A Bold Policy Agenda for Child Care

Blog Post
Dec. 16, 2020

The Better Life Lab (BLL) released A Bold Policy Agenda for Work-Family Justice and Gender Equity During COVID-19 and Beyond, informed by the diverse voices and experiences of essential workers on the front lines, childcare professionals, elder care and home health care workers, parents, and caregivers who joined BLL’s weekly Crisis Conversations podcast to share their stories. We encourage you to read the entirety of BLL’s Bold Policy Agenda to learn more about our recommendations and the stories that shaped them.

Below is an excerpt of our recommendations for rebuilding and strengthening child care, outlining the actions that must be taken to ensure that the industry survives COVID-19 and thrives beyond its aftermath. For far too long, child care has been overlooked, underfunded, and deprioritized. That must change–the future of child care workers and providers, our economy, gender equity, families, and young children depend on it.

Invest in Childcare

Even prior to the pandemic, the U.S. care infrastructure was in crisis. Not one state does cost, quality, and availability well—on average, married couples spend 10 percent of their income, and single parents pay 34 percent of their income, on childcare. Despite the high costs, childcare workers earn poverty wages. High-quality care is hard to find, and childcare deserts impact communities across the country.

During the pandemic, childcare providers and teachers have had to make impossible trade-offs between staying open—risking their and their families’ health—or shutting down and risking their financial security. Nearly half of all surveyed childcare providers reported that, without additional support, they would have to close their doors permanently. The pandemic’s devastating impact on the care system threatens not only the livelihood of care providers—many of whom are women, women of color, and immigrants—but the economic security and labor force participation primarily of women, who have disproportionately reduced work hours or been forced out of work because of the lack of care—potentially setting their progress in the workplace back an entire generation. The childcare economy needs significant public financial investment so that families, businesses, communities, children, and those who care for them are healthy and thrive as well.

Congress included $3 billion in the first pandemic relief bailout package in March to send to states in Child Care Development Block Grants, targeted at helping the very poor. Though advocates, economists, and others called for at least a $50 billion immediate infusion during the crisis—and the House passed such a provision—the Senate and Trump administration had not taken any action as of early December. “Child care is a critical piece of our economic infrastructure, just like roads and bridges, allowing parents to work if they choose,” the economists wrote. “A major federal investment to stabilize child care programs will ensure greater parental employment, save roughly one hundred thousand small businesses, and contribute to a more efficient economic recovery.”

Justin Ruben, co-founder of ParentsTogether and a parent himself, discussed the child care challenges parents are facing alone while managing work during the pandemic. “This is the hardest thing that's happened to families in 80 or 90 years, right? Absolutely parents feel abandoned and desperately in trouble right now. Either because, in some cases, they don’t have enough to eat or they can’t make rent, or they’ve had to cut back on work or quit work entirely to do childcare, or because they're doing remote learning and it's not going well…” Ruben explained that personal economic and childcare problems drive parents to the polls, “[W]e did a survey last week on the election...Of the parents that we surveyed, 95 percent said they were going to vote, and 36 percent of them said that the pandemic and the economic crisis have made them more likely to vote.” (Crisis Conversations: A Parents’ Movement?)

Adriana Garcia was furloughed at the salon where she worked because of the pandemic. As a mother of four and a social justice advocate, Garcia explained that her stress levels have been sky high as she tries to manage remote learning for her children. Now, more than ever, we as a society need to recognize and value the care work that has for so long been invisible and undervalued: “We have to raise awareness that this is not okay and that our children are the future. We’re investing our lives and raising these little people to be the next generation. So we should take care of our daycare workers, our teachers, all these people that we trust our babies with for hours and hours.” (Crisis Conversations: Childcare Reckoning)

Immediate Pandemic Response

  • Provide immediate support and funding for professional caregivers, centers, and providers

