Jessica Sager ’99 Reimagines Childcare
Jessica Sager ’99 entered law school as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was taking effect.
“It’s ancient history now, but this law, signed by President Clinton, transformed our welfare system,” said Sager, the co-founder and chief executive officer of All Our Kin, a national nonprofit that trains, supports, and sustains family childcare educators. Sager started the organization in 1999, when she was a Liman Fellow.
The new act, which replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, required individuals to enter the workforce within two years of receiving government support. Until that time, Sager said, public assistance was a way for low-income women to be able to stay at home to care for their children.
“What immediately became apparent to me is hundreds of thousands of young children were going to have nowhere to go, and parents, particularly women, were going to be forced to make an agonizing choice between their children’s wellbeing and their family’s economic survival,” Sager said, noting that, then as now, there was “nothing approaching a childcare system in this country.”
As someone who had become passionate about children’s rights when she worked as an artist in New York City schools and who cared deeply about gender equality, Sager believed mothers should be able to decide how and where to care for their children.
“Under AFDC, the assumption was women should only be home with their kids — a devaluating, lousy stereotype,” she said. “But under the Personal Responsibility Act, the assumption was that women who were living in poverty were not fit mothers and should be in the workforce — an equally lousy, devaluating stereotype.”
Sager felt an urgent need to figure out a way for women to comply with the requirements of the problematic new statute, care for their children, and train for jobs, all at the same time. She knew that there were wonderful mothers around the country, skilled caregivers who would suffer under the new law. And that some of these women would want to use their knowledge and passion to provide childcare.
“If we could give them the tools to do that, I thought, they would make it possible for other women to enter and succeed in the workforce in other professions feeling good about where they left their children,” Sager said. “That was the idea that was the genesis of All Our Kin.
A Broken Childcare System
All Our Kin today looks completely different than it did at its founding.
The original fellowship project began as a small lab school, where parents on public assistance came with their young children to train to become childcare providers while caring for each other’s children on a rotating basis. The program was designed to ensure that these parents had time with their own children while acquiring the credentials and business skills to be successful educators and entrepreneurs.
“Then what happened is the graduates of our training program ended opening up childcare businesses, and All Our Kin created a program to support those graduates in running those family childcares,” Sager said. “And the more that we worked with these graduates, the more we realized that family childcares are a critical and hugely overlooked sector of the childcare system.”
These home businesses exponentially transform the supply of childcare in their communities, according to Sager, reaching families from historically marginalized communities and those who work nonstandard hours, have challenges around affordability, and face other barriers to accessing care.
“All Our Kin’s focus has become training, supporting, and advocating for and with home-based family childcare educators who are shoring up our broken childcare system,” Sager said.
The organization’s work has expanded beyond anything Sager could have imagined: from a small group of women and children in one public housing development in New Haven, the organization now partners with over 1,000 family childcare providers across New York City and Connecticut and with training agencies around the country. The impact has been deep: studies show All Our Kin has significantly raised the quality, availability, and sustainability of childcare in low-income communities. For example, one study found the number of licensed family child care educators in New Haven increased by more than 70% from 2000 to 2011 due to All Our Kin’s efforts, while that number decreased by more than 30% in the state as a whole during the same period.
Today, more than two decades after All Our Kin was founded, there is more recognition of the importance of the early years in child development and the necessity of childcare for working families, Sager noted.
“Yet there is so little funding or infrastructure building that a crisis like this pandemic has completely shattered the system,” she said. “That would never have happened if the system were not already in free fall.”
A Seismic Change
Since her early days as a Liman Fellow, Sager has found that the most powerful policy change comes from work on the ground.
“This idea of policy that is informed by practice, and practice as a way of providing the data to compel policy makers to act differently, is something I would love to see future Liman Fellows thinking about,” she said.
All Our Kin ensures that the voices of childcare educators are front and center, Sager added, using data, stories, and the coalitions it has built across the country to shape state and federal policy. She is especially proud of what the organization has accomplished during the pandemic to keep childcare programs running and to provide strategies and recommendations that guide legislation. Looking forward, All Our Kin seeks to further policy advising efforts while expanding the organization’s reach from 40,000 children and families served currently to more than 150,000 by 2026.
“I firmly believe that on the other side of this pandemic, we are going to be able to build a system that works,” she said.
All Our Kin is poised to lead the way.
The pandemic has taken a brutal toll on caregivers, parents, and children, but it has also made them visible like never before, Sager said. “There is a seismic change happening in the way we think about childcare, and there is no stopping that momentum.”
All Our Kin is a national nonprofit that trains, supports, and sustains family childcare educators. These educators operate small, home-based early education programs that are the primary source of care for our youngest children, many of whom are children of color and children from low-income communities. Family childcare provides a high-quality early childhood education in an intimate environment, and is flexible, affordable, and often available during nontraditional hours.
All Our Kin empowers educators as early childhood professionals and small business owners. In addition to partnering with educators through direct service sites in Connecticut and New York City, the organization delivers technical assistance programming nationwide and promotes policy, coalition-building, and narrative change. All Our Kin envisions a childcare system that centers equity, emphasizes quality for all children, and is financially sustainable for educators and families.
Liman Fellowships are awarded to Yale Law School graduates to support a year working in public interest law in the United States. These fellowships are a component of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law, which promotes access to justice and the fair treatment of individuals and groups seeking to use legal systems.