Spotlight Exclusives

Convergence Collective Offers Bipartisan Plan for Family Flourishing

Abby McCloskey Abby McCloskey, posted on

Earlier this year, the Convergence Center for Policy Solutions, a leading organization bridging divides to solve critical challenges through collaborative problem solving across ideological, political, and cultural lines, released the report from the Convergence Collaborative on Supports for Working Families. The group, which met throughout 2023, was a cross-partisan, cross-sector group of leaders dedicated to improving the lives of children and families in America. Spotlight spoke recently with Abby McCloskey, the director of the Collaborative, about the report’s findings and next steps. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with an explanation of what Convergence is and how the Collaborative came about.

Convergence is a small, bridge-building organization that has existed for over a decade, bringing people together with professional mediation to talk about public policy issues. They’ve done work on guns and suicide, on the budget process in Congress, on reimagining care for older adults. They wanted to do that same process, but in the space of family policy and they reached out to me to direct the project.

Why family policy at this time? Why now?

Our country is polarized across so many different issues, but this includes family policy and we saw that in differing responses to the pandemic. I think we’ve seen that when President Biden rolled out his Build Back Better Agenda, which was an early childhood agenda, and we’ve certainly seen it in the rollback of Roe v. Wade with the Dobbs decision. And when you look across Washington, almost all of our institutions are set up to continue those divides, whether we’re talking about the policy community or in Congress, where it’s gotten harder and harder to come together across differences in recent years.

And so, the desire for this project was to create a space that was private and not performative, where there was professional mediation which existed outside of the organizations in D.C., to bring people together who have dedicated their whole lives and professions to these issues and yet see them very differently in a lot of cases. We wanted to create a space where they could, over the course of a year and many, many, many conversations, get a better understanding of where other people who see the world differently are coming from and then see if there was indeed common ground and places of shared interest to push forward.

You met monthly?

We met monthly for the course of a year, and we had in-person meetings and remote meetings, and we found there’s just no good substitute for in-person meetings. But certainly, having meetings remotely also allowed us to pull from lots of parts of the country, which I think was important.

And how did that sense of collaboration grow? Knowing a lot of the people in your group, I bet pretty quickly. These are folks that are somewhat used to doing this and I bet it was not nearly as contentious as people who don’t know some of these personalities might think it would be.

They’re such wonderful people. I worked in family policy for 15 years and so I did have the benefit of knowing a lot of them when we were deciding who to pull as part of this effort. But we did intentionally choose people who had real differences; one of my aims was not to set a table of moderates and say there’s this bipartisan consensus, but to actually have a breadth of opinion. The point was not necessarily to meet in the middle, it was to understand the nuance of different ways forward in supporting working families with young children.

And why don’t you just talk briefly about the areas where you did find some compromise.

I’d love to. I’ve been involved in—and you mentioned a lot of people on the table have been involved in— projects similar to this before. And they tend to go something like this: they’re not entirely bipartisan, and usually they’re a little more conservative with a dash of progressive, or a little more progressive with a dash of conservative. And it’s usually a specific issue that you’re going into solve, like you’re going to come out with a plan for childcare, and usually the length of the project is relatively short.

This was very different because when we pulled those 32 people together for our first meeting in D.C., instead of talking about any of the specific issues that all of us spend most of our days talking and writing about, we started at an entirely different place—which was to just say, “What is family flourishing?” And that enabled us to, from the very, very, very beginning, start to have a different conversation, which was less defending phase-ins and phase-outs of Child Tax Credit payments and more on a broader, almost visionary conversation about what is it we’d even like to see? And that’s something we don’t stop and do a lot of in the policy community or in a lot of groups like this.

Alongside that we had really skilled and professional mediation to make sure that all voices were being heard and that just created a completely different environment. We ate together and just enjoyed being human together. And that also creates some connective tissue between people that’s really hard to do if you’re just doing it over Zoom or for a one-day conference.

And going in, was there anything that was off the table or was there anything that it quickly became clear that we are sort of wasting our time to try to come to an agreement on here?

The only kind of description in my invitation for people to be involved was to say we’re coming together across significant ideological difference to see if there’s ways to support working families with young children. And at that very first meeting where we were talking about family flourishing, we had a lot of discussion even about that scope. Like, why just focus on young children? Or how young are the children we are focusing on? Or what about older dependents or what about families who want to work but can’t work because of the structural barriers? And so, really everything was on the table. At the end of that first meeting, we decided that based on the expertise in the group—which was predominantly experts in the early childhood space who have spent a lot of time with low- and moderate-income communities, but were not necessarily experts in the full matrix of anti-poverty programs—that we would focus on families with children ages zero to eight, where at least one member of the family was working.

