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A conversation with Joe Waters, co-founder of Capita, about caring for children

Joe Waters has spent his career helping children access the most basic human needs: education, health, stability, security, dignity, and community. In 2018, he co-founded Capita, a think tank that explores how the social, cultural, and environmental changes around us affect families, and how new policies and programs can help all people flourish. His initiatives aim to improve the lives of our youngest children, boost social connection, and help parents feel less alone. Here he discusses why today’s childcare system is “inhumane,” what needs to change, and why trust is the lynchpin of future success.

CAREFULLY: Capita works across many goals, sectors, and populations. Drill it down for us—what’s at the heart of your work?

JOE WATERS: At Capita, our goal is to maximize the conditions for human flourishing by focusing on the earliest years of human life, which is where the foundations for flourishing are laid.

What exactly do you mean by “flourishing?”

At Capita, we understand a life of flourishing to be that which allows individuals and communities to imagine and become what they wish to be with passion, purpose, and excellence.

Economic security is the baseline for human flourishing. But don’t assume economic security is the only thing required for human flourishing. We need children to be cared for! We learned that during the pandemic. Aside from its obvious economic benefits, work has a dignity all its own and is part of human flourishing. So is taking care of our children, trusting the people who take care of them when we’re working, and knowing that their lives are frankly more humane because they’re paid a living wage.

“Few things make parents feel more vulnerable than handing their children over to a stranger for care.”

What role does childcare play in a child’s ability—and potential—to flourish?

There’s a lot we can untangle here. “Care” is a function of our humanity—it’s given and received. “Care” is vitally important for human flourishing, because it’s part of a human life. To do it well is essential for human flourishing.

Now, we have—in the U.S. in particular—a thing called “childcare,” which often is paid and outside the home. Of course, childcare has happened from time immemorial. It is not new, nor does it require a system to be given and received. But we have developed a formal system that, in reality, mostly empowers parents (particularly women) to work. And we want that formal childcare system to ensure care is given and received with as much tenderness and love and dignity for both workers and the children in their care, which we sometimes call “quality.” Our rather technocratic discussions of childcare often cause us to focus less than we should on the tenderness, love, and beauty that is required to do childcare really well in any setting.

Joe Waters. Photo by Je'nine May

Why is it so hard for families to access quality care?

Many families are dissatisfied with their care arrangements, which gets at something fundamental but not talked about: Our economy is often barbaric and inhumane. It forces low- and middle-income families to choose childcare arrangements they do not want, in order to work, because in this country, both parents have to be in the workforce (sometimes working multiple jobs) to meet basic needs, and we don’t have paid parental leave.

This is really a challenge. Our economy keeps parents in particular from giving the care that they want to give. One thing I like about Carefully is that it maximizes choice and opportunity for parents.

And what happens when a family does have quality care for their children?

It humanizes care for everyone involved: parents, children, and the caregivers. It brings it back to a human scale, and a more human dimension.

I’m now wondering if you even like the word “childcare.”

There are two phrases we struggle with in our work. “Childcare” and “early childhood” When people hear the word “childcare,” they typically think of formal, usually center-based, paid childcare that’s outside the home. They don’t hear a broader concept of caring for children, which families do and did thousands of years ago.

Similarly, the default definition of “early childhood” is a system of set programs. People don't often think about it as a period in human development focused on the flourishing of young children. It’s a period in life, where the foundations for flourishing are laid.

“The systems and services that serve children and families need to be as humane as possible, and right now they’re not.”

What should we call it instead?

Name it! We’re caring for children. And that has a profound dignity and beauty that too often is lost in the more bureaucratic jargon of “programs.”

Talk a little about what caring for children needs to succeed?

Few things make parents feel more vulnerable than handing their children over to a stranger for care. In the formal childcare system, there are deep challenges that erode trust, and they’re the product of things people can’t necessarily control. For example, low wages. There’s constant turnover, so your child could be cared for by someone different all day, every four to five months. I cannot imagine the vulnerability of that for parents with low incomes, who feel they have no choice.

All this to say, trust is essential. Because caring for children is incredibly vulnerable. Trust in the carers, and in the programs if you’re choosing formal childcare—it has to be proportionate to the vulnerability you’re experiencing in handing over your little human to another person.

And where does that trust come from?

In the formal childcare system, we solve for that vulnerability through government regulations, quality rating and improvement systems, and various forms of accreditation. Those are all fine. They have their weaknesses. They probably give a measure of trust. But trust is interpersonal. We trust people we know more than we trust institutions we don’t.

So this comes back again to the need to humanize. Which is one of the reasons we’ve been so interested in worker co-ops for childcare businesses. There’s a greater measure of trust when you hand your little human over to someone who owns the business, and has a stake and equity in it, who isn’t just there for a few weeks getting paid poverty wages.

Is there a care model out there where trust is intrinsic to the care being provided?

I do like care circles. They’re fundamentally about reciprocity, which is essential for trust: I give, and I receive. The formal childcare system is a necessity, of course. But care circles, like Carefully, move us in a human direction. And these are contexts where parents can make friends and build trust with other parents in their community, which is lacking in so many ways right now. We’ve done some work on parental loneliness and it is widespread. These places where children can be cared for and parents can build meaningful friendships are urgently needed right now.

Your work focuses on creating big social and cultural shifts with major impact. What needs to change so that more families can access trusted care for children?

We need to humanize the whole experience. This is a country where we have allowed childcare to frankly become very dehumanized, both for parents who feel like they have no other choice because of their economic situation, and also for people in the childcare industry, who make terrible wages doing a very hard job, who are dismissed as babysitters and increasingly work for private equity-backed chains. It’s horribly inhumane. The systems and services that serve children and families need to be as humane as possible, and right now they’re not.


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