AAs the growing number of companies require employees to return to the office full-time, young parents face a new crisis: what to do with their pre-school children when they are away at work.
With inflation hitting a 40-year high and the price of staples like gasoline increasing 50% year over year, many American families don’t have the luxury of keeping one parent at home. And the old-fashioned solution—asking the grandparents to step in as caregivers—is tenable for only about 20% of working mothers, according to a 2013 study. Which leaves professional childcare providers holding the bag.
But here’s the problem: The COVID-19 pandemic has all but destroyed the childcare industry, which has lost nearly 1 in 9 jobs since March 2020. shortage, making it difficult to recruit and retain staff. Childcare workers earn an average wage of just $13.31 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 460,000 families now say they have unreliable access to child care, according to a recent report by Wells Fargo economists.
The challenge is particularly acute for parents who need childcare, which requires higher staff-to-child ratios, and therefore a more expensive offering for childcare centres. “For my baby and my nursery rooms, over 100% of what comes in goes to my expenses,” Corrine Kuntz, a day care operator in Montana told TIME in November. “My two-year-old program and my three- to five-year-old program basically have to cover the cost of my baby and my one-year programs.”
As American families’ child care struggles intensify — and political strategists prepare for the November midterms — both voters and lawmakers are paying attention. Polling conducted in September 2021 by a bipartisan team at Hart Research and New Bridge Strategy found that 81% of voters view child care and preschool investments as worthwhile investments of taxpayer dollars. This includes 80% of self-identified independents and 66% of Republicans. Furthermore, 58% of voters say that federal funding of child care programs should be increased.
More than 100 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to President Joe Biden Wednesday night urging him to throw his weight behind stalled legislation that would fund universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds and create a sliding scale childcare system for younger children based on household income. The letter was sent to the White House with the signatures of 122 House members and 32 Senators, including Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith and New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill.
“We stand ready to work with you,” the letter says, “to introduce legislation through reconciliation that ensures that middle-class and working families spend no more than 7 percent of their income on child care, access to pre -K expands, and invests in the early childhood workforce and infrastructure.”
The universal pre-K and sliding scale child care subsidy proposals were both originally in the Congressional Democrats’ $1.7 trillion social spending and climate change legislation, Build Back Better. The Administration’s signature legislation was scrapped in December after centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin withdrew his support. But polls show the programs are broadly popular among both Republican and Democratic voters; two-thirds of voters told the Hart Research and New Bridge Strategy pollsters that they are more likely to support a budget reconciliation package that includes provisions to make child care and preschool more accessible.
Democrats see supporting the programs as good policy and good politics. With slim majorities in both chambers of Congress at risk in the midterms — and Biden’s approval rating hovering at its lowest point since his inauguration in January 2021 — Democrats are happy to push for popular childcare policies. The proposals also make good economic sense, said Katherine Clark, assistant speaker of the House, who led the letter to Biden. “We’re losing a staggering $57 billion a year in earnings, productivity and income because parents can’t get affordable quality care,” Clark told TIME. “Our recovery and our ability to build a better, more inclusive America depends on us creating a child care system that ultimately works for working families.”
Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the “kitchen table” childcare crisis isn’t limited to parents of young children either. “It’s not just an individual issue, it’s kind of a collective issue. And it’s an economic issue,” she says. “[The pandemic] really put on steroids, the idea that child care is a critical workforce issue… the economy is not going to get back to where it needs to be unless this piece [is reformed].”
No Republican lawmakers support reforming America’s child care landscape through a reconciliation bill, but some argue for addressing the child care problem by expanding existing programs. Senators Richard Burr, of North Carolina, and Tim Scott, of South Carolina, introduced a bill in March that would strengthen the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program, which provides states with funding to help low-income families access to subsidize childcare and help childcare centers to recruit well-trained staff. The program currently has sufficient funding to help only 11% of eligible children.
Burr and Scott proposed expanding CCDBG to ensure that any eligible family earning less than 75% of the State Median Income pays no child care copayment, and that no CCDBG eligible family pays more than 7% of their household income to child care. However, the GOP bill does not call for more funding to make those changes possible, nor did the senators propose an estimated amount that would be needed to cover any expansion of the benefit.
Reached for comment on whether Burr would vote to increase funding for a larger CCDBG program in the appropriations process, a spokesperson said, “Senator Burr believes that appropriators can and should prioritize increases to CCDBG funding to improve access and quality for families across America.” adding that he would “support their efforts to direct funding to this program over other, lesser priorities.”
Clark’s office does plan to request an increased level of funding for the CCDBG program for Fiscal Year 2023 later this month. The office did not disclose how much funding it would request, but said it would be more than the White House’s request for $1.4 billion more funding for CCDBG over the current fiscal year’s allocation.
A boost to CCDBG is not the comprehensive universal child care entitlement that Democrats are calling for in their White House letter. (Even the GOP-invited witness to a Senate committee hearing on early education policy testified in March that a funding boost through the regular legislative process would likely be insufficient to solve the crises. “We believe funding should be included in the reconciliation process because we do not believe Congress will appropriate enough funding to make a material difference in child care access through the traditional budget process,” said Ellen Reynolds, CEO of the Georgia Child Care Association.)
But whatever the ultimate legislative solution is, Oldham says it must come quickly. “Childcare,” she says, “has been broken for a long time.”
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