s a growing number of companies require employees to return full-time to the office, young parents are facing a new crisis: what to do about their not yet school-age kids when they’re away at work.
With inflation reaching a 40-year high and the price of staples, such as gasoline, increasing by 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 only tenable for about 20% of working mothers, according to a 2013 study. This leaves professionals as childcare providers in the dark.
But that’s the problem: the COVID-19 pandemic all but gutted the childcare industry, which has shed nearly 1 in 9 jobs since March 2020. Daycare operators’ attempts to rebuild in recent months have been complicated by both rising wages and the ongoing national labor shortage, which make it difficult to recruit and retain staff. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that child care workers are paid an average of $13.31/hour. According to a report from Wells Fargo economists, 460,000 households say that they don’t have reliable access to childcare.
Parents who need infant care are particularly affected by this problem. This requires a higher staff-to-child ratio, making it more costly for centers. “For my infant and my toddler rooms, well over 100% of what’s coming in is going towards my costs,” Corrine Kuntz, a daycare 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 infant and my one-year old programs.”
As American families’ child care struggles increase—and political strategists prepare for the November mid-terms—both voters and lawmakers are paying attention. In September 2021, Hart Research and New Bridge Strategy conducted a poll that found 81% of voters consider child care and preschool worthwhile investments. This figure includes 80% self-described independents, and 66% Republicans. 58% also believe federal funding for childcare programs needs to be increased.
Over 100 Democratic Congressmen sent Wednesday Night a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to back the stalled legislation which would have funded universal pre-K in all three and four-year-olds, and created a sliding