How Do We Fix a Problem Like Child Care?

The child care industry has been struggling long before COVID-19. Now? It's falling apart. So how do we save it from total destruction?

The COVID-19 pandemic cast light upon numerous issues plaguing the United States, from our anti-science bias, arrogance, and selfishness to the ways in which we deprioritized education and the social safety net. One such undeniable truth it exposed is that our child care system is fundamentally flawed. When child care centers were rightfully forced to shut their doors in March, many Americans likely didn’t realize what this might do to the industry as a whole. It turns out that somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of child care centers won’t be able to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. Add this to the already extant problems with child care — cost, access, low wages, and lack of standardized quality care — and it’s clear that child care as we know it won’t survive the pandemic without significant action.

“Before the pandemic even hit, before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, child care in America was working for no one involved,” says Elliot Haspel, a Program Officer of Education Policy and Research at the Robins Foundation. “It was not working for parents, it was not working for providers, it was not working for practitioners. It was not working for children. It’s one of those few impressive things in life that manages to advantage literally no one.”

In his book Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It, Haspel explores the lack of quality, access, and teacher pay for providers — and how all of these things together create a system that is functionally not a system at all. Fatherly spoke to Haspel about how child care was struggling before the pandemic, how it’s struggled in the midst of it, and what possible solutions there might be for creating free, accessible child care for all Americans, regardless of where they live, what they earn, or who they are.

Our child care system is in, well, terrible shape right now. It was before the pandemic. But now it’s basically crippled. What’s the inherent problem?

Well, this is a simple question of: Why isn’t child care free? It’s a very strange thing in America, where from the time you have a child, until the child is five years old, it’s assumed that it’s the parents job to figure out how to care for them. And then, magically, your children turn five and society pays for schooling and education for the next 13 years. It’s a very odd juxtaposition.

It is.

And it has deep historical roots in sexism, misogyny, and assumptions of whose job it is to take care of children. We’re now just understanding, truly, how much brain development occurs starting at birth, and how educational outcomes are linked to early childhood. We’re also now in a society where two-thirds of all children age six or younger have all of their available parents in the workforce. So, in America, we have what is essentially called a “non-system” by many advocates, but we have a huge amount of need.

We certainly do. It’s not possible for parents to be a part of the workforce without it. So how did we get here?

The problem manifests itself in three main ways: one is definitely affordability. On average, full time child care for a kid is $10,000 nationally. That can be more than $20,000 if you’re talking about an expensive city. That can be back breaking for, for many, many families. Survey after survey shows there are actually significant numbers of millennial and Gen Z couples that are choosing not to have kids, or have less kids than they want, mainly because of the cost of childcare. The fundamental principle of being members of society should be that you should be able to have the number of kids that you want, not because the cost of raising them is so high.

This is an existential problem to the United States because our birth rate matters when thinking about our social safety net program. The next generation of workers and everything else starts to break down when you move into a gerontocracy.

And even if you can afford it, you might not be able to access it.

Yes. Huge swaths of the country are in what are called “childcare deserts.” That means there’s either no licensed childcare or there’s less than one slot for every three kids [in that area.] That’s because, even though we’re charging parents $10,000 or $20,000, a year, that tuition is actually not what it costs to run a program.

Why not?

Because the fixed costs are incredibly high. They should be. You want buildings in California to be earthquake proof, for example. You have to have low adult-to-children ratios. Legally, early child care teachers care for 6, 8, kids per teacher. So the economics break down.

This is what economists consider a failed market. It doesn’t work. It’s not like parents can exercise their demand to create more supply. It’s not like buying a car.

That’s a great point.

The third piece of this is quality. So, you know, it’s one thing to be able to have a slot, and it’s one thing to be able to afford a slot, but what all the brain sciences tells us is that it has to be high quality. Quality is defined by having warm intentional relationships by someone who knows enough about child development to help that child stretch their thinking.

But when you have a lot of programs that are trying to cut corners because they’re trying to stay open, you have staff members who are poorly trained because they make $12 an hour. What’s your incentive to go get a degree or training? And in many cases, you’re stressed about what you’re doing with your own kid or childcare, or you’re stressed about your bills. Making ends meet is not \what you necessarily want your providers to be doing.

We know people who are taking care of our children — all credit to them because they’re basically subsidizing the entire system on their backs. And most of these people are women of color.

That we even have high-quality child care is such a testament to their hard work.

Before the pandemic even hit, before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, child care in America was working for no one involved. It was not working for parents, it was not working for providers, it was not working for practitioners. It was not working for children. It’s one of those few impressive things in life that managed to advantage literally no one.

Obviously, you believe child care should be free. The big question is, how should it be funded? Would that be a federal program, through block grants, or similar to how we fund K-12? What do you think makes sense?

It has to be a combination. Ultimately, the federal government is going to need to get involved. Do I think we hold our breath and not take big steps until that happens? No. Generally speaking, the federal government tends to be the last mover on these issues.

