As we ring in the new year, many of us are thinking about the future — and about changes we hope to see. The changes I, my colleagues at Children’s Alliance, and our fierce advocates across Washington state most want to see will be in the hands of state lawmakers.
On January 9, our lawmakers will return to Olympia to participate in the 2023 legislative session. Over three months, they will put forward policies that affect the lives of all Washingtonians, including the youngest. As we do every year, Children’s Alliance will be there to push them to support new policies and make changes to others that create better futures for kids, especially those most impacted by racism and poverty.
Here are some of the new policies and policy changes we will be urging lawmakers to make:
Address the youth mental health crisis
In the lead up to the 2023 legislative session, we’ve been listening to community members throughout Washington to discover the issues that are most important to them. We heard again and again from parents, educators, health officials and community leaders that youth mental health is a top concern. The pandemic has exacerbated every flaw in the youth mental health system so severely that right now, Washington’s rates of mental health conditions and substance use are higher than the national average, according to a 2022 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Self-reported rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation are also growing faster than the national averages. These rates are even higher for kids of color, who already struggle under the weight of systemic racism. That’s why we’ve made addressing the youth mental health crisis one of our top priorities in 2023. We will push our legislators to make more providers available in school, child care and health care settings so that every child has a well-trained, responsive and caring adult ready to provide the support they need.
Expand high-quality early childhood education
Building on the success of the Fair Start for Kids Act, which Children’s Alliance helped to pass in 2021, we’ll also continue to advocate for policies that expand access to high-quality early learning. A crucial aspect of this is to ensure that the child care workforce is fairly compensated.
Currently, earnings for early learning educators rank in the lowest 3% of all professions in our state, while engaged in work that is arguably the most impactful to our long term future. We must ensure that these educators are paid a wage that reflects the true value of their critical work. In doing so, we can retain and grow the workforce, and particularly invest in women of color, whose skills and expertise are heavily relied upon in the early learning sector.
Help families cover child care costs
Another crucial area to address is child care access and affordability for families. Washington ranks in the top ten most expensive states for infant care, with annual costs higher than that of in-state college tuition. This is simply out of reach for many families and is reflected in recent data that shows 67% of families in our state do not have access to the child care they need. By investing in programs like Working Connections Child Care, lawmakers can help families — particularly those with low and middle incomes or experiencing homelessness — pay for child care. This will enable more Washingtonians to go to work and generate income to provide for their loved ones and contribute to the economy.
Build futures with “Baby Bonds” & Working Families Tax Credit
In order for kids to be healthy, happy, and learning, families must have the means to provide for them. However, past and current racist policies that prevent communities of color from accumulating wealth – like redlining and employment discrimination – have created stark economic disparities among racial groups. Children of color are more likely to live in poverty than their White counterparts, which places inequitable barriers in the road to becoming the people they dream to be.
This legislative session we’ll be supporting promising legislation that could help correct these historic injustices. The Washington Future Fund (a.k.a. “Baby Bonds”) would invest $4,000 for every baby born in Washington state who received Medicaid before their first birthday. This investment would grow over time and, upon reaching adulthood, recipients can use the money to generate future wealth, for example by using the funds for college or for a down payment on a home. We will also continue our advocacy in support of the expansion of the Working Families Tax Credit, which puts money back into the pockets of Washington’s hardworking families, so that they can ensure their basic needs are met.
Speak up! Testify or meet lawmakers remotely
None of these policies will become reality without the voices of Washington communities.
One of the few positives to come from the COVID-19 pandemic was the introduction of remote participation in the legislative process. Advocates are no longer required to travel to Olympia to make their voices heard. We can now sign in to support a bill, give testimony, or meet with a lawmaker remotely, without leaving our homes. This vast improvement in accessibility has allowed a far wider range of voices to be heard, particularly those of people who care for kids and were previously unable to speak up in person.
Lawmakers work for you. So they need to hear from you. Not sure where to start? It’s no surprise. The system was, and is, designed to keep most of us away from the process of deciding the laws that govern our lives.
Share your story with the Children’s Alliance
That’s where Children’s Alliance can help. If you have a story to tell, we want to hear it, and make sure legislators do, too. No one person or organization can make change happen. We must work together to create a better shared future where every child has an abundance of opportunities to help them reach their full potential.