Family

Thousands are missing work to care for their kids. Here’s how we could fix it in 2023.

When the pandemic hit, Joy Spencer did not lose her new job – but she did lose child care for her young daughter after the day care center closed. Spencer, a single mother in North Carolina, had an employer who was sympathetic to her situation and offered some remote work for a while. But eventually, she had to return to the office. Her paid leave quickly dried up as she struggled to find care for her daughter.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Spencer testified before Congress in 2021 during a hearing on child care and other economic issues affecting women. “I couldn’t keep calling out of work, I couldn’t keep leaving early, but if I left my job, how was I going to continue paying the bills? I had worked so hard to get this new job and it felt like everything was falling apart. I spent a lot of long, sleepless nights full of tears.”

Earlier this year, more than 1 million Americans reported leaving their jobs in order to care for their children, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Reliable child care has become harder to find and, in some cases, more expensive since the pandemic.

Spencer eventually found a more flexible job as executive director at Equity Before Birth, a North Carolina-based birth and economic justice nonprofit. But she told Congress, “Many families are struggling. I work with families every day and these stories are not isolated.”

Adding to the child care crisis is the current respiratory illness tripledemic of Covid-19, the flu and RSV. Kids are missing school more and parents are missing more time at work, making reliable child care even more essential.

“While the current child care crisis has been decades in the making, the pandemic has brought to light how essential child care is to the success of our workforce and the economy,” said Cheryl Oldham, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber Foundation, in a statement. “If we want the economy to get back on its feet, we have to solve this urgent problem.”

So how did we get here? Why is it still so hard for families to find child care? And most importantly, what can we do about it?

Let’s catch up

Most babies and young children in the U.S. today have all available parents in the workforce.

That’s 15 million children who need care while their parents and caregivers are working.

Even pre-pandemic, half of Americans lived in a child care desert, which the Center for American Progress defines as an area where young children outnumber the available licensed child care slots more than three to one.

Most child care deserts were in low- and middle-income communities, including many communities of color and much of rural America.

Then came the pandemic.

Child care enrollment plummeted as parents kept children at home. Many programs were already operating on razor-thin profit margins before. Forced temporary closures, low enrollment, staffing challenges and new safety expenses made operating a child care business even more unworkable for thousands of providers.

Many day cares closed temporarily; some never reopened. Nearly 9,000 child care centers and another 7,000 family care programs closed between December 2019 and March 2021, according to a Child Care Aware report.

Thousands of child care workers left the industry, often for higher pay.

There are still 84,000 fewer child care workers in the United States than there were before the pandemic.

Many child care workers can make better money at a fast food or retail job. The starting salary at Walmart is about $23 an hour, according to Glassdoor.com, while the average wage for a child care worker is still $12-$13 an hour. Child care workers and preschool teachers are nearly 8 times more likely to live in poverty than elementary school teachers, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at Berkeley.

But child care is already expensive for families.

“Generally speaking, child care is a system funded primarily by families and what they can afford to pay,” said Calderon.

“And what they can afford to pay doesn’t cover the cost to operate.”

If child care providers were paid fairer wages, she said, the cost passed on to families would be “a lot more than what the average working class, middle class, or even upper-middle class families can afford.”

As it is, half of parents reported spending more than 20% of their household incomemore than 20% of their household income on child care, in Care.com’s national 2022 Cost of Care Survey.

States and employers can’t afford it, either.

States lose an estimated $2.7 billion each year due to breakdowns in the child care system, according to reports from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Employers are losing out, too. More than 100,000 people reported missing work within the past four weeks due to child care problems, according to an October 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey.

So how do we fix this?

Child care is an essential service, but it’s been underfunded and under resourced for decades, said Calderon.

“We need a big vision for a child care and early learning system that will ultimately deliver high-quality and affordable care for the vast majority of families in our nation, and fairly compensate workers,” said Calderon.

While experts and lawmakers have yet to propose a system-wide panacea, states and the federal government have been experimenting with ways to fix various parts of the problem:

1. Helping parents afford child care: Each year the federal government gives eligible families a tax credit of up to $2,000 for children up to age 17. But in 2021, the federal American Rescue Plan temporarily expanded that credit, increasing the maximum to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for children ages 6-17. It also sent half the credit to families in monthly installments from July through December and expanded eligibility. That meant about 6 in 10 U.S. households with children got direct payments each month of up to $300 to help struggling families cover monthly expenses.

Census Bureau data shows the tax credit lifted nearly 3 million children out of poverty within a few months. Parents reported spending their tax credit on child care, food, rent and other expenses, according to the Census Bureau.

But the expanded child tax credit expired in 2021. Child poverty spiked. Congress failed to make the enhanced credit permanent in its omnibus legislation passed just before the end of 2021.

Direct payments to parents, like the expanded child tax credit, is one solution that social policy experts say has a demonstrated track record of improving the lives of families and could be reinstated in future.

2. Federal investment: Child care providers rely on financial assistance from the state and federal government to help offset operating costs and to help parents afford to pay for child care. Congress recently bumped up funding by 30% for the main federal program that supports child care. It provides money to states so they can in turn give financial assistance to families to help them afford care through subsidies. This year, Congress added an extra $1.8 billion to the $8 billion program. It’s a step in the right direction, but falls short of the funding increase Calderon had hoped to see.

“The impacts of those funds have been really well-documented in terms of how they’ve helped prevent more child care businesses from closure,” she said, “and we’ve seen real breakthroughs in terms of wage increases (for child care workers) and helping with retention of workers.”

If Congress allocated additional funding, that could help even more families access child care, keep more providers financially viable, and help them attract and retain more workers.

3. States investing & innovating: New Mexico voters recently passed a ballot measure that amends its constitution and creates a permanent fund to make child care more accessible and affordable. Other states, like Florida, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia have also increased the amount of money they make available to help families pay for child care or expand the number of families eligible for care.

Child care is an essential service but it’s one of the lowest-paid occupations in the United States. In an effort to recruit and retain more workers, states like Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky and Vermont improved salaries and benefits for child care workers through government grants.

4. Individuals asking for more. Individuals can reach out to their lawmakers and ask them to support legislation that improves funding for families, child care workers and child care programs.

They can push their employers to offer financial assistance for families that rely on child care. And they can join local and national advocacy groups to push for more equitable access to high-quality child care.

Anna Claire Vollers

Anna Claire Vollers | avollers@reckonmedia.com

I report mainly on reproductive and maternal health, working parents and family policy at Reckon News.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.