The U.S. Childcare Crisis is a Work Crisis

The U.S. Childcare Crisis is a Work Crisis

Callie Enlow — In the Balance

Art by Eli Miller

Art by Eli Miller

Earlier this month, NPR ran a story about childcare scarcity and working parents in the U.S. I read it once, then again, and again, and again, as it was shared on social media by seemingly every parent of young children that I know.

The story, about how stressful and expensive it is to find even basic fulltime childcare in this country, didn’t just strike a chord among my own peer group, though. The primary study it cited, also conducted by NPR along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health back in October, polled more than 1,000 parents of children aged 5 and younger. More than a third described securing childcare as somewhat or very difficult, and nearly 40 percent said the cost was not very or not at all affordable.

That’s just the real bummer end of the spectrum. Many other people’s situations were only slightly less dire; 72 percent of respondents said they experienced at least one obstacle in finding childcare. And nearly the same amount said that childcare caused them serious financial problems.

Among my friends and acquaintances, many of whom earn enough to be considered middle class, the article sparked discussion of “ridiculously expensive” childcare costs. One single mother of a three-year-old works as a teacher and pays $12,000 for 10 months of daycare. She’s looking forward to the day her child begins public grade school. “I’ll no longer be living paycheck to paycheck and can afford a place with a yard!” she wrote on a Facebook group for my college alumni. Another friend decided to become a stay at home dad when he realized that what he and his wife paid for daycare nearly matched his take-home pay.   

If nothing else, at least the daycare rigmarole could make paying your kid’s college education seem a little less painful: Another major study, released by New America Foundation last fall, found that the average cost of childcare in the U.S. topped the average cost of in-state tuition at public universities. The childcare fees my husband and I pay come out to about 85 percent of what we shell out in rent. I considered this an outlandish but worthwhile expense for our toddler, but I was shocked to discover that according to the New America report, our rent-to-childcare cost ratio is exactly average nationally. For college tuition, parents have years to sock away cash in tax-advantaged accounts and strategize on how to apply federal aid, but little of this cold comfort exists for new moms and dads.  

However, expense is only one (very large) piece of the U.S. childcare puzzle. Availability and quality are two other huge factors, covered both in the NPR and New America reports. Nearly 20 percent of respondents to the NPR poll felt they had only one option when it came to childcare. As New America notes, availability is particularly hard to measure as very few studies have previously been conducted and the factors that constitute whether childcare is truly “available,”—geography, hours, age-appropriateness, etc.—are vast.

While the data may be sparse, the anecdotal evidence is not. Daycare is generally the most affordable non-relative provided childcare option, and the one most used by the parents polled. But to get your infant into a daycare—any daycare really, but especially one that’s both affordable and of high quality—American parents generally must plan several months in advance, and be prepared to pay fees to secure a spot on a waiting list.

The NPR story favored by my social networks begins with a story of a mom who started searching for a child care center a few months into her pregnancy. By the time her daughter arrived, she had still not found any that had availability despite visiting more than 11 centers in their D.C. area suburb. In order to return to work after her maternity leave ended, she and her husband flew in their parents from out of state to watch their daughter in shifts until a daycare space opened up. And that’s an example of a steadily employed person with a normal pregnancy and generous parental leave.

This is all even more of a struggle for parents experiencing any of the following: complications in pregnancy or birth; unplanned pregnancy; being unemployed and looking for work; having irregular or non-standard work hours; being unable to evaluate caregivers or centers during and after pregnancy; being unable to pay waitlist fees; having little or no family leave after birth.

I bring all this up because there’s no way this doesn’t affect American business, not when more than 60 percent of married couples with children in the U.S. both work (to say nothing of the vast majority of single parents who work). The high cost of childcare can dissuade people from continuing to work at jobs they are passionate about, but don’t pay that well, or at lower-tier jobs needed to progress in their fields. It can also dissuade people from taking employment risks or extracting themselves from exploitative situations because even a temporary dip in income could jeopardize a childcare arrangement that is beneficial to their kids.     

Parents who do find childcare sometimes still must make difficult career choices due to affordability or accessibility issues, for instance choosing a job with less of a commute or avoiding big projects because they cannot secure childcare for the extra hours that may be required. While we frequently bemoan how quickly the years of our young children pass by, for the parents of two children aged two years apart, this reality affects six years of their careers. And of course, the trouble doesn’t totally stop once all children hit kindergarten. The average length of the grade-school day in America is 6.64 hours, the average time adults spend on work and related activities is 8.8.  

Many of us working parents fantasize about landing one of the few jobs with onsite childcare. Or we cast an envious eye toward France and its public (though still hard to get into) system of high-quality nursery schools. Many others trade the difficulty and expense of sourcing childcare now for the difficulty and expense of forgoing fulltime income and trying to reenter the workforce when our children are much older, figuring that at least we’ll bank many precious moments with our youngsters.

Mostly we shoulder this burden as individual families, trying hard to pretend that our household’s biggest expense is completely unrelated to our productivity at work. We silently struggle as any federal attempt to address this crisis is put on the backburner or outright rejected time and time again, even though data now shows that young children in high-quality daycare are not worse off than those who stay at home under parental care. In fact, according to that NPR survey, parents believe such care actually benefits their children and themselves.  

This is not a new problem or one that will be resolved even if every two-parent household simply resolves that one parent stays at home with their children. This is a problem that was consciously created when politicians rejected or scuttled attempts at universal childcare in the early 1900s, after WWII, and during the Nixon administration. Moreover, this is what happens when the needs and opinions of one group—in this case, women, the de facto child caregivers in our society—are repeatedly ignored or belittled. In time it becomes a problem that affects almost everyone.

I don’t know that a massive nationalized daycare system is exactly what we need. The political hot potato that is our public-school system doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that such an approach would ever get off the ground. And don’t even get me started on the paltry federal income tax credit people with dependent care can apply for—the $3,000 limit hasn’t been adjusted since at least 2010, for one thing. 

When millions of parents are searching in vain to simultaneously nurture their children and earn money to provide for them, it’s worth pushing this conversation to the top of the agenda. And I know as good a way as any to rally behind that cause: the women’s marches happening across the country this weekend. I’d love to attend the one in L.A., but I have a scheduling conflict months in the planning: a tour of a daycare for my son.  

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