Imagine wanting to tell your story, racing to the microphone, only to find that there is a proverbial sea separating you from it; you can see the microphone, but you cannot access it. You do not have the required credentials to stand before it. You watch people on the other side and quickly realize they have power and social mobility. Hell, their entire experience is constructed in a way that they can operate without acknowledging or seeing you. They have the political, financial and social capital to do so. Relatedly, they also have the means to tell their story; they never pray to be heard because they know they will be heard.
You, on the other hand, have none of that. You do not have a big name. You do not have a big bank account. Every title you hold — woman, mother, person of color, person living in poverty — is devalued. This is the plight of working-class families (especially mothers), early childhood education workers and anti-poverty advocates. Political leaders, on the other hand, have the luxury of engaging you and your community only when it benefits them, such as for photo ops or election season.
It is painful to watch leaders who are disconnected from the struggle of working families control not only the microphone but the platform. They control the narrative about those who struggle. But even worse, they easily disregard those whose only offense is being unable to make ends meet.
What I’m describing is not an intro to a fictitious work. Some, like me, come from places such as West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin is provided opportunity after opportunity to share his austere viewpoint, even though he consistently conveys contempt for the poor.
Political leaders like Manchin often view poverty as a character defect rather than a problem created by policy. For example, Manchin killed the extension of the Child Tax Credit which would have lifted scores of children out of poverty. Refusing to extend the credit meant an estimated 4 million children — 50,000 in his own state — returned to poverty. Manchin’s gripe: The measure didn’t have strict work requirements. But such requirements are punitive and inflexible for mothers without access to child care, caregivers of children with disabilities, grandparents, parents in schools, and others with unique circumstances. There are no carveouts that address the nuances of life.
What is more, millions of children fell back into poverty, yet their advocates and caregivers never had an opportunity to express how this felt. They watched persons with power disregard the needs of the poor and lacked an opportunity to offer a rebuttal. This is because the majority of working people — including early childhood education workers — cannot capture the attention of those in power.
Last year, a group of women from West Virginia and I as part of Team for West Virginia Children and Rattle The Windows took 500 teddy bears to Washington, D.C. to symbolize the 50,000 West Virginia kids who would go back into poverty once the Child Tax Credit expired. Working with national partners, we learned how to obtain a permit, where to position ourselves physically so that the teddy bears would be seen by elected leaders, and how to engage congressional offices. If we didn’t have funding for the trip, or a firm to help us, we would not have known the mechanics of effectively engaging elected leaders. The truth is that most Americans wouldn’t even know where to start if they wanted to plan an action at the nation’s capital. Access to our policy makers is blocked by gatekeepers and rules that most of us are not privy to. It is almost impossible for us to capture the attention of people elected to represent us. Advocates are often told to wait until our elected leaders are in district, but there is nothing that guarantees policy makers will meet with us even if they have an office down the street. Additionally, having a meeting scheduled is no guarantee elected leaders will show up, show up on time or be willing to interact with us in good faith.
It is painful to watch people like policy makers — people who are never searching for a microphone, platform or audience — disregard us, yet be offered one opportunity after another to make their case. The mainstream media cover their every move, their every objection and their every illogical rationale for making life harder for marginalized communities. They are given ample opportunity to explain their opposition to policies that would improve life for poor and working-class folk. Working people do not stand a chance in a nation that pardons the rich, despises the poor, and caters to those with power.
We are experiencing a child care crisis in this country. Early childhood education has been underfunded for years. This has meant that centers are unable to retain staff, child care workers themselves are being paid poverty wages, and families in need of child care are going without, making it ridiculously impossible for families to participate in the workforce. The persistent challenge in early childhood education has meant that children are not getting what they need, and parents are unable to meet the demands of their families due to systemic barriers. And with rising inflation and rising housing costs, families are more squeezed than ever. When will the working poor be asked to weigh in on policies that impact their ability to be self-sustaining? When will our lived experience warrant a press pass? I do not know the answer, but I know that children and families will continue to suffer until they are seen as part of the solution rather than the problem.