society that values each human being fully, then each child deserves to be in a safe, loving, learning place from his or her very earliest years.
Denver: What is the cost to society of these child care breakdowns that we’re so familiar with?
Jessica: So we know from some of the big longitudinal studies that have been done dating back to the ‘60s and ‘70s that an investment in children in the earliest years can return roughly $8 to society in terms of increased productivity in the workforce, children’s increased earnings over time, reduced incidents of things like incarceration, bad outcomes for kids. But more profoundly, not only are there economic benefits for society, I think as a matter of moral and ethical responsibility, if we want to be a society that values each human being fully, then each child deserves to be in a safe, loving, learning place from his or her very earliest years.
Denver: Hard to argue with that, that’s for sure. You’re into family-based child care. What percentage of children get that kind of child care as opposed to center-based?
Jessica: About half of all children under five spend at least some portion of their day in home-based childcare. So, again, we work specifically with family child care providers – folks who run home-based businesses – but there are also many other family, friend, and neighbor caregivers who have other kinds of informal arrangements with families. Taken together, these two groups comprise about half of all child care arrangements for our youngest children.
Denver: I always wondered about, let’s say, a mother who works in a restaurant in the evening – cashier, waitress, cook, whatever it may be. Are there any kind of providers in these off-hours for those families?
Jessica: I’m so glad that you’re raising that point. The need for non-standard hours care is huge, and it’s only growing because fewer and fewer families work traditional nine-to-five jobs. There are some centers that provide off-hours or non-standard hours care, but they’re by far the minority. Family child care often provides a much more flexible alternative that actually meets families’ needs and that also provides a place where children can feel like they’re in something like a home during those off-hours, which I think is a really wonderful option.
Denver: Family-based child care… this has really been overlooked and undervalued by policy makers and society at large. What do we do to change that?
Jessica: I think it is starting to change now. We began All Our Kin at the very end of 1999, so our organization is about 20 years old. When we began, there was no attention paid really to family-based childcare. And now, I think we’re actually starting to get phone calls from folks around the country saying, “I see this as a need in my community. How do I – a mayor/a governor/a funder – how do I bring this into my community and actually support the development of sustainable family child care programs?”
But I think we have a lot more to do. That’s part of why I’m here. Part of All Our Kin’s mission is both to do the work and to share the stories and the data about the wonderful, wonderful programs that family child care educators can offer, and why it is so very valuable to invest in them in their work.
Denver: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that work. What services does All Our Kin provide to family child care providers?
Jessica: We have a really strength-based holistic model for supporting family child care providers. And the first thing is to start by just recognizing that these are incredibly mission-driven women, who bring so many strengths to the work. So, go in by acknowledging that, and then really think about how to build them up as both educators and business people.
So, the first piece is to take folks who maybe aren’t licensed yet and help them build sustainable businesses and become part of a professional community.
More important than any of that, what we infuse into the process is really this deep respect for the work and the undertaking that each of these caregivers is engaged in. So, by the end of the time working with us, not only are they licensed, they truly view themselves as professionals worthy of respect and committed to lifelong learning.
Denver: What do you have to do to get licensed, let’s say, in the state of Connecticut?
Jessica: So it looks different in every state. In Connecticut, there’s a process. It involves a lot of paperwork, a lot of background checks, some minimal training in health and safety. More important than any of that, what we infuse into the process is really this deep respect for the work and the undertaking that each of these caregivers is engaged in. So, by the end of the time working with us, not only are they licensed, they truly view themselves as professionals worthy of respect and committed to lifelong learning.
Denver: That is so important and so great, because I think a lot of people tend to look at them as babysitters.
Jessica: That’s exactly right. And I think that really brings me to the next piece of what we do, which is lots and lots of professional learning, both through coaching delivered on-site in family child care programs and through our own workshops and trainings and classes. And all of those are really about taking the very latest research on brain development and bringing it into family child care programs.
Denver: They’re professionals, that’s for sure.
Jessica: They are absolutely professionals. So the third piece is supporting their professionalism through our business training and support, through training family childcare educators as entrepreneurs, helping them develop contracts, policies, manage cash flow. They need to be wonderful educators, but they also need to know how to run a business effectively.
Denver: How many family child care providers are currently in your network?