That certainly seems to be the case.

Yeah. So, look, if some federal administration would like to just take this all in one bite of the apple, great, but I won’t hold my breath for it.

We need to talk about revenue. We get a little bit squeamish, sometimes to name the numbers. But we need to know what it’s going to look like to get there. In many cases, in many states, for example, the top of tax brackets is very, very low. In my state of Virginia, the top 10 percent of state income tax kicks in at $17,000. That’s not unusual. So that’s a problem.

We have corporate taxes. We know child care is foundational to the workforce, the current workforce and the future workforce, productivity, retention, recruitment, all the rest of it. We should ask corporations to chip in, as we’re asking the wealthy to chip in. At some point, it may be a place for everyone to chip a little bit more with their tax dollars as well, because, childcare in particular, you get a very short-term return on investment, in addition to all the medium- and long-term return on investments that you get from children having better education. That’s why every other first-world country in the world has implemented some form of publicly funded childcare, and why maternal employment basically spikes immediately afterwards.

They do. The numbers confirm this.

Through surveys, and data, we know that there are many, primarily women, who would like to be working more hours, or working at all. But they are not able to do so because it makes no financial sense. For some women, literally every dollar they made would go into child care. In Washington, D.C., they implemented their universal pre-k for three and four-year-old kids. What they saw was within about five years, the maternal employment rate of the kids who are five under equalized with the maternal employment rate of kids who are school-aged. This is a universal truism. That gets you money back pretty instantaneously.

And then you start getting into the medium term and long term benefits. A very heavily subsidized child care system pays for itself. But it’s gonna require some new revenue. It’s gonna require some creative use of current revenues. And I think a simultaneous state and federal strategy is probably the best way we’re gonna see some real transformation. I think that, whenever the first state is able to pull this off, either free or nearly free, early education has so many benefits that it’s going to get a ball rolling down the mountain very quickly.

So what do you think is needed to build a better system? What does it look like to start treating child care like a public good?

The number one thing we don’t have in the nation right now around child care is a goal. We don’t have a North Star. With Medicare for All, proponents are very clear where they’re headed. But the Democratic primaries are interesting because it did reveal things like universal childcare, Elizabeth Warren’s plan where no one paid more than seven percent of their income, Bernie Sanders’ plan where childcare was completely free. Universal doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. So I think defining that, and where we’re headed is the first step.

From there, you can start to hash out how exactly this gets delivered. Because when we talk about the different ways that you can do this. There are supply side models where you’re thinking about Headstart For All, or a military child care system, or using tax dollars to fund classrooms like a public school model for the very low cost. Then there’s the polar opposite demand side, where you’re literally handing parents a very large sort of dedicated credit or trust,and they can basically go and choose the child care center of their choice, and then the money flows through that. That’s what the Denver Preschool program does.

Providing parents with the funding power to choose high-quality care of their choice, plus a public option, seems like it might be a good compromise. But either way, however you choose to design it, you need to know where you’re headed, whether it’s free, or a dollar or percent cap, and we don’t have that yet.

Beyond funding, what other solutions could really improve the U.S. child care system?

One is certainly infrastructure and facilities. A lot of child care happens in, for example, the basement of a church, or out of a storefront, in a strip mall, which may have environmental toxins and things like that. There’s a huge need for facilities for these high-quality programs around the country. You want good facilities. You want an outdoor space, enough room for the kids to have high stimulation activities.

A second piece is connectivity among the different kinds of care. So we have informal friend and family networks — grandmas, neighbors, cousins. And they’re legitimate, even if they don’t have a degree. But we should be providing opportunities for them to come together, for training, and for creative open centers. In Finland, they call them open centers, which is basically a child care center, but no one actually works out of there. There’s equipment for people. And then we need to also make sure that those informal caregivers, the ones who are the family childcare provider, but also centers like Head Start, and public pre-k, understand they’re part of an ecosystem of child development, within any given city or jurisdiction, that they’re supporting each other, and talking to each other.

Fair pay would also help the industry. Those in child care work incredibly hard but don’t make very much. That leads to a lot of turnover.

There’s so much disrespect for and underfunding of the people who work in child care. These people do incredibly hard, demanding work, building the brains of the next generation, and they’re getting paid $11 an hour with a few benefits. We can’t have a conversation about quality, we can’t have a conversation about having a functional system, without significantly raising wages. Not just $15 dollars an hour, but a solid middle class wage with full benefits.

Thirty to 40 percent of the workforce, prior to the epidemic, was turning over every year. If you think about it from a public investment standpoint, that’s 30 to 40 percent of your investment walking out the door every year. In Richmond, Virginia, we had an Amazon fulfillment center open up nearby, and it was an exodus of childcare workers. Not because they wanted to work in an Amazon warehouse — they want to work with kids who they love — but because making $15 dollars an hour with fringe benefits is a “provide-for-your-family” decision.