Before the pandemic, things were already difficult for childcare providers —they had low pay, not many benefits, and little support. “Now with this crisis, imagine how hard it is for a provider...we are working very closely with parents [and] with the community,” shared Patricia Moran, owner of Creative Learning Center, a family home childcare center in San Jose, California. Although Moran applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan for her small business, she, like so many small businesses, didn’t get any help. Still, she chose to stay open for parents who were deemed essential workers and needed a safe place to leave their children while they continued working. Moran had seen the needs of “the parents, single moms, [and] children.” Like many care providers, Moran also experienced difficulty accessing cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), stretching her already thin resources even thinner: “We were trying to find cleaning supplies and food for these kids in this crisis...working with the health departments and state governments to keep our children safe.” (Crisis Conversations: Is our childcare system nearing its breaking point?)

Rashonda Anderson, a lead child care teacher in Binghamton, N.Y. who is struggling to balance her work, education, and caring for her own school-age daughter told us she finally decided to leave the job she loves—even after going back to school and going into debt for a degree in early education—because, with the low pay, she can’t make the finances work for her family: “I decided to change career paths because financially, I’ll be able to provide my daughter more and have health benefits...[which] I don't have right now.… I just know that I just want more for myself and my daughter.” (Crisis Conversations: Is our childcare system nearing its breaking point?)

Long-term Policy Solutions

  • Invest in designing, creating, and maintaining a robust, easily accessible, affordable, high-quality child care infrastructure with decent and dignified work for care educators and providers

Kari McCraken, a mother of five, had the opportunity to resume her position after months of being furloughed due to the pandemic. Although she loved her job and wanted to return to work, a lack of childcare meant that she would have no place to leave her children. In the end, because she couldn’t access childcare and did not qualify for emergency paid leave—her employer had been exempted from the emergency provision—she was pushed out of the workforce: “I loved the company. I loved my job. I was so excited to still have a job...[but] then it hit me once I started calling around for child care that this is not possible. Our childcare centers were operating around 15 to 20 percent capacity which means there was no hope if you were someone new coming in.” (Crisis Conversations: Setting Working Moms Back a Generation?)

Alison Griffin, a single mother and senior vice president for Whiteboard Advisors, strives to balance working full time and supervising her school-age children who need assistance with distance learning: “It’s just me and my boys...I’m helping with homework while on five to six hours of calls...There isn’t anybody else who can pitch in...in the pre-pandemic era I would rely on friends and family, or I would pay a sitter. I can’t have anyone else in the house to help me with those things right now.” (Crisis Conversations: Parenting Alone in the Time of COVID-19)

Nahsis Davis, a nurse practitioner, became a single mother to three young children through the foster care system just as the pandemic hit. When daycares began closing, Davis had to scramble to find childcare and wasn’t able to take time off due to an unsympathetic work environment. She shared, “My job itself is not that helpful or understanding. I didn’t cause this pandemic… and I need time off for these kids because I have no one to watch them. [And] that's been a huge nightmare. Money-wise it’s been very tight...I have more than one mouth to feed and milk is not free out there, neither are the [daycare] services, obviously.” (Crisis Conversations: Parenting Alone in the Time of COVID-19)

Child Care Policy Recommendations

  • Immediate relief for professional caregivers and providers, who are disproportionately Black, Latinx, immigrant, and low-income women of color:
    • Provide financial resources to childcare providers temporarily shut down during the pandemic to ensure they can continue paying employees and can reopen when the pandemic abates.
    • Provide additional financial resources and incentives to childcare providers who continue to operate during the pandemic, especially those providing services to parents working essential jobs.
    • Set aside financial assistance specifically to defray the costs of PPE and cleaning supplies.
  • Long-term support for parents’ work and childcare:
    • Provide substantial investment in childcare centers, Head Start, and preschool to ensure that working parents who rely on these services have access to safe, affordable, and high-quality childcare.
    • Improve wages for childcare workers who currently earn poverty-level wages for their essential work.
    • Create policies that work for single parents by unbundling benefits from marriage so that single parents have equitable access to benefits meant to support children.