Child care in America has never been perfect.
Now, more than half of the country’s day cares are closed. Some will never reopen. Others barely hanging on could soon shutter. All are consequences of the new coronavirus pandemic that is exposing fundamental problems in a system tasked with caring for more than 12 million children.
Many experts believe the U.S. child care system may be among the pandemic’s victims.
If this happens, not only will American families suffer, but the U.S. economy will do so as well.
When we emerge from the pandemic, it could be with millions of fewer available child care slots, even higher fees and tuition, and a shortage of already-underpaid caregivers who simply couldn’t afford to stay.
This leaves experts and families asking the same question: What will happen when a parent can’t go back to work because no day care is available?
What will happen If their provider can’t weather the storm and decides to close permanently?
Without a stable child care system, many American families will continue to struggle, unable to re-enter the workforce until kids are ready for elementary school.
The best option is a minimum $50 billion public investment from Congress, according to Patricia Cole, senior director of federal policy at nonprofit organization Zero To Three, and several of her colleagues.
Such an investment would stabilize the child care industry and sustain it moving forward.
“Child care is foundational for our nation to recover from this crisis,” Cole said at a recent briefing hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Without safe, quality child care, how will essential workers continue to meet our needs? How will millions of parents be able to return to work once economic recovery begins?”
Those questions remain unanswered.
Congress and the White House have been virtually silent on the issue — certainly on any consensus to fixing the problem — leaving unsettled parents across the nation looking to the future with no solution.
“The coronavirus has exposed just how fragile the system is due to years of underinvestment,” Cole said. “Sustaining the system is critical, but we also need to think bigger to envision a system that fits the needs of all families.”
Fragile System Exposed
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, families were struggling to afford quality child care or even any acceptable child care at all. Providers faced razor-thin margins and precarious financial situations, leaving little forgiveness in any economic downturn.
The price of child care is staggering, costing a typical family anywhere from 14 to 18 percent of their annual income, according to a report by nonprofit advocacy group Child Care Aware.
The report and Child Care Aware’s Interactive Child Care Price Map show that in 28 states and the District of Columbia, one year of in-center care for an infant costs between $9,000 and $9,600 annually.
In states such as New York, Minnesota and California, parents pay nearly double the average, shelling out upward of $15,000 to $16,000 per year.
To avoid the crippling financial strain, some parents opt to quit their jobs and stay home with the kids — a decision that’s overwhelmingly impacted women. In a pre-pandemic survey conducted by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning nonprofit think tank, mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to say they had personally felt the negative impact of child care issues on their careers.
Even those who can afford high-quality child care have had trouble finding it.
Nearly half of Americans said they live where there’s no licensed child care provider or where there are long waiting lists, with three times as many children as slots. Only 10 percent of providers are considered to be high quality, according to a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study.
And it’s not just families who struggle; the current system hasn’t been kind to child care workers, either.
Roughly 1.5 million people work in the child care industry, a 2019 report by Child Care Aware reported. Ninety-four percent are women, and 52 percent are mothers themselves. Many can’t afford the very services they provide.
They spend an average 36 hours per week with our kids, yet child care workers have been historically undervalued and underpaid, said Shana Bartley, a director at the National Women’s Law Center.
The average wage for those employed in child care centers last year was $11.65 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We devalue care work that places strain on women, especially low-income women and women of color,” Bartley said. “For decades, Americans have gone to work because of the sacrifices of an undervalued professional caregiving workforce that we’ve relegated to the shadows.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic began in early March, 16 states have mandated closures of child care facilities to all children except those of essential workers. A 17th, Rhode Island, closed child care facilities to everyone.
Even in states without regulations, many day cares closed to protect children and staff from the virus threat, leaving parents who can work from home juggling babies and bosses, and forcing others out of the workforce altogether.
Unlike most countries, child care in the United States is an industry propped up mostly by private dollars, paid into the system by parents and families.
When enrollment declines, as it has during the pandemic, the financial loss can prove catastrophic for many centers and in-home providers.
By April, about 50 percent of U.S. child care programs and facilities were closed. Of those remaining open, 85 percent were operating at about 50 percent capacity while 65 percent were operating at 25 percent.