Jessica: We work with about 700 family child care educators across several cities in Connecticut and now in the Bronx here in New York as well, which we’re very excited about. And through those educators, we’re reaching about 4,000 children.
Denver: Our daughter went to a family child care provider, and it was an absolutely wonderful woman, but I also observed that this can be pretty lonely and stressful work. Do you have a way of bringing this whole community together so they can share stories and encourage one another?
Jessica: I think that’s one of the most important things we have to offer, is that through our professional learning and other opportunities, we’re creating a space where family child care educators connect with each other. Because it’s really hard when you’re with kids all day, by yourself, 10- to 12 hours a day. And folks are often amazed to learn that after a 10- to 12-hour day, these educators will come out again and again to trainings and workshops. Part of that is because of their deep commitment to learning and children’s well-being, but part of it is that it becomes a social space to build a really strong set of connections to each other and really begin to build a professional cohort across each of our communities, where they can learn from, inspire, and support each other.
Denver: That camaraderie is just invaluable, and also I think what happens often when you’re in those circumstances is that maybe things are not going right, and you think it’s only you. And then you find out that it’s not only you, and that sense of shared challenges and how to navigate that can really make a big, big difference.
Jessica: Yes. Having a friend that you can pick up the phone and call when you have a hard day, that’s huge! Another thing I’ll say, many of our best workshop trainers are family child care educators in our network who can actually say, “Not only is this the theory, let me tell you what it’s like to live it, and what’s hard, as well as what’s great about that.”
Denver: Let’s get real.
Denver: There had been studies on family child care programs that are affiliated with All Our Kin. What have been some of the key findings from that research?
Jessica: There are sort of three big findings. The first is our impact on the supply of child care. Family child cares are closing across the country because this work is so hard and so underpaid. They’re closing even though there’s a desperate need for their services. So, we’ve shown that in Connecticut, in All Our Kin’s first 10 years, the state lost over 30% of its family child care programs, while where All Our Kin was located in New Haven, because of our work, that number went up by over 70%. So that’s number one.
Number two is our impact on quality. We have a study that’s gotten a lot of attention, using research-based observational tools that correlate with better outcomes for children. We sent observers into the field who didn’t know if they were observing All Our Kin or non-All Our Kin programs. Our family childcare educators scored on average over 50% higher on these tools. Their scores were remarkably high.
Jessica: And then there’s one final piece of this, which is our impact on economics. So, the University of Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis has shown that not only do we significantly impact caregivers’ earnings and well-being, that because of caregivers increased earnings and parents’ ability to enter into the workforce, every dollar we’re investing in our newest educators is returning $15 to $20 to society.
Denver: Nice metrics, that’s for sure. And this work is still really undervalued. I think I read some place that the average median income was $23,240, and when I think about the work that’s involved and the responsibility involved, that really isn’t commensurate for what these women are doing.
Jessica: That’s absolutely right. And I think at least for the educators in our network, many of them are serving children from low-income working families, so the amount they’re able to earn is directly connected to the amount of child care subsidy dollars that are available, which is why government funding becomes an essential piece of this. Because as we discussed at the beginning, the cost of care is so high, the families really need help to be able to pay educators what they deserve.
Denver: Well, as we mentioned also at the beginning, you are based in Connecticut and gone from town to town, but now you’re springing…you’ve spread your wings a little bit, and you are now in New York City and are partnering with the Department of Education. Tell us about that.
Jessica: We are so excited about this. So, we have a direct service All Our Kin site in the Bronx where we’re working with family child care educators, but we also have this really neat partnership with the Department of Education to partner with other agencies, other NGOs and social service agencies across the city, that are also engaging with family child care educators. And these agencies have many, many strengths that they bring to the work. On top of that, we are able to infuse our coaching model, our professional learning principles, as well as our business curriculum, to really sort of turbo-boost the services that they’re able to offer to family child care educators.
Denver: Talk a little bit about your funding. Where does it come from? Is it picking up? What role does government play, and so on?
Jessica: Our work is primarily funded through philanthropy, but I think what’s interesting to note is it actually is kind of highly leveraged by government dollars. Because we are providing professional development and quality enhancement to child care programs, it is federal and state child care subsidy dollars that are then paying for the actual cost of care.
