The Lassiter family and the Collins family
The Lassiter family (left) and the Collins family (right). Image courtesy of subjects.

Virginia families spend nearly $1,200 per month on average on infant care and more than half of working families in the state lack access to unpaid family leave. Democratic candidate for governor Terry McAuliffe is looking to change that reality and make raising a family affordable for working Virginians.

On most weeknights, Kirsten Lassiter wakes up around 11 p.m. to start her day. By then, her two young children have long been asleep, tucked into bed by her husband. 

Lassiter, 30, works the overnight shift as a nursing assistant at a nearby hospital. After spending eight grueling hours on her feet, she clocks out of her full-time job and clocks into another full-time role: Mom. 

Her husband—who by then has already taken their 2-year-old to day care—meets Lassiter at her workplace to hand off the baby. He then goes to his job working as a civilian contractor in information technology, while Lassiter heads home with their 5-month-old.

“When he gets home, he takes over and then I go to work at midnight,” Lassiter told Dogwood. “And we do that over and over again.”

The Newport News family’s routine is born out of necessity: Lassiter and her husband are among the countless Virginia households who live paycheck to paycheck. Money was tight even before the coronavirus pandemic, but they both lost out on much-needed overtime during the crisis and have struggled to afford the outrageous cost of child care. 

“We’ve had to cut back on luxuries—eating out, cable. We have internet because we both need to have it for our jobs,” Lassiter said. 

Lassiter’s family is one emergency away from being in a serious financial hole. President Joe Biden’s recently implemented child tax credit payments—which provides families with $250 to $300 a month per child through the end of the year—has been helpful: Lassiter and her husband receive $300 per month with another $1,800 expected in 2022.

“We’re using it to pay for half of our daughter’s day care,” she said. “It helped us breathe easier.”

But it’s not enough to give working families like hers temporary help, Lassiter said. Instead, she is counting on lawmakers to take additional steps to make the economy more fair and address the rising costs of having a family. As she points out, many households need two incomes to make ends meet nowadays, and “we [need to] make working families able to function and be able to be there for our children.”

Lassiter’s story is not an uncommon one. The extent of these types of financial struggles and what to do about them has become a central issue in the race for governor this year between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. The two candidates have jousted over the current condition of Virginia’s economy and offered starkly different visions over the state’s future. 

Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, has claimed the state’s economy is “in the ditch” and needs fixing, but has yet to propose any serious reforms. On the other hand, McAuliffe, who previously served as governor from 2014 to 2018, has argued that Virginia is recovering, but needs to embrace policies to help those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, including paid sick and family medical leave and more accessible and affordable child care.

Here are the facts.

‘Despite the Pandemic, the State Has Done Reasonably Well’

The coronavirus pandemic hit Virginia hard, as more than 1.7 million people have filed unemployment claims since March 2020. The state’s GDP also decreased by 2.5% in 2020. 

But according to most metrics, the state is now experiencing a strong rebound. 

Virginia’s unemployment rate has declined from its pandemic peak of 11.3% last April and currently sits at 4.3%, well below the national average of 5.9%

That flies in the face of Youngkin’s core message on the campaign trail: That the state is headed in the wrong direction and only he, with his success in business, can fix it.

“I would say the economy is actually doing quite well,” said Dr. Vinod Agarwal, professor of economics and deputy director of the Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at Old Dominion University. “Despite the pandemic, the state has done reasonably well, so I have no idea why Republicans would say the state is going the completely wrong direction.”

The state government has taken in nearly $2.6 billion more in tax revenues than anticipated. It also received $4.3 billion in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan, with another $2.9 billion more flowing directly to local governments. 

“Just about every state in the nation would like to be where Virginia is, economically speaking,” said Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and international affairs and the director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

The numbers don’t stand alone, either. In yet another blow to Youngkin’s argument, CNBC recently ranked Virginia as America’s top state for business—the second time in a row Virginia earned that honor.

“Arguing that the state is in a ditch doesn’t square with the objective data out there regarding the budget, the unemployment rate, nor the CNBC rankings,” Farnsworth said. 

That ranking shows Democratic governance is good for Virginia, according to McAuliffe’s spokesman Renzo Olivari. “Over the last eight years under Terry’s and Gov. [Ralph] Northam’s leadership, Virginia’s economy has flourished—being named the best state for business for the second consecutive time, creating a record budget surplus, and lifting up hard-working families,” Olivari said in a statement.

The Youngkin campaign, meanwhile, shrugged off the recognition and criticized the metrics CNBC used, claiming that the state only earned the top spot because of “political correctness,” its repeal of photo ID voting laws, and “pushing critical race theory in schools”—a lie that has been repeatedly debunked. 

In delivering this kind of response, Youngkin is adopting “part of the Trump-style playbook,” according to Farnsworth. “If you don’t like the results, claim they’re not legitimate.”

‘There’s a Lot More Work to Be Done’

While Virginia’s numbers are trending in the right direction, there are still 200,000 fewer Virginians in the labor force than there were before the pandemic, and many of the jobs the state lost in 2020 have yet to be replaced. That doesn’t even take into account families like Lassiter’s, who didn’t lose their jobs but are still grinding away just to get by.

“Virginia is adding jobs and is building back,” said Laura Goren, research director for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Policy, “yet there’s a lot more work to be done to make sure that we can not just recover, but build a stronger economy that provides opportunities for every Virginian.”

McAuliffe has pitched himself as the strongest candidate to help Virginia recover, citing his record. During his first term as governor, he oversaw the creation of more than 200,000 jobs, low unemployment rates, and an influx of more than $20 billion in new investments in the state.

As he seeks a second term, McAuliffe has emphasized the importance of helping communities that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic—such as women and people of color. To that end, he has introduced a slew of proposals laying out his top priorities, including a statewide paid sick and family medical leave program and accessible and affordable child care.

