How Child Care Became a Centerpiece of the 2020 Election

It’s been six months since it was reported that nearly half of the United States’ child care — 4.5 million slots — is at risk of disappearing. For half a year, child care centers and homes have either been struggling to stay open or closing altogether.

“We’re really holding on with raw knuckles,” says Jasmine Henderson, a child care organizer with Ohio Organizing Collaborative. “Ninety percent of working adults in the state of Ohio are working parents. If we lose child care, we pretty much can guarantee that we’re going to lose probably a large number of our workforce in Ohio.”

Nationwide, more than 42 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds have faced a negative career impact due to child care issues, personally or in their household. That burden is falling harder on women: In September, 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce, compared to 216,000 men. Millennial mothers in straight couples are three times as likely as Millennial fathers to name child care closures as the main reason they are unable to work.

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The longer it takes for Congress to fund child care in a pandemic relief package, the worse the crisis becomes. As more programs close permanently, millions will be forced to leave the workforce, prolonging the recession and likely resulting in increased racial, geographic, gender, and educational inequities. “It’s about to get worse if we don’t infuse money into child care,” says Henderson.

Multiple bills have been introduced, but each one has stalled in the Senate. In early July, the House passed the Heroes Act, which included $7 billion in funding for the child care industry. It never got off the ground in the Senate, with both the White House and Senate Republicans criticizing it as too liberal. In late July, the House passed the Child Care is Essential Act, (S. 3874/ H.R. 7027), which would provide the $50 billion actually needed to stabilize the industry. While House members have urged Congress to include the act in any upcoming stimulus package, Senate Republicans continue to denounce House-proposed stimulus packages as too costly. October 1, the House passed an updated version of the Heroes Act, designating $57 billion in total for child care stabilization and to subsidize child care costs for families. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to bring it to a vote.

Before the pandemic, the child care crisis was slowly gaining attention as policymakers built the case for a publicly-funded child care system to replace the underfunded patchwork that exists today. In 2017 and 2019, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, (S.568/H.R.1364), which would provide low-income families with free child care, limit what middle-income families pay, build more centers, and support livable wages for early educators. During the 2020 primaries, several Democratic candidates made child care the centerpiece of their campaigns, from Elizabeth Warren’s universal child care plan to Kirsten Gillibrand’s Family Bill of Rights.

72 percent of young voters want Congress to provide funds to child care providers

The pandemic has turned the demand for reform into a rallying cry for parents, providers, and advocates, with countless articles and prominent figures demanding a better system. If lawmakers do not address the now-deepened crisis, it is unlikely that they will remain favorable with their constituents, especially those belonging to younger generations. The Center for American Progress [Editor’s Note: TalkPoverty is a project of the Center for American Progress] found that 72 percent of young voters want Congress to provide funds to child care providers who are facing financial ruin during the pandemic.

Even after this immediate crisis is resolved, a long-term solution to rising child care cost will remain an essential issue. Survey data from Next100 and GenForward reveal Millennials and Gen Zers named the cost of child care — alongside student loan debt and lack of affordable housing — as a key factor affecting Millennial and Gen Z decisions to have children.

This is at least in part due to how poorly the current system serves many populations. Pre-pandemic, Black, Latinx and Indigenous families were paying larger percentages of their paychecks to afford limited child care options, and were more likely to experience job disruptions due to problems with child care. Furthermore, the child care crisis was already disproportionately affecting children with disabilities; and, pre-pandemic 60 percent of rural families were living in child care deserts.

“Let’s be clear,” Henderson states, “if you’re in the fight for racial justice and equity, [child care] is your fight…when we talk about the cycle of poverty and the intimacy it has with racism, sexism, et cetera, we are absolutely talking about [child care].” Whether politicians are courting younger generations or not, stabilizing child care and funding it properly is key to gaining greater support from racial and economic justice movements.

That extends to supporting early educators. The child care industry is 93 percent women, early educators are 2.5 times more likely than the overall workforce to be Black women and Latinx women, and 1 in 5 early educators is an immigrant. Early educators only earn a median of $11.65 per hour, with Black early educators earning an average of 78 cents less per hour than white early educators. More than half of all early educators live in families that rely on public income supports, such as food stamps. Even pre-pandemic, Henderson says, “Providers were already tired. Most of the parents were already overworked.”

As early educators and families continue to do everything they can to care for children in the face of this crisis, it cannot be underscored enough that lawmakers need to intervene urgently and substantially with federal funding. If they don’t, this crisis will only escalate.

As of now, providers meeting pandemic public health requirements are facing an average of 47 percent cost increases — costs too high for providers to shoulder alone and even higher than what most families already cannot afford. A National Association for the Education of Young Children July survey of nearly 5,000 child care providers revealed that without support from Congress, two out of every five respondents — and half of child care businesses that are minority-owned — are certain that they will close permanently. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation survey found that approximately one in five working parents remain uncertain if they will be in a position to return to their pre-pandemic work situation due to a lack of child care.

With the industry on the brink of collapse, and the economy struggling to restart without it, the time to delay is gone. Henderson made the stakes clear: “Now, there’s this urgency to survive.”

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