Affordable, available child care was a major problem for many U.S. families even before the coronavirus pandemic—and now it’s a crisis. President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have plans to fix that if Senate Republicans will get out of the way, or Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will get on board with a budget reconciliation package that includes child care. But even if funding was passed into law tomorrow (which it won’t be), the child care crisis would persist, at least for a while.
The U.S. child care system has so many problems that simply scaling it up would take time as well as money. Scaling up requires adding both facilities and workers, and both of those are challenging. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, child care providers told local news station KOIN about their difficulties setting up new facilities, from finding appropriate spaces to zoning and permitting to finding the funding to pay for renovations.
“It gets costly to borrow, you know, and childcare—there’s a fine line in what you can charge and what makes you competitive in the marketplace for families who do need childcare and how much you can ultimately profit to pay off a loan,” said one provider who had already spent $200,000, with the help of grants, renovating a space to set up a new facility.
Then there are child care workers. This was already a high-turnover industry, thanks in part to low wages. A Biden administration fact sheet on the American Families Plan lays out the gruesome situation for these workers: “More investment is needed to support early childhood care providers and educators, more than nine in ten of whom are women and more than four in ten of whom are women of color. They are among the most underpaid workers in the country and nearly half receive public income support programs. The typical child care worker earned $12.24 per hour in 2020—while receiving few, if any, benefits, leading to high turnover and lower quality of care.”
The Biden plan would pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour for child care workers, as well as supporting professional development and training. At the same time, subsidies to families would ensure that “families earning 1.5 times their state median income will pay no more than 7 percent of their income for all children under age five,” while care would be free for the lowest-income families.
But, again, such a dramatic increase in capacity would take time to put into place, and we’ve been seeing how slowly funds can make their way to the people who need them: Emergency rental assistance, for example, has gone out at a glacial pace in many states, even with an eviction crisis looming.
”We estimate hundreds of thousands of new children will benefit … in the first year, and even more children will start to immediately benefit from increased quality and access,” a White House official told Politico, “by providing funds to states to build on their existing child care systems in a way that is tailored to the needs of communities in the state and provides parents with options to send children to the setting of their choice.”
Hundreds of thousands is good—but millions of children were without affordable, accessible child care prior to the pandemic, and the situation has only gotten worse.
The fact that Congress can’t just snap its fingers and create a whole new, wonderful U.S. child care infrastructure isn’t the reason to start working on it, though. It’s a reason to start working on it now, with major funding directed at the problem that’s become a crisis. The pandemic has showed us how critical child care is to the ability of parents to do their jobs. Too many women have dropped out of the paid workforce or scaled back their paid work to take care of their children, and if we want to reverse that rather than let women’s progress be set back by decades, this is a massively important intervention. Raising wages for workers—overwhelmingly women and very often women of color—doing an important job should also be a priority, and it’s one that would benefit children by reducing turnover of their caregivers. Funding child care is a key economic, educational, and moral intervention. Manchin and Sinema need to embrace it.