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Child Care Should Be Universal and Well-Paid — Not Just Affordable

The pandemic has made a child care overhaul both more challenging and more necessary.

Shanikia Johnson, a teacher, helps a three-year-old clean up a puzzle at Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, on January 12, 2021.

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Queen Freelove of New Haven, Connecticut, remembers when the pandemic transformed the daycare she ran out of her home, abruptly turning the atmosphere from cozy to clinical: “Things got extremely traumatic for us,” she recalled. She was constantly trying to keep the environment sanitized, keeping a stockpile of masks, wipes, and other equipment, stopping parents in the hallway when they arrived to pick up their kids to take their temperature and give them a squirt of sanitizer — the protocol for “contactless” drop-offs and pick-ups. Keeping parents outside to minimize direct interaction, she said, was “hard, because we look forward to having that great relationship with the parents, and that really helps. But we could no longer have that relationship that we once had, because of the pandemic.”

Despite the social distancing, Freelove’s work providing child care to local workers, many of them working rough, so-called “essential” jobs, made her feel closer to the community, because her services were indispensable. But she just wishes the government that pays her salary understood that.

“We had to do what those health care providers did for us, and we did our part to get this country back up and open,” Freelove told Truthout. “We were vital, and sometimes I think [the people in government] know it. They know it. But when they’re allocating funds…. No, absolutely not.”

Child care in the United States is frustrating for everyone involved: Families pay way too much for daycare, or are priced out of child care programs altogether and care providers earn far too little. The pandemic has made a child care overhaul both more challenging and more necessary. Though child care services are crucial for enabling parents to go back to work, many child care providers have shut down permanently over the past year, and countless parents in the coming months may struggle to find a spot in a quality daycare that they can afford.

“A lot of the issues that we saw happen during the pandemic are a result of pretty consistent under-investment in child care over the course of several decades,” said Mario Cardona, Chief of Policy and Practice for Child Care Aware of America, a child care provider advocacy group. “We have a system that places far too high a burden on families paying for the high price of care, and for providers to operate on very, very thin margins, so they can keep their doors open and meet the needs of families.”

The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, passed in March, provided nearly $40 billion to help child care providers keep operating through the pandemic and pay their workers. Biden also recently rolled out his “American Families Plan,” which, if it becomes law, would dramatically expand subsidy eligibility and raise child care workers’ minimum hourly pay to $15 per hour. Advocates have welcomed Biden’s plan as a down payment on an overhaul of a system that was in tatters even before the pandemic forced many child care providers out of work.

Among those formerly employed by child care programs, the average pre-pandemic annual income of a child care worker or early childhood educator was just $11.65 per hour, or $24,230 in 2019 — less than half of what kindergarten teachers earn. In every state, the median wage for child care workers — who are nearly all women and more racially diverse than K-12 educators — was below the living wage for a parent with one child. There are also many home-based child care providers, or family child care homes, who are essentially self-employed, but struggle to scrape by due to the low reimbursement rates provided by the state child care subsidy systems. During the pandemic, many daycare centers and family child care homes closed due to a drop in enrollment and increased operating costs of additional sanitizing and protective equipment. Some saw their revenue plummet because states lowered enrollment caps as a safety precaution, which meant fewer subsidies just as their overhead costs were rising.

A nationwide survey of daycare centers and family child care homes conducted last November by the professional organization National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), found that more than half of child care centers reported “losing money each day they remain open,” and 44 percent of all respondents reported “confronting so much uncertainty that they are unable to say how much longer they will be able to stay open.” According to federal data, the number of child care employees declined by more than 130,000 nationwide between February 2020 and May 2021.

Maria del Carmen Macias, a home-based child care provider in Belmont Cragin, Illinois, said that family child care homes like hers play an especially critical role in her community. “In these 14 years that I’ve been a child care provider, 100 percent of my kids, 100 percent of my families live blocks away from me,” she said, noting that many do not have a car, so they need to place their kids with a daycare that they can walk to. But as executive board chair of her union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Illinois, she noted that during the pandemic, “We know of many centers that have closed their doors. And we also know that many family child care providers [who] have decided to close the doors [had] more than 25, 30 years of experience.”

These closures exacerbate massive deficits in the availability of care for low-income households. According to federal data, state and federal child care subsidies — based heavily on limited Child Care and Development Block Grant funds, a large pot of federal funding that is administered by states — reach only about one in seven federally eligible children as of 2017, and just 18 percent of low-income children are enrolled in “high-quality” preschool (a structured program with effective professional teachers, a research-based curriculum and other features of a supportive learning environment).

