Paula Sammons

Paula Sammons

Q&A with Paula Sammons

It is a tall order, but one that is not debatable and cannot be compromised if we are to achieve the outcomes we want for children to be successful in school work and life–that is our mission. First, we want all children to have the best possible start. We know from research that high quality early education results in greater school success, higher graduation rates, lower juvenile crime, and greater earning potential as adults. At the same time, low-quality care can have harmful effects on school performance, social development, and language that are more difficult to ameliorate, especially for children in schools with fewer resources.

More importantly, the positive effects from high-quality early education and the negative effects from poor quality programs are magnified for children in poverty. That is also why we have a focus on advancing high-quality jobs and economic security for parents so whole families can thrive. We know when parents are economically secure, children and families do better—now and in the future. Parents need high quality jobs that offer family-sustaining wages with good benefits, along with integrated work supports and services that help them achieve greater financial stability and financial health.

Finally, we need to create the conditions in our communities that are equitable and supportive, that propel children and families to success, and that result in thriving regional economies. All of these pieces together are mutually reinforcing and also why there is a need to apply systemic, equitable, and holistic family centered solutions that get at root causes versus symptoms.

We cannot get to the outcomes above for children, families, and communities without applying a racial equity lens across all of our work. Decades after the civil rights movement, the legacy of racism continues. There have been social, economic, and public policies and practices that left a legacy of inequities across health, education, employment, income, wealth, and other areas that impact achievement and quality of life and limit opportunities for children and families of color in the United States. Opportunities denied by race and gender at critical points in the nation’s history have led to the disadvantaged circumstances that too many children of color are born into today.

We know people of color experience the effects of these – positively or negatively – when they take their children to school, apply for jobs, visit a doctor, try to rent or buy a home, shop for food, interact with the police, and more. Right now, we are in unprecedented and challenging times as a country. Families all across the country, especially immigrants and families of color, are under severe duress and are experiencing poverty, volatility, racism, and real fear. Now more than ever, we must act, in big and small ways, to address structural inequities and help families heal from the effects of racism. It is especially urgent since people of color will surpass 50% of the U.S. population by 2043.

Striving for racial equity and eliminating the belief in a hierarchy of human value in distribution of opportunity is not only a matter of social justice and moral conscience, but a powerful business case can be made for it as well as greater equity will bring a huge economic return to our families and the nation.

Several years ago, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation supported a grant for the Altarum Institute that begins to make the business case for racial equity. They found that if the average incomes of minorities were raised to the average incomes of whites, total U.S. earnings would increase by 12% representing nearly $1 trillion dollars today. Gross domestic product (GDP) would increase by a comparable percentage. The earnings gain would translate into $180 billion in additional corporate profits, $290 billion in additional federal tax revenues, and a potential reduction in the federal deficit of $350 billion, or 2.3% of GDP.

So, in addition to being the socially just and moral thing to do for our nation, there is a solid business case and a huge return on investment for advancing racial equity and eradicating structural racism so families and our entire nation can rise up to our potential.

Policy change is a central strategy for how we achieve social change. We cannot get to scale and achieve huge systemic change for society if we only invest in programmatic solutions; we must target policy change (and systems change) in order to make real impact in communities.

Examples of critical policies that have been passed in states or counties that advanced outcomes for parents and children include paid sick leave, paid time off, maternity leave, and paid medical leave. Additional examples include policies passed to cap interest rates and mitigate predatory financial institutions from charging outrageous interest rates that strip low income families from income and stability and keep them in a cycle of debt and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to enforce these laws and regulations and litigate in cases where this was not happening. Another example is passing refundable state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) or increasing the federal EITC so that families who work can get critical refunds.

Our work is about creating and strengthening the “conditions” that address barriers and inequities—both micro and macro – and accelerating strategies that lead to success and more stability and security for families in school, work, and life. Unfortunately, we know families, especially poor families of color, experience volatility and scarcity across time, resources, and mental capacity. It’s all the things in life that make it difficult to persist in school and work and make it difficult to get ahead.

Families are often one incident away from a financial crisis, such as a car breaking down or a health emergency which can cause them to lose housing or jobs. Families also experience trauma, toxic stress, domestic or sexual violence, and racism on top of being in poverty. This contributes further to scarcity, volatility, and instability. We know it’s very difficult to achieve mobility in education or employment when a family can’t meet basic needs or if they are experiencing time, resource, or mental scarcity and volatility. The line from poverty to prosperity is definitely not straight and families go from instability to stability many times over, but if we can ensure that families have all the comprehensive supports and services they need, along with systems, policies, and structures that are equitable and accessible, then they have a much better chance of achieving economic stability, security, and mobility.

Working across siloes is absolutely critical and essential if we want to see the whole picture and address root causes versus only addressing symptoms. Solving complex and often intractable social issues, especially ones like poverty, requires a systemic, comprehensive, cross-sector, and racial equity lens. Too often, we try solving huge social issues from a single issue lens or single population lens, and then we are disappointed when we are faced with failed or less than desirable results. This also takes relationship building with one another, and across sectors, to understand each other’s language and conditions.

One example to understand the need for holistic lenses is that a number of years ago, technology was developed for employers called “just in time” scheduling software. It could assess in real time the customer flow and demand and either schedule employees to come in or send them home on a moment’s notice. In the minds of businesses, this was a technological innovation that brought them ROI. However, in reality, this wreaked complete havoc on their employees, especially parent workers, and on morale. Parents had to try and arrange child care or transportation to accommodate last minute requests to work. It also wreaked havoc on work hours. Workers rely on a set number of hours worked and reliable income, so just in time scheduling created income volatility and instability, which resulted in increased turnover, which is expensive for employers. A more comprehensive lens would help us anticipate how changes in one arena impact another.

There are a few examples I’d call attention to. First, the Supporting Transitions to Employment for Parents (STEPS Pilot Initiative) asks workforce development organizations to formally partner with early care and education stakeholders serving children 0-8 to ensure that un- and underemployed mothers of color recruited into their short-term sector-based training programs can obtain job readiness, coaching, credentials, and employment leading to economic stability while ensuring quality early education and care for their kids. The STEPS Pilot Initiative goes beyond referral-only relationships. The formal partnerships ensure that both workforce development and early childhood sectors see and buy-into the ideas of children as the future workforce and parents as workers.

Second, the Whole Family Approach to Jobs Initiative works with the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Administration for Children and Families Regions 1 and 4 to apply a whole family approach to good jobs by identifying legislative, regulatory, or perceptual barriers to employment, pinpointing at which level of government the barriers exist, and then aligning policies, systems, funding streams, cross-sector partners, and data systems to improve outcomes. This initiative will result in each state in Regions 1 and 4 developing a state plan and sharing them with one another through a learning community. It is a systems change approach that includes the executive branch of state government, legislators, federal ACF staff in Regions 1 and 4, workforce development organizations, employers, educators, early care stakeholders, and parents. Bringing all these lenses together will lead to better jobs and economic security for families.