A crisis has long been brewing in child care, and every parent likely knows it. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, child care centers have struggled to stay afloat during the ongoing crises of economic damage from shuttered doors, class size limit constraints, low pay for employees, and more. Now, as many parents are trying to re-enter the workforce and enroll their children in childcare, the problems of this crisis — and a lack of a meaningful bailout by either the Trump or Biden administrations (so far) — are creating a perfect storm.
The Child Care Industry is Struggling.
During the pandemic, many child care centers were forced to close. Now that people are returning to work and offices are reopening, those that have been able to reopen are struggling to find staff for the influx of kids who need care. The staffing crunch doesn’t just affect people who run child care centers — it affects moms and dads, kids, and the greater economy.
Reliable and affordable child care helps millions of parents return to the workplace. Without it, parents forgo work, make less money, and engage less with the economy. Of course, child care centers struggle, too, with low enrollment and high costs of operating. While schools have reopened (though there are staffing shortages there, too) some child care centers will not be able to at all. .
Child care worker employment dropped by more than a third at the beginning of the pandemic. In July of 2021, child-care employment was still down from pre-pandemic levels to a similar degree and ratio to greater unemployment.
Indeed, a survey from the National Association for Education of Young Children conducted in July of 7,500 early childhood educators found that four out of every five respondents — 80 percent — of those working at child care centers said they had a staffing shortage. About 15 percent reported a “major shortage” of 6-15 fewer workers than what was needed to keep the child care center running. That major shortage of workers is caused by one clearly and plainly obvious problem: how much child care workers get paid. It’s just not enough.
Child Care Needs Investment, and Workers Need it Badly
On average, a child care worker in the U.S. gets paid $12 an hour. This counts as a poverty wage. In the midst of a pandemic that has many people reconsidering their relationship to labor, and their willingness to die for the jobs they do, many of these workers are simply looking elsewhere for work that will pay more. That’s fair and also bad news for the industry.
Around 80 percent of respondents to the National Association for Education of Young Children survey said that low wages are making it difficult to fill empty positions at child care centers and that low pay is the reason people keep leaving their jobs. On top of that, over one third of respondents said they were considering leaving or shutting down their child care programs this year.
Currently, many child care centers are cutting back hours and reducing enrollment. That’s because care centers often get money based on how many kids are attending or are enrolled. Meanwhile, programs that are open right now are operating at just around 70 percent of their licensed capacity, with less than half of enrolled students showing up on an average day.
While the Paycheck Protection Program and billions of dollars of investments from Biden’s American Rescue Plan did help stabilize the child care industry somewhat, there’s clearly more that needs to be done.
The Biden Administration Needs to Invest in Child Care ASAP
Federal investment in child care through the budget reconciliation measure (otherwise known as their $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package) would be a massive step forward. The as of yet unpassed American Families Plan, for example, puts some $225 billion into child care. In April of 2021, the Biden admin did dole out some $39 billion to the industry, but that’s not enough.
They could also do more to push the Child Care For Working Families Act, which would ensure that no parent spends more than 7 percent of their income on child care. That’s extremely important because so many parents stay out of the workforce because they cannot afford to pay for child care for their children. It would also invest directly in child care centers, helping them increase wages and jobs. If this happened, some 700,000 people would join the early childcare sector and at least 1.6 million parents would be able to return to work with because of consistent child care.
On the campaign trail, Biden did release his own plan for investing in child care which was extremely similar. And as various bills and proposals get introduced, its clear politicians know there’s a problem. But identifying the problem and solving it are two different things. They need to act.
Meanwhile, parents are struggling to find child care centers that can take their kids, for plainly obvious reasons. And as a result, the economy, working parents, kids, and those who work at child care centers will all continue to struggle.