Prior to the pandemic, the total average cost of full-time child care for a typical family was between $9,200 and $9,600 a year — over 10 percent of household income for a two-parent household, and about a third of that of a single parent, according to Child Care Aware. In most regions of the country, child care is the largest household expense — above housing, health care and food — and often costs more than public university tuition. Although some states’ child care subsidy programs exempt low-income families from child care co-pays, most states require low-income parents to pay fees that can cost up to several hundred dollars per month. Child care costs will place an even heavier burden on families who have struggled with lost income or unemployment during the pandemic. Both child care providers and families lose out when cash-strapped parents get stuck on waiting lists or ensnared in the complex application process for subsidies.

On top of the unaffordability of child care for low- and middle-income parents, many communities simply lack access to affordable, quality licensed daycare. Latinx and Native American populations are especially likely to live in a “child care desert,” or a census tract with at least 50 children and either no licensed child care providers, or no more than one child care slot per three kids under the age of 5. Rural families suffer from some of the most severe child care shortages, in part because they rely heavily on smaller family child care homes, in which enrollment is limited to just a handful of kids per provider.

Like many other child care providers who have kids of their own, Tunja Daniels, a family support worker at the Mary Crane Center in Chicago, has struggled to arrange care for her own children. After the daycare where she works shut down temporarily during the first months of the pandemic, she recalled, “my child care provider took the parents that were still going to work. And [because of] them having limited space, I lost my slot.” Now that she is working again, her children have to stay at home and attend virtual classes because neither parent would be able to pick the kids up from in-person school.

The Biden administration’s American Families Plan aims to invest in child care as part of the nation’s economic infrastructure, pumping $225 billion into federally supported child care programs. That would cap the cost of care at 7 percent of a family earning 150 percent of the state median income (that’s about $70,000 in Alaska and $94,000 in New York).

In addition to the increased access to child care, Biden’s plan to set a $15 per hour wage floor for child care workers may have an even bigger impact on the quality and availability of child care, as it could bring equity to a labor sector that has been historically dismissed as “women’s work.” The early childhood educator workforce, which is more than 40 percent people of color, suffers an extreme pay gap with their counterparts teaching in elementary or middle school: The poverty rate among early childhood educators is nearly eight times that of teachers in grades kindergarten through 8. Child care workers also often lack basic benefits like employer-sponsored health insurance and rely on public assistance programs. And within the early childhood education workforce, those working with infants and toddlers earn less than preschool teachers, and Black workers make nearly 80 cents an hour less than white workers.

An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour would boost take-home pay for as many as 560,000 child care workers, or more than 40 percent; the vast majority would be women, more than a third Black and Latinx. Improved wages could also help stabilize the workforce by curbing the currently high turnover rates, which would help daycare programs attract and retain qualified staff, and put early educators on a sustainable career path. Early education advocacy and professional organizations such as the NAEYC have been pushing for more resources and infrastructure for educators seeking professional development and training.

Biden’s plan also broadly aims to promote parity between the pay of kindergarten teachers and comparably credentialed early childhood education workers, which parallel parity initiatives in some state and local universal pre-kindergarten programs, including Los Angeles, Oklahoma and Portland’s Multnomah County, that seek to reduce the pay gap between preschool and public school teachers.

Nonetheless, Biden’s child care plan would still fall short of what advocates say is needed to overhaul the system. Stephanie Schmit, director of child care and early education at the Center for Law and Social Policy, says a $700 billion long-term investment would be needed to truly meet the overall need for subsidized child care. Although Biden’s plan was “a very big improvement over the current system that we have,” she said, it should be seen as just the start of a long-term effort to “build a more sustainable and equitable child care system that will have a really big impact for children and families and workers.”

A parallel bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) earlier this year would ensure universal access through expanding center-based care and family child care homes, and guarantee that households that earn less than twice the federal poverty line (about $53,000 for a family of four) would be entitled to free child care. It would cost $70 billion per year or $700 billion over 10 years, or more than triple what Biden promised, funded by an “Ultra Millionaire Tax.”

Daniels wants to see the system support everyone involved; while parents struggle to pay for child care, while she is dealing with the student debt burden from trying to gain the educational credentials that will help her advance her career. “I want to see just universal child care where the parents are not going into debt wondering if they should pay the child care or rent or utility bill because they can’t make those child care payments. We can afford to have universal child care. We can afford to have local colleges award bachelor’s degrees in early education.”

As a member-organizer with SEIU, Daniels believes the child care crisis reflects lawmakers’ longstanding lack of respect for child care and early education workers. “I believe because we’ve never gotten credit for being educators, we’ve been considered babysitters in early education. So they felt that the funding wasn’t necessary for us,” she said. “But if we don’t work, parents can’t work. If we’re not there to support and educate children, the parents won’t be able to work and support their families.”

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