In 2014, I forked over $3,000 every month, which was more than my monthly mortgage payment, for “full-time” weekday child care for my two children. The cost was, and still is, astounding to me, but also not uncommon given the lack of child care in communities across the country.
Equally astounding was the fact that the caring, patient and talented early childhood educators that cared for my young children five days a week for up to 10 hours a day could not afford to make ends meet on their salary. While the daycare center we selected offered job benefits and better pay than competitors, the fact was that many of the women who worked at the center could never afford to send their own children there. The system felt fragile back then — for parents working to afford the high cost of child care and for child care workers whose hard work resulted in high turnover rates and poverty-level pay.
Fast-forward to 2021. One year into the coronavirus pandemic and today’s child care industry is as fragile as ever. If you thought affordable child care was a scarcity before March 2020 (and it was, child care deserts tend to be found all over the U.S. especially in low-income and rural communities), the coronavirus pandemic has certainly made matters much worse.
Having access to affordable child care is essential to having labor force participation from women, who, due to sexist societal and traditional gender roles combined with lower wages than men, struggle between workforce participation or the care and education of their children. When COVID-19 emerged and lockdowns and closures were required in the name of public health, that was the beginning of a record labor force exodus for women. An estimated 700,000 parents, predominantly women, are no longer in the workforce due to a loss of child care and significant job losses in women-centered employment sectors.
It’s not just parents. Hundreds of thousands of child care workers lost their jobs when centers and in-home businesses had to close. A staggering 370,000+ jobs in the child care sector were lost at the beginning of the pandemic, and 95% of those jobs lost belonged to women. Child care workers are part of the essential workforce and jobs have begun to creep back, but are still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.
Given the feminization of the early childhood education profession, the majority of child care workers are women. Women of color and immigrant women comprise 94% of those in the child care workforce. Pay averages for the profession is $11.65 per hour, with disparities by race. For example, Black women experience a 78 cent racial wage hourly gap in early child care. In preschool, that gap widens to $1.71 less per hour than White preschool educators with similar work background and experience. Given the critical importance of what they do for parents and the essential skills needed to care for young children, the fact that women who make up the child care workforce earn near or below poverty wages, is a fact that reeks of sexism, racism and classism.
In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law, providing $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief, including funds to both support the child care industry and parents’ ability to afford care via the expansion of the Child Tax Credit. This new legislation increased the tax credit to $3000 per child, or $3600 per child under 6 years of age, and expanded eligibility to 27 million new children (children who were not previously eligible). That includes nearly half of all Black and Latino children. However, this expansion is temporary, concluding after 12 months. Making the expanded Child Tax Credit a permanent legislative fixture will undoubtedly lift millions of children out of poverty.
While major policy changes are needed to overhaul the nation’s child care infrastructure, including reducing costs to families, looking ahead, greater engagement and investment by municipalities and the community economic development sector can alter the child care landscape.
Municipality leaders need to continually apply a gendered intersectional lens to all planning decisions. Much criticism has been leveled at local government’s deprioritized efforts at child care, given traditional norms and expectations of women as primary caregivers. More and more municipalities need to join the movement to create gender-inclusive and women-friendly cities. Human services planning is just as integral to the function of communities as traditional, nuts and bolts infrastructure. Let’s prioritize child care as critical local infrastructure in the same way we prioritize highways and power grids.
Empowered local decision-making
Municipalities should be encouraged to negotiate with private developers and offer incentives for them to include child care facilities in plans within all areas — new construction and reuse in residential, mixed-use, commercial and office areas. Remove zoning barriers to child care programs. Community Development Blocks Grants tend to be stretched in most communities, but they can be allocated to child care development (as a public facility).
Child care revolving loan funds
Like housing trust funds that establish revolving loan funds for affordable housing, states can dedicate funds to a child care revolving loan fund capitalized in a similar fashion to housing trust funds (e.g. general obligation bonds, tax set-asides, general appropriations, and/or state lotteries). The funds could be used for acquisition, renovation or repair of child care facilities.
CDFIs as partners
CDFIs lend to child care centers and can attract traditional lenders to partner with early education child care providers through the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) as an incentive for those community development activities that serve low- to moderate-income families, underserved areas and support small businesses. CDFIs generally have the potential to offer training and technical assistance, which optimally helps child care operators make good use of credit and other resources.
Child care work is a salient profession that supports parents, specifically women, in the labor force. It’s also a low-wage occupation. Workers are predominantly women of color and immigrant women. They deserve to be paid living wages. Increasing the minimum wage would narrow the wage gap.
If we are going to build back better from this past year, women must be front and center of that recovery. The child care industry and its workforce should be prioritized.
Karen Kali is a Senior Program Manager with NCRC.
**Add your voice: Let’s talk about all the ways the pandemic has impacted women, and the possible solutions. Share your thoughts, concerns, hopes and ideas in the Just Economy Forum or on our Jamboard. Discussion in the Just Economy Forum is limited to NCRC and Just Economy Club members. The Jamboard is open to the public.**