WITH SCHOOLS shuttered and child-care options restricted, working parents across the country are shouldering unexpected child-care burdens. Many will not be able to return to work until they can find safe, affordable child care. At the same time, the child-care industry is collapsing under pandemic-inflicted financial pressure. Without swift action from Congress, child-care centers are at risk of permanent closures that could severely undermine the country’s economic recovery.

Unlike public schools, child-care centers are largely funded by parents’ tuition payments. Even before the pandemic, most child-care centers were barely profitable. At the peak of the crisis, one-third of the child-care workforce lost their jobs, and about 60 percent of child-care programs temporarily closed. Now, those that survive are implementing virus prevention measures that reduce enrollment — and revenue — while increasing operating costs. Half the industry is at risk for permanent closure, which would mean millions of lost child-care slots, according to an estimate from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Such losses would present many parents with terrible choices. In the absence of safe, affordable child care, should parents place their children in unlicensed or lower-quality facilities during a public health crisis, or spend more than they can reasonably afford on child care for those lucky enough to have a safe option nearby? For lower-income families, the lack of affordable child care could mean giving up work outside the home and sliding into poverty. Black and brown parents are more likely than white parents to experience job disruptions due to child care.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress both have introduced measures that would help stabilize the industry. The Democratic-backed Child Care Is Essential Act would provide $50 billion in funding to child-care centers through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which provides federal funding to states to subsidize child care for working families. The Republican-backed measure would fund child-care providers through the CCDBG for up to nine months. Experts estimate that the child-care industry needs $9.6 billion a month to stay afloat, much more than the $3.5 billion the industry received in spring’s coronavirus legislation.

To prevent mass closures of child-care providers, Congress must prioritize industry-wide relief. But even an emergency rescue would not address the underlying issues associated with the chronic underfunding of caregiving. Last week, former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, unveiled a proposal to invest $775 billion over 10 years in caregiving programs for small children, older Americans and those with disabilities. This ambitious proposal is a welcome and unprecedented acknowledgment that caregiving is central to a fully functioning economy. Though it is largely focused on bolstering America’s caregiving infrastructure in the medium term, Mr. Biden’s plan also mentions fiscal relief to keep child-care services running — a recognition that, without stabilization efforts now, there may not be an industry left to bolster.

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