Why Virginia Needs a Paid Leave Program

Currently, 55% of working families in Virginia lack access to unpaid family leave, let alone paid leave, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. 

Laura Collins is a 43-year-old resident of Vienna who understands how valuable these types of policies can be for families. When the pandemic began, Collins, who works in digital communications, was able to reduce her hours to part-time because of the CARES Act’s emergency paid leave benefit. That enabled her to better assist her now 8-year-old daughter with virtual learning, and help transition her mother into an assisted living facility after she underwent heart surgery. 

Collins believes that if not for the emergency paid leave benefit, she might have been among the millions of women across the country who left the workforce in 2020.

“That really helped my family stay above water and helped to pay our rent,” she said. “I don’t know how we would have paid our Vienna rent with just one income.”

Collins connected with other parents on Facebook and helped them learn more about the benefit, which ultimately led her to join the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy Virginia as an organizer—a role in which she spends her days fighting for paid leave.

“There are women who work as preschool teachers who have zero access to paid leave, zero access to sick leave, and they can’t even take a day off to go to the doctor themselves so they’re putting off their care all the time,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of industrialized countries offer sick days and paid leave and how are we not able to do that? I think we can and the political will is growing.”

The Rising Cost of Child Care Leaves Virginia Families Needing Help

In the past decade, childcare costs have surged by nearly 40%, while the average Virginia woman’s wages have grown by only 5%, according to a 2019 report from the National Women’s Law Center and the Virginia Women’s Equality Coalition. Currently, Virginia is the 10th most expensive state for infant care, with an average annual cost of $14,063, or $1,172 per month

Some families pay even more, said Amy Laufer, a 49-year-old mother of three who lives in Charlottesville. “Some of these places, it’s $24,000. It’s crazy,” she said. “I’ve known so many families that have to stop working because they can’t afford daycare.”

“Basically you’re paying a college tuition every year for each of your children,” Collins added.

Those exorbitant costs are among the main reasons so many Virginia families find themselves so financially strapped.

“We haven’t done anything in the last 30 or 40 years to help working parents,” Collins said. “There is a real big need for help. Working families in Virginia need childcare assistance, they need paid leave, they need paid sick days. It’s a moral issue.”

It’s not just parents and families who would benefit, either. Increased access to high-quality child care would also benefit the overall Virginia economy.

“A lot of folks can’t go back to work if they don’t have high quality child care that they have confidence will care for their children safely,” Goren explained. “That’s certainly something that would help with the recovery.”

McAuliffe has promised to take steps to make child care more accessible and affordable by “leveraging federal dollars to cover the cost of co-payments for low-income families, loosening restrictions that prevent women from accessing childcare assistance while they are seeking work, and dramatically increasing subsidies for families in need.”

A ‘Non-Starter’ of a Proposal From Youngkin

Despite the promising data and skepticism about his arguments, Youngkin continues to insist that McAuliffe’s governance caused Virginia to fall behind other Southern states, and his campaign has pitched him as the best person to lead Virginia forward and build a “rip-roaring economy.”

“Glenn Youngkin’s stellar 30-year business career makes him the most qualified candidate to rebuild Virginia into the best place in America to live, work, and raise a family,” campaign spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement. 

Youngkin has yet to detail any specific policy plans for how he would help working families in Virginia. He has, however, stated that he would consider eliminating the state’s income tax, which accounts for 72% of the general-fund portion of the budget that the governor and Legislature can control.

That sort of massive cut could cripple funding for everything from education to infrastructure to behavioral health funding, according to state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who finished behind McAuliffe in the Democratic primary for governor. “His proposal would just blow a huge hole in our budget that would make it impossible for us to meet the needs that our constituents expect,” she said. 

Farnsworth, the political scientist, agreed that Youngkin’s proposal would prove unpopular.

“Certainly people like to pay less in taxes than they’re paying right now, but Virginians also like roads that aren’t full of potholes and schools that can stay open the entire year,” he said.

McAuliffe’s Policies ‘Should Be a Standard’

On Nov. 2, Virginia voters will decide whether McAuliffe or Youngkin’s argument is more compelling. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are also up for grabs this year, and for McAuliffe’s ambitious agenda to have a chance, he will likely need Democrats to retain their majority in the House as well. 

Democrats believe they have a strong case to make for another two years in charge. McClellan pointed to her party’s achievements over the past two years—raising the minimum wage, increasing school funding, and lowering healthcare premiums—and their management of the pandemic to make her case. 

“Democrats have been managing this crisis from the beginning and doing it in a way that centers equity and centers people who are hurting. We will continue to do that and we really need to build on the progress that we’ve made over the past two years,” McClellan said. “We can continue to be the best state for business and focus on being the best state for workers.”

With another two years in charge, both she and Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Chesterfield County) believe they can do even more for Virginians. 

“I like to capture the work that we’ve done in the last two years under the category of unfinished business,” Aird said. “Democrats have been there for people in their greatest time of need, and we have continued to put them first in every policy issue and in every category, and we feel strongly that while we have laid a really strong foundation…[but] there’s more work to be done. We know that there are still so many people who are in need.” 

Lassiter and her family are among those in need, and the outcome of the election could have enormous consequences for families like hers, who just want the basics: to be able to get a fair paycheck and be able to spend time with their children. 

Right now, that life is out of reach for her and so many other Virginians.

“I want to be home, I want to be able to take care of my daughter and know that she’s taken care of and not have to feel like it’s a luxury to do that,” Lassiter said. “It should be a standard.”

Correction: This article previously misstated the amount of benefits Kirsten Lassiter’s family receives from the Child Tax Credit. We regret the error.