Mary Caferro and her daughter, Kenji Swain

(WOMENSENEWS)–A band of low-income women in Montana are pioneering a bold solution to the nation’s infant care shortage, winning over both state and local legislators, and making sure that traditional women’s work–the work of caregiving–is valued along the way.

Montana’s “At-Home Infant Care Program” provides parents that have incomes 150 percent of the poverty line or less with up to $384 a month to stay home with their infants for up to two years, the same amount the state pays child-care providers to do the same work.

Montana is the fourth state to create such a program and the only one to do it at the insistence of women themselves. This summer, Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota made sure that welfare-reform proposals now wending their way through Congress expand the experiment by making $30 million available for new programs in 10 more states.

“The phenomenal part of this policy is that it was created by low-income women to meet their own needs. The monthly allowance is not enough money to represent the true value of the work it takes to care for an infant. But it’s a start. And for these women, that’s a big victory,” says Mary Caferro, an organizer for Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, a national poverty-rights group that pushed for the initiative.

“They wanted the caregiving they do at home to be recognized as the work that it is,” Caferro added. “That’s what this new policy does.”

Quality Child Care Scare, Especially in Rural Areas

The new program, still an experiment with limited funding that is about to run out, allowed state officials to pay parents nearly the same as the state’s market rate for child care services–$17 a day, or up to $384 a month–to care for their own infants at home. It was an option with special appeal in the rural state.

“There’s no more urgent problem in child care today than the critical shortage of infant and toddler care,” says Joan Lombardi, head of the Better Baby Care Campaign, an organization aimed at alleviating the critical shortage of infant care in the United States. “Rural areas have it the worst,” she adds.

Current statistics show that nationwide there are at least 10 infants waiting for every licensed care spot that exists and surveys indicate that parents have to compromise on quality when they can’t afford or find a spot with a trained caregiver or high-quality center. Indeed, these days, the best infant care can run to as much as $1,400 a month in many cities, a pricetag well out of reach of all but the most affluent. In rural states, such as Montana, there just aren’t any options at all, with or without the money.

Paying a parent to stay home, then, has the potential to solve many social problems at once–and satisfies a number of political agendas.

“This is a very appealing solution for parents, taxpayers and politicians,” says Kate Kahan, executive director of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation based in Missoula, Montana.

“Liberals now see it as a step toward paid leave. Conservatives see it as a way to allow women to be home with their babies. Montana officials like it because it makes great economic sense and helps solve the terrible shortage of infant care in our state,” Kahan said.

Welfare Reform: Lose-Lose Proposition

But that was not how the approach was seen at first.

“At first, state officials were worried it would be too controversial. They didn’t think conservatives or taxpayers in this state would support paying mothers to stay home,” says Wendy Young, a policy analyst and an early lobbyist for the program. “The whole focus under welfare reform has been to get mothers to work, not to let them stay home.”

However, board members of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation listened to the findings from informal meetings with low-income families around the state and they became convinced that this solution was the right one for low-income mothers.

“What we heard was that welfare reform was turning out to be a lose-lose proposition for women and their children, at least the way Montana was doing it,” says Young. “Parents were being asked to find a job even if it meant neglecting their children. The new push toward the paid workforce meant ignoring what they saw as their top priority and their first job: raising their children.”

“We tried to get the board to consider other approaches, like campaigning for a living wage,” Young says, because they were skeptical that the government would accept the idea of paying women to stay home to take care of their children. “But the board was very adamant on this point. They wanted the public policy to value of the work of caregiving.”

Young began to research the issue. To her surprise, she learned Minnesota launched a program in 1997 that created an allowance for parents who stayed home with their newborn infants.

The allowance wasn’t much: Parents only got 75 percent of the going rate the state paid to professional caregivers. But it was a model to learn from.

“Once I saw this was possible, I got excited and we worked from there,” Young says.

Pilot Program Gives Funds to 60 Families

Working for Equality and Economic Liberation decided to adopt a more ambitious version of the Minnesota program, giving parents up to 90 percent of the value of a child-care subsidy and extending the offer for up to two years. The group then worked with state welfare officials to launch a modest pilot program–$250,000 to fund 60 families for the first two years. Even then, program organizers met resistance and had to take the lead on making sure families learned about the program.

“Some of the state officials thought the state would be criticized for paying mothers to stay home,” says Caferro, “so they didn’t do much to let people know about it.”

So Working for Equality and Economic Liberation put out the word through the state’s child-care referral agencies, which reach many low-income families. The group also took out radio ads. Within a few months, there was a waiting list for the program and no shortage of supporters, from the state capital to the ranches and farms across the state.

“Everyone,” Kahan insists, “is excited about the program now, especially new mothers.”

Heidi Wallace can testify to that. She and her husband, a waiter, lived paycheck to paycheck even before she had her son, Jude. She wanted to be with Jude as much as possible his first year and managed to do that by bringing him along to her job as a family outreach specialist at a local elementary school.

But once Jude started to walk, that arrangement fell apart. She managed for a while, rearranging her schedule, and calling on friends and relatives to help with the boy. But by the time Jude was 18 months old, and expenses got ahead of Wallace and her family, she began to resign herself to getting a second job again and being away from Jude even more.

That is, until she heard about the new at-home infant care credit. The program “provides just enough for my family to break even every month and it is truly the best thing for Jon and I and our son.”

Such stories from the front have convinced an ever growing number of activists, lawmakers and policy-makers that this new approach is not only valid, but a winning way to go.

“We hoped, but we never really dreamed that people in Washington would be promoting this policy so quickly,” says Caferro. “It’s caught on like wildfire and we are excited. Right now, we are hearing from people in West Virginia, Missouri, Florida, Oregon and other places, just waiting for Congress to sign off on this. We see it as a victory for women, and one that women will continue to carry forward, especially with the support that Congress could give to the cause right now.”

Betty Holcomb, author of “The Best Friend’s Guide to Maternity Leave,” writes on work/family issues for many national publications.

For more information:

Working for Equality and Economic Liberation:

National Partnership for Women and Families:

The Better Baby Care Campaign: