The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our child-care system has been failing women (and men and kids). That may soon change.

Children maintain social distancing while working on art projects at an emergency child-care program for children of health-care workers in San Francisco on March 19, 2020. (Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)
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Most of the conversation about Democrats’ budget bill focuses on its $3.5 trillion in (gross) costs and whether that number should be lower or higher. Relatively little discussion addresses what we get for the money.

So, in that spirit, let’s talk about the merits of one particularly historic chunk of this legislation: the largest-ever U.S. investment in child care.

For more than 40 years, the majority of American women have been in the workforce. Which is another way of saying: For more than 40 years, the child-care system has been failing American women. It has been failing American men too, of course, but women are more likely to be their families’ primary caregivers.

High-quality care remains elusive and expensive. Full-time care for a child under 5 typically costs more than in-state college tuition. Even with these high prices, slots are often scarce and wait lists interminable. Such conditions have stressed the finances of working families, knocked women out of the labor force and locked kids out of high-quality care for generations.

There have been occasional flash points when it looked as though the country might finally institute something closer to affordable, reliable, high-quality child care — at least for some populations. Even during the Trump administration, the GOP exhibited renewed interest in greater federal support for child care, which its leaders had been rejecting since the Nixon era. That suggested there was at last, maybe, a moment for progress.

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But momentum stalled again.

Today, Democrats are on the verge of passing a bill that would invest $450 billion in reducing the costs of child care for families; raising the wages of child-care workers; and guaranteeing free, universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

And not a moment too soon. If the U.S. child-care system was always relatively threadbare, today it is unraveling.

Businesses across nearly all industries have struggled in the past 18 months, but perhaps nowhere are the problems more acute than among child-care providers. Operating costs rose, on average, 47 percent within the first few months of the pandemic, with greater cost increases for programs serving 3- and 4-year-olds. This was driven by new regulations requiring smaller class sizes (so, higher teacher-to-child ratios), as well as the costs of purchasing sanitation equipment and other supplies.

Many providers, already financially fragile, shuttered. As of August, about a fifth of child-care centers nationwide remained either closed or at greatly reduced capacity relative to the same month two years earlier, according to Columbia University researchers Emma K. Lee and Zachary Parolin. Overall industry employment is down, too, by 126,700 positions since the pandemic began. That’s about a 12 percent decrease from pre-pandemic employment levels.

Long-suffering restaurants, by contrast, are down “only” about 8 percent.

In fact, as restaurants, retailers and other businesses raise wages to attract scarce labor, they have poached child-care workers. These workers were already underpaid, particularly relative to the certifications and schooling they’re required to have in many states; now, better-paying job opportunities outside their sector are booming. And there are limits to just how much child-care providers can raise their wages to compete, because margins are slim and the families they serve can barely afford existing prices.

Other factors, such as the risks of working in close proximity with kids too young to be vaccinated, have also made child-care jobs less desirable.

The resulting care crunch has destabilized much of the rest of the economy and labor force, particularly for working moms. There are currently 1.7 million fewer mothers of minor-aged children employed than there were the month before the pandemic began, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Federal Reserve officials have noted that lack of child-care availability is likely holding back job growth.

This problem won’t resolve on its own anytime soon; in a survey released in July by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, more than a third of child-care providers said they were considering leaving or closing their program within the next year. A one-time infusion of cash to help the industry recover, appropriated by Congress this past spring and now being distributed, should help stabilize some of these providers.

Even if the industry does eventually recover to pre-pandemic levels, though, those were clearly insufficiently affordable or resilient.

“In this area as in so many others, the pandemic has shone a light on decades of systemic failure — in this case, that it’s not sustainable to have families bear the cost of child care without serious public investment,” said Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, which advises federal and state policymakers on family- and care-related issues.

The only solution is the one Congress is now considering: using state resources — generously, reliably, permanently — to bridge the gap between what families can afford, and what providers need to pay.