In addition, we are beginning to see more government investment in our work. For example, the partnership with the Department of Education here in New York City, some more partnerships with the state of Connecticut, and other folks in other parts of the country reaching out to us as well.
Denver: Speak a little bit about your philanthropy. Who are some of your supporters?
Jessica: I was delighted to see that you recently interviewed the managing director of the Omidyar Network.
Denver: Yes! It was a great interview.
Jessica: So, we, right now, are very lucky to have the support of three major national foundations – the Omidyar Network, the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund – who have come together to say, “We think All Our Kin’s model is really exciting, and we really want to invest in bringing it to other parts of the country.”
We also have many wonderful funders here in New York City. I would put the Robin Hood Foundation at the very top of that list, but many, many philanthropic supporters who have come together to bring All Our Kin to New York, as well as our funders in Connecticut.
I think we need to keep working to change perceptions of family child care and kind of stereotypical images of babysitters that people have in their heads. That is not what family child care looks like.
Denver: Well, you certainly have some brand names, no question about that! In addition to funding, which I know is always a challenge, what do you consider to be your biggest challenge at the moment?
Jessica: I think you really put your finger on it, which is that family child care continues to be devalued. I think we need to keep working to change perceptions of family child care and kind of stereotypical images of babysitters that people have in their heads. That is not what family child care looks like. I could take you to so many wonderful programs that would really begin to change that picture in people’s minds, but we’re on the radio so I can’t do that now. We do have some videos on our website that I would encourage folks to take a look at.
I think the other thing is that we do need a government funding mechanism to begin to create a child care system, which we just don’t have right now.
Denver: Share with us a story of one of the members of your network and what their relationship with All Our Kin has meant to them and to their community.
Jessica: I will share one of my favorite stories. We have a family childcare educator named Maria. When we met Maria, she was a neighbor caregiver caring informally for just a couple of children in her neighborhood. She lived in a very small Section 8 apartment. Her husband had a job cleaning hospitals at night. They have this tiny, tiny place. She brought so much love and devotion and skill to caring for children, but she hadn’t been able to expand that to reach more kids, or really turn it into a career.
We worked with her to develop her business, to give her resources, books and furniture and materials, but also, again, infuse the latest in brain development into her work. We saw her business begin to grow. Pretty soon, she and her husband were working together. They had a young daughter who became part of the business as well. We saw them move to a bigger apartment, to a bigger apartment, finally to a two-family home in a mixed-income neighborhood where they are serving a group of mixed-income children. So, they’re still deeply committed to serving the poorest families. And there’s a waiting list of teachers, pediatricians, and social workers who are trying to get their kids into this incredibly beautiful, thoughtful, and inclusive program serving children zero to five.
Denver: Great story! A real family affair. Let me close with this, Jessica, getting back to the government for a moment. There are some proposals around about universal child care. In the context of what might be realistic, what are you looking at that could be implemented in the not-too-distant future?
Jessica: I would like to see certainly every presidential candidate, at a minimum, putting forward a plan for a child care system, and I think it needs to have three key components.
So, the first is it needs to be for children zero to five, not just preschoolers, not just three and four. So, zero to five. Number two, a mixed delivery system, meaning child care centers and family child care programs. And number three, universal. That means recognizing that it’s hard for middle-class families to pay for child care as well, and that there is some subsidy and support for families at many, many levels. And by the way, we actually have a model for doing a lot of this.
Denver: I figured you might.
Jessica: It’s the US military. These folks have really been thoughtful about how to build a child care system for military families. They’ve been able to do it efficiently and effectively, and I’d like to see something like that model across the country.
Denver: Yes. The military’s done some amazing things that we don’t think of, but they have really developed some wonderful systems. Well Jessica Sager, the Chief Executive Officer of All Our Kin, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. If people are interested in learning more about your work or wanting to support your organization, tell us a little bit more about your website.
Jessica: So, our website is www.allourkin.org. So please go check it out. Look for those videos I mentioned…some of those evaluation reports, information about our programs. In addition, we’re quite active on social media. You can follow me on Twitter – jessicasageraok or you can follow us @allourkin, and we’re also on Facebook and Instagram.
Denver: Thanks, Jessica. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show!
Jessica: Thank you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.