Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera. Source: City of Lawrence website

“There are a ton of problems that we’re facing with COVID-19: public health, unemployment, education,” Mayor Dan Rivera said on a recent Strategies for Children Zoom call about his city, Lawrence, Mass.

One of those problems cropped up at the end of August, when police found a woman running an unlicensed child care program with 25 children in her apartment.

“We had to shut the place down,” Rivera says, “but this wasn’t an opportunity to arrest somebody or throw a huge fine at them. That to me would have been criminalizing poverty because most of the people that were bringing their kids there couldn’t afford to have child care or couldn’t find affordable safe child care.”

Back in August, Rivera said it would be better to educate parents and to talk to employers about their workers’ child care needs.

Rivera also found another solution to the problem: himself.

He asked Maria Gonzalez Moeller, CEO of The Community Group, a local nonprofit provider, how much it would cost to provide child care for 200 kids. Then he went to the Lawrence City Council and asked for $400,000 in emergency funds to finance child care scholarships.

Now, that investment is being used to help needy families “who do not meet the financial requirements to qualify for childcare subsidies,” but still have low incomes, a press release explains.

The city is working with The Community Group as well as several Lawrence-based child care providers that are licensed by the Department of Early Education and Care. The program will run through the end of this year. An Eagle-Tribune article provides more details.

The goal is to give working parents and children a licensed, safe option for child care.

“It’s a dream we’ve all had,” Moeller says of child care providers who have wanted to help more children, especially the ones whose families don’t qualify for vouchers but still can’t afford child care. “The good thing about Lawrence is that we have a lot of collaborative efforts. From the get-go, when the pandemic started, all the nonprofit organizations started meeting weekly.”

Those relationships are embedded with trust that has made it easier to create the 200 additional child care spots that the scholarship money is funding.

For Rivera, this work is personal.

“You know I’m a kid from Lawrence, and I would have been one of those kids whose mom would either have had to leave me and my sisters home alone or in an unlicensed place,” he said on the Zoom call.

The next step for the city is to keep the funding flowing.

“I’ve already talked to some city counselors and told them, listen, if this goes well, I’m going to have to come to you for more money to support this,” Rivera says.

He also expects to see more state and federal funding, but he points out that as a mayor, he doesn’t have the luxury of debating these issues. Either his citizens are getting tested for COVID-19 or they aren’t. Either children have safe child care programs or they don’t.

Rivera’s advice for advocates who want to see similar action in their cities?

“Talk to elected officials and let them know that there’s a problem, and that they have a way to fix it. Because sometimes they don’t know they have a way to fix it,” he says referring specifically to the use of emergency funds, but the advice can be applied more broadly. Sometimes advocates must know more about what policymakers can do than the policymakers themselves.

For example, advocates should be aware that in addition to emergency funds, cities also have “free cash,” which, according to the state Department of Revenue, “typically includes actual receipts in excess of revenue estimates and unspent amounts in departmental budget line items for the year just ending, plus unexpended free cash from the previous year.”

Rivera says advocates should also know that during emergencies like COVID-19, the state law requiring cities to get bids for goods and services has some flexibility. More information on this is available from the Office of the Inspector General.

In a nutshell, Rivera says, “encourage policymakers… What doesn’t work is fighting with them.”

“I want to encourage people to, in this crazy time, find ways to build coalitions with elected officials.”

There is also a role for philanthropy, Rivera says. And while making a donation that expands child care is not as “shiny and new” as more dramatic ideas for ending poverty, “These types of programs do have huge benefits.”