Nearly one-third of child care workers have been laid off as providers struggle to cover fixed costs. A recent survey found that just 11 percent of providers could survive an extended closure without government support.
When we emerge from the pandemic, there’s a possibility we will do so with 4.5 million fewer child care slots than before, the survey reported.
Erica Phillips, chief operations officer with All Our Kin, a nonprofit that trains and supports child care providers, said the coronavirus crisis is shining “a bright spotlight” on our country’s need to invest in a robust child care system.
“We can’t go back to an old system that didn’t work well,” Phillips said. “So, how do we invest in providers?”
What Needs To Be Done
When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March, the measure allocated $3.5 billion to the child care industry. Most child care programs were eligible to apply for a portion of the $350 billion slated for small-business loans; however, loans were available on a first-come, first-served basis.
While $3.5 billion seems like a lot of money, said Cole from the nonprofit policy group, “We’re talking about an entire system for children and families.”
“It would take $50 billion to support the sector,” she added. “That’s $10 billion per month.”
Studies have shown that quality, affordable child care is directly related to the health of the U.S. economy and the long-term well-being of children.
A Harvard Graduate School of Education analysis showed that children under 5 who participated in high-quality, early-childhood education programs were far better off than kids who were not.
They were less likely to be placed in special education classes or to be held back a grade, and they were more likely to graduate from high school.
What’s become clear from this pandemic, said the law center’s Bartley, is child care is not only a public good but also an essential part of our country’s infrastructure.
Industry leaders agree more needs to be done and that it can only truly be accomplished through additional public investment. And it needs to be a down payment, a commitment to rethinking the child care model, they said.
“Child care is not an individual responsibility,” Bartley added. “It is a public good we all benefit from. It ensures parents, and especially women, can work outside the home.”
What Parents Should Do
Jennifer Clisham of Bel Air, Maryland, said she’s lucky to have a sister who’s available to watch her kids. But Clisham isn’t sure what she’ll do for child care if her sister finds a job or is unavailable this summer.
“I’m afraid to send my kids to the day cares that are open for essential personnel — I’m high risk, and so is my daughter,” Clisham told Patch on Facebook. “It’s not the best situation.”
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Melissa D’Amico of Manalapan, New Jersey, has worked from home full time for the last six years; but her husband, who typically works outside the home, has also been working remotely for the past two months.
The couple manages to share the load of work, overseeing online classwork for their first grader and entertaining their 3-year-old.
If schools stay closed and her husband returns to work, D’Amico will turn to a previous nanny or find a babysitter to relieve her for a few hours during the day.
“Safety comes first in regard to my children’s health,” D’Amico told Patch, adding, “We will find a way to make it work during this trying time.”
What else can parents do?
While there are no simple answers, the right thing to do will depend on each family’s situation. Some may choose to keep their kids home, while others might not have that option.
Until there is a comprehensive solution to bolster the child care system, the best thing parents can do is to support their local child care options, Phillips of All Our Kin said.
“If you have a child care provider, but your child is home and you’re worried about (your provider’s) ongoing sustainability, consider continuing to pay some of your child care fees, if you are able,” Phillips told Patch. “This will go a long way in sustaining your provider through this difficult time.
Phillips offered some additional tips for parents who may find themselves in suddenly in need of child care:
If you need child care, contact your local Child Care Resource & Referral agency. Tell your employer about the child care challenges you’re facing. Employers may step up to provide child care solutions to their employees. Vet multiple child care providers so you have backup options you feel comfortable with and identify close friends or family you could rely on, if necessary.
Parents should be wary of unlicensed child care options, Phillips added.
“Over the years, we’ve made a lot of progress in improving the safety of child care,” she said. “We don’t want to lose sight of these protections as families scramble to put together options.”
The federal Office of Child Care also has multiple resources on its website, www.childcare.gov. Parents can search child care options by state, research all types of child care that may be available, and learn how to identify a quality provider.
Over the coming months, parents will do their best to make it work as states continue to reopen but day cares do not. Without any kind of federal support, Bartley said she anticipates many parents will have to “get creative.”