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End of Pandemic-Era Child Care Aid Spells Crisis for Millions of Working Moms

Congress must take action to extend pandemic-era child care supports put in place under the American Rescue Plan Act.

A huge swath of women are struggling to afford early childhood education.

Part of the Series

A Minnesota Public Radio article noted last month that “women are returning to the job market in droves.” While it’s true that women may be returning to work; they are not doing so without challenges.

Most people have no idea the systems that must be in place in early childhood education to accommodate women and families and help them get back to work and stay at work. Simply put, the MPR article didn’t align with the truth of women who rely on early childhood education and care, or those who work in early childhood education.

The reality for many of those women is that pandemic-era support, made possible with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), has ended. This means most women must return to work to survive, but the support they received for child care has vanished.

Additionally, a huge swath of women are struggling to afford early childhood education, while others are struggling to make ends meet because their jobs in early childhood education are not paying competitive wages. What’s more, if ARPA investments are not extended by the end of September, fewer families will receive subsidies for early childhood education, and consequently, early childhood education centers will be unable to afford to pay competitive wages or open slots for early childhood education and care.

According to the Century Foundation, “Beginning September 30, 2023, states will face a steep drop-off in federal child care investment. Without Congressional action, this cliff will have dire consequences. More than three million children are projected to lose access to child care nationwide.” If centers lose funding, they will also lose staff, because they’ll be unable to pay staff or unable to pay them a competitive wage.

What we must understand is that many of the issues that sidelined women before, during and after the pandemic have not gone away. Child care is still unaffordable. Women who work in early childhood education and care continue to suffer with low pay. Child care centers are still not receiving a stable source of funding that would enable them to open additional spots for families in need or pay workers a competitive wage. Additionally, there are fewer child care workers today than before the pandemic began. Let’s not forget that if centers cannot hire and retain sufficient staff, they will also be unable to serve all eligible families in their area.

How can women return to work if there isn’t funding to enable them to work; care for their children while they work; or establish long, vibrant careers in early child care? These aren’t the only issues with which families must contend. Paid parental leave is also less common in the United States than in many other industrialized countries.

Overall, pandemic-era protections for eviction and nutrition assistance have expired, as has the Biden administration’s child tax credit. Consequently, material hardships for families are going back up, according to the RAPID EC study. The MPR article on women returning to work never mentioned that.

We also know that the pain caused by a lack of supports is not evenly felt. The child care system disproportionately relies on Black, Brown and immigrant women to care for children — women who often go unseen and unappreciated. They are often underpaid, under-resourced, and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of physical and emotional labor inherent in their jobs. But few are rushing to a megaphone to outline their plight.

It is true that women are returning to work, but they are facing a host of barriers while doing so. Some are leaving children home alone or leaving them with people they would not choose if they had more resources. Women may be returning to work, but they need sustainable support that will help them and their children over the long term.

We know that all children deserve a safe place to be nurtured, educated and stimulated, and that people who work with children deserve to be paid a decent wage. We need a child care system that is affordable for every family but is also a stable career path for child care educators. That’s not possible without adequate government funding for early childhood educators.

We want to see women and families returning to work. We also want the barriers they face to be addressed in a comprehensive way. For instance, states can increase eligibility up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level which would allow more families and children to have access to publicly funded child care. They could also ensure child care workers, in-home care workers and community care workers are paid at least $20 an hour for their essential work by reimbursing providers for the actual cost of care.

Extending collective bargaining rights to care workers is also necessary so those closest to the work can strengthen the sector. Most importantly, we would like to see our state of Ohio increase reimbursement rates to the federal government’s recommended 75 percent; currently Ohio has some of the lowest reimbursement rates in the U.S. at 25 percent.

Additionally, we need the federal government to hold corporations like Intel accountable for investing in the child care sector. We would like the federal government come up with a plan to strengthen child care across the U.S. that includes universal child care and a new formula for increased standardized wages that helps to professionalize the early childhood education sector.

No child in the U.S. should lack quality child care and no family or provider should struggle in this industry. These are common-sense solutions to an urgent problem.

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