Parents of young children have had a rough pandemic, facing down closed playgrounds, closed pools and closed child-care centers. While states have largely opened up, these parents now face a knock-on crisis: Child-care programs are contending with massive and unprecedented staffing shortages, leading to fewer spots and long waiting lists. The rotten seed of America’s disinvestment in child care has finally sprouted, and without a new, permanent source of public funding, the sector is likely to crash and pull working families down with it.

Child-care programs have long struggled with staffing because wages are so low: The national median is $11.65 an hour, and around half of programs don’t offer health insurance benefits. The current moment is an order of magnitude worse.

While other industries like retail and fast food are responding to labor shortages by raising compensation, most child-care programs have no ability to follow suit. Even with many states preparing to end enhanced unemployment insurance payments, day cares are still increasingly uncompetitive employers.

This is a phase shift. For much of the pandemic, child-care programs were struggling with under-enrollment as parents worked remotely or stayed away for fear of their child bringing covid home. Now, programs are struggling to handle a surge in demand. Since day cares must follow mandated child-to-adult ratios, a lack of staff quite simply means they must serve fewer children.

The problem cuts across geography and ideology; waiting list stories have cropped up from Ohio to Texas, and it was recently reported that one of rural Iowa’s few large centers may have to close temporarily due to staffing challenges. Kim Hulcher, executive director of the Virginia Child Care Association, wrote in an email that “critical staffing shortages” have led several of her members to cap enrollment and stop accepting parent applications altogether.

The impact isn’t restricted to families with children below age 6; many child-care programs also provide before- and after-school care to elementary-aged children. When Ann Arbor Public Schools discontinued district-affiliated child-care services for the upcoming school year, the primary reason given was staffing shortages.

Unlike a short-staffed restaurant that may need to curtail operating hours or menu options, child-care programs are cultivating the academic and socioemotional foundations of a generation; forcing them into a lurch is frankly dangerous. Children thrive on consistent, reliable relationships, and effectively providing care and education for a group of 3-year-olds requires skill. Child care is about the last sector in which you want to see high churn and programs scraping for warm bodies. Yet here we are.

There is only one solution: public investment. Child-care programs don’t obey the classic rules of supply and demand; many experts consider the sector a failed market. Parents are already tapped out, but the obscene prices they pay don’t come close to covering the true cost of care in such a personnel-heavy enterprise. Only programs serving the most affluent can reasonably charge more to boost wages.

Raising ratios or relaxing training requirements is an even more horrific idea — threatening the safety and quality of children’s experiences should be rejected out of hand. Unless we want child care to become a luxury good or a low-quality morass, public money is necessary. Anyone who says otherwise, such as Republicans who claim needing child care is not a preference “normal people” have, is hiding the ball.

At some point, the staffing shortages will curtail income enough to send programs into a budgetary death spiral. The canary in the coal mine is already fainting: The Texarkana Gazette recently reported on a local child-care center closing permanently because of an inability to find a new center administrator. “We looked as far as Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Dallas. Not one with the qualifications we need is presently available,” co-owner Pamela Reynolds told the Gazette.

In one important way, child care mirrors the rest of the economy: Raising compensation works. A study of child-care teacher turnover in Louisiana in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, found more than 44 percent of teachers in private child-care programs leave every year, nearly all exiting the profession altogether (by comparison, about 16 percent of K-12 teachers leave each year, half just going to a different school). However, for the better paid Head Start teachers and the yet-better paid public preschool teachers, turnover was only around a third and a quarter, respectively.

Federal pandemic funds for child care have not done enough to address the workforce crisis. The $50 billion passed in the December stimulus and American Rescue Plan certainly stabilized programs, and it is allowing some to offer signing bonuses. However, programs cannot permanently raise wages or offer better benefits from one-time cash infusions.

President Biden’s American Families Plan (AFP) sets a goal of a $15 minimum wage for child-care practitioners, an improvement that would however return the industry to its pre-pandemic fragility. The AFP also states those with similar qualifications to kindergarten teachers would achieve pay parity, although this wades into an ongoing debate about credentialing for child-care educators and how to honor the experience and expertise of a workforce substantially made up of older women of color.

An alternative is the adoption of publicly supported sectoral wage scales. Several states have developed such scales, although none are fully implemented. For instance, a recently proposed scale in Minnesota would ensure entry-level classroom support roles — requiring a 120-hour certificate — start at $18.20 per hour, moving up from there toward parity with K-12 teachers. Both major pieces of Democratic federal child-care legislation, the Child Care for Working Families Act and the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act, go further than the AFP in requiring and funding wage scales with a living wage floor.

More philosophically, the nation needs to ask itself a question: Do we really want programs caring for toddlers and their rapidly developing brains to be competing for staff with fast food joints and big box stores (worthy of a decent wage as those employees are)? Do we want market forces determining whether parents have viable, quality options for their care/work arrangements? There is a reason we don’t expose fire departments or public schools to the invisible, raw hand of capitalism; child-care programs are equally essential to the functioning of society and the development of children.

The child-care staffing shortage is going to rapidly worsen absent permanent public investment, causing a cascading set of negative impacts on parents, children and businesses as early as this summer. The market is not coming to save working families. The hour grows late for policymakers to grasp this reality and open a pipeline of sustainable public money into the long-neglected child-care sector.

Elliot Haspel is the program officer for education policy and research at the Robins Foundation in Richmond. He is the author of the book, Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.