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The Aunt Bees of America

During her convention speech last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren, sitting in a now closed child care center, spoke about the critical role informal, home-based child care played in her story. She spoke about her Aunt Bee, who stepped in to take care of Warren’s children when she was juggling a full-time teaching job in Texas. Without Aunt Bee, would Warren’s story be one of transformative community impact and personal success?

There are 3.5 million Aunt Bees across this country caring for nearly half of all young children who need child care, often their nieces and nephews, grandkids or neighbors. They are the backbone of the American child care system — largely unseen and drastically under-resourced. Caregivers like Aunt Bee, mostly motivated by love and familial or community duty, are the care and education infrastructure that is keeping our country afloat.

These caregivers go by many names: family child care provider, domestic worker, nanny, au pair, childminder, mommy’s helper, and so on. But mostly we know them as Abuelita, Granny, Mom-Mom, Nana, and of course, Aunt Bee.
During this pandemic, with most child care centers closed, it has been often unpaid relatives, friends and neighbors who have come together as an informal network to ensure essential workers can be on the frontlines. These Aunt Bees are themselves essential workers – heroes who have risked their lives to ensure the livelihoods of their loved ones and a semblance of economic activity in this country.

It’s time we see them, lift up their stories and invest in them as a part of our critical childcare infrastructure. This infrastructure must include both the informal care of the Aunt Bees just as it does the licensed care of the Springfield childcare center from which Senator Warren made her remarks.

Family, friend and neighbor child care providers, a category that includes Senator Warren’s Aunt Bee, are the largest group of child caregivers in this country caring for over 6.3 million children under the age 5 prior to the pandemic. (For comparison, there are approximately 1 million center-based child care workers.) One in five young children is cared for by a grandparent.

In-home caregivers are the mainstay of child care for rural communities, babies and toddlers, Black and Latinx families, for children with special needs and those living in homes with low-incomes. These caregivers are mostly women (over 97%) of color (over 50%); and those that are paid earn an annual wage of less than $8,000 despite working long, irregular hours. These caregivers go by many names: family child care provider, domestic worker, nanny, au pair, childminder, mommy’s helper, and so on. But mostly we know them as Abuelita, Granny, Mom-Mom, Nana and of course, Aunt Bee.

With health and safety concerns affecting center and school schedules, we anticipate that reliance on this form of care, along with the licensed version of this care—referred to as family child care—will persist for the foreseeable future. What support do they receive? It varies.

  • A small number of family, friend and neighbor providers can access public child care assistance funding through a “regulation-exempt” status;
  • Some may have access to minimal health and safety training in their state;
  • Oklahoma created a web-resource to help essential healthcare workers identify and compensate relative caregivers;
  • Nebraska allowed families to use state child care assistance for in-home, regulation-exempt child care.
In an extremely divisive time, child care is a bipartisan issue supported by all parties as an essential service. This issue not only crosses party lines, it crosses the urban and rural divide as well. Child care is essential.
These caregivers want and deserve access to financial and programmatic supports to ensure that the children they care for learn and develop. Creating and financing an effective child care system will require us to compensate caregivers fairly, provide appropriate supports (e.g., training, coaching, curriculum and learning materials) and facilitate connections to community resources like health and mental health services to ensure children and their caregivers thrive.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has brought awareness to the critical need to bail out our failing child care system and rebuild a new system that recognizes and supports all the caregivers who love and care for the diverse families in this country.

In an extremely divisive time, child care is a bipartisan issue supported by all parties as an essential service. This issue not only crosses party lines, it crosses the urban and rural divide as well. Child care is essential. Senator Warren joins a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have proposed several legislative packages to address this pressing need.

Director at

Natalie Renew is the director of Home Grown, a national initiative committed to improving the quality of and access to home-based child care. She is an early childhood professional with more than 15 years of experience in the nonprofit and social service sector supporting children and families furthest from opportunity. Prior to joining Home Grown, Renew led the expansion of the early childhood education group at Public Health Management Corporation in Philadelphia. She has overseen the development of large programs, secured sustaining funding for major initiatives and supported local systems change in the early learning sector. Early in her career, she worked in child welfare and food access.

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