Child care has traditionally been a “soft issue,” a “woman’s issue” and an issue ignored whenever possible by conservatives, some of whom are queasy about working mothers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made childcare a key issue, during the Democratic presidential primary, although her plan on the topic got less attention than those for healthcare, climate change and college debt.

But the coronavirus epidemic has brought child care front and center, raising a challenge to those conservatives insisting we quickly reopen the economy.Without schools and child care, parents cannot leave their kids alone to go back to work. Instead of blocking traffic and screaming at police officers, conservatives agitating for a swift return to business as usual should be demanding child-care solutions.

“State child care advocates say New Hampshire’s essential industries will not be able to operate at full capacity without first expanding access to and affordability of child care," New Hampshire public radio recently reported. “It’s really critical that as we look at industries to re-open that we understand what their child care needs are," explained Chris Tappan, New Hampshire’s associate commissioner of health and human services. If industries are going to open up, states will need to reboot or expand their child-care centers accordingly.

Carrie Lukas, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, recently wrote for The Post:

Before the coronavirus struck, approximately one-third of all children under 5 attended a paid care facility, day-care center, preschool or prekindergarten. Once the coronavirus hit, many of these arrangements were upended. While some day-care centers continue to serve essential workers, many have shut down completely. For example, Bright Horizons, one of the country’s largest day-care providers, closed more than half of its centers in mid-March. KinderCare, which had operated more than 1,300 centers across the country, now lists only about 400 that are still open.
As a result, many of the estimated 1.5 million people employed in the child-care industry have seen their jobs disappear. . . . And as the already limited supply of child-care spaces contracts, demand is about to skyrocket. The same school closures posing problems for day-care providers will create an increased need for care among the rest of America’s working parents. In two-thirds of families with school-age children, both parents work. Even parents of high schoolers are likely to be uncomfortable leaving their teenagers home alone while they return to work full time. For those with younger kids, it’s not even an option.

States themselves are financially strapped, and funding for child care has barely been addressed. But there are other potential funding sources.

Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), which advocates on childhood issues, has been urgently calling attention to the child-care crisis. Its recent national poll showed overwhelming, bipartisan consensus on enhancing and funding child care at the federal level.

“87% [of voters] support providing enough federal assistance during the crisis to ensure current child care providers are able to make payroll and pay other expenses, such as rent and utilities,” the poll found. That number includes 82 percent of Republicans. About 80 percent of all voters favor giving the child-care industry targeted federal assistance to address the impact of covid-19, while 78 percent favor federal reimbursement to essential workers for child-care costs during the pandemic.

Congress did take action in the first Cares Act, with $3.5 billion in funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $750 million for Head Start out of the $2 trillion in spending. In addition, child-care providers will be now able to access Small Business Administration loans, which can be forgiven if used to pay wages, utilities and rent or mortgage costs.

However, this is far from sufficient. Like many small businesses, many child-care providers are closed. Others, which operate on small margins, are on the brink of collapse. SCAN is urging further funding, to keep paying child-care workers during times their employers are closed and to provide needed support and supplies (such as personal protective equipment) for facilities that are open.

The problem can be acute in rural areas, making for some odd political bedfellows. In 2019, before the pandemic, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) introduced the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act, “to address the national shortage of affordable, quality child care, especially in rural communities.” It would, for example, fund “competitive grants to states to support (1) the education, training, or retention of the child care workforce or (2) building, renovating, or expanding child care facilities in areas with child care shortages.”The current crisis may renew interest in the bill.

Reopening the economy — which Republicans are so anxious to do — will get nowhere without rebuilding and expanding child care, especially in rural areas. If Republicans want to help their own constituents, act constructively to revive the economy, and score some points with voters whose support for them is dropping like a stone, they might think about using the next piece of relief legislation to bolster child care. And a whole lot of Democrats would be delighted to see this issue finally treated as the critical economic issue it is.

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