So, taking that within this overall vision of family flourishing we had discussed, we looked for ways that this particular group might have leverage, because we couldn’t bite it all off. And that’s where we decided to talk together and learn from each other about cash supports for families, about how we can do a better job supporting infants and new parents with infant and maternal mortality rates as high as they are, and how we can create more care options for young kids, both traditional center-based childcare, parental care in the home and everything in between.

And then we kept coming back to, which was very surprising, but maybe in retrospect shouldn’t have been, the need to have a conversation about how we even talk about raising kids and parenting and what family supports look like in the U.S. The last time we did that was in 1991 with the National Commission on Children “Beyond Rhetoric” report, and it was an agenda to support families with young kids. And it seems like in those three decades that even how we view and talk about kids has changed or has kind of become problematic for reform. For example, we hear things like, when we talk about kids, it’s like having a car, it’s kind of your choice, your responsibility. There’s no societal role. Or that we’re in a tremendously unsustainable fiscal situation, for which I agree, but that’s used as a blockade, not an opening of the conversation to talk about resources. And so that section on rhetoric and new narratives that ended up leading our report was fascinating and certainly not at all where we anticipated the work would go.

Can you talk briefly about some of the recommendations you made in each of those areas?

Sure. As I mentioned, the report leads with the rhetoric and narrative piece. And we put forward new narratives, like all children deserve to flourish, but then talk about structurally, how do we move the wellbeing of children and the flourishing of families forward in the national conversation? And there were a few ways. One is focusing policymaker’s attention on children and families—having a national commission on children for the 21st century, a new committee, perhaps a special congressional Gang of Eight to force attention on kids. That can happen at the federal level, the state level, or the local level. The UK is running a PR campaign called Shaping Us, which Kate Middleton had helped kick off, that is trying to build cultural support around the importance of early childhood and moving that to the forefront of the conversation.

We recommended things like having a shared fact base for assessing family flourishing, because right now, depending on the political orientation of the think tank or nonprofit, analysts and policymakers might be looking at different aspects or different data for assessing how families are doing. We talked about cash support for kids. This has been, as you know, an extremely debated issue in Congress in the last few months, in particular with Child Tax Credit, and we came to the conclusion that relatively more of what we spend should be directed towards low- and moderate-income families, and that we could also do a better job exploring the flexibility of the payments we give so a family can claim the full amount, which is an important point of debate. There’s also so many exciting pilots happening at the state and local level on the cash support side, like Luke Shaefer and RX Kids, and we encourage the proliferation of that, again to have more proof points and data points about what types of delivery work.

We put forth recommendations for increasing care options for kids. And that was intentionally not labeled the child care section because this was one of the areas that had some of the strongest political differences with how we think about care for young children and whether our resources primarily go to center-based care versus supporting stay-at-home parenting. And most families of course kind of live in between those worlds and have a bunch of different care arrangements. And so how do we let more different providers flourish—ones who work non-traditional hours, ones who are connected to local churches, ones who are connected to family and friends—to create a really diverse ecosystem of care providers so that families can have options for their kids that they feel are not only supportive of the child’s development but align with their family’s values and specific work needs.

And the place we were able to have the strongest recommendations is where we end the report and that’s on support for parents with newborns and adopted children. And despite being a very diverse group with a significant conservative contingent, we do come out and recommend a 12-week-paid parental leave plan as a floor that all working families should have access to support moms and dads and babies in those first weeks of life.

And then, in keeping with the rest of the report where we don’t just provide federal government solutions, we talk about increasing in-home visiting at the community level and experimenting with more telemedicine for Medicaid. You know, how can we get more creative about some of these things which already exist? And when it came down to coming up with a vision for family flourishing and shared principles, there is indeed a lot about what that looks like that people hold in common. And so, what comes next in some ways is the most valuable part of it, particularly the relationships formed. Sure, D.C. is a small town, the early childhood community is a small community, but having 30 people who now know each other better and have worked together is an exciting prospect for all sorts of different alliances.

On one specific piece I’m interested in, do you see interest on the Hill picking up on any kind of larger structural mechanisms to support families—a Gang of 8 for children, a national kids task force, that kind of thing.

I think it has actually not been part of the national policy conversation and I think it’s such a commonsense idea, especially if we’re going to navigate the political dynamics in which we find ourselves. Having an outside commission could help provide the juice needed for Congress to do something and could provide a more nuanced policy set that would be more appealing to a broader audience than one pushed by one political party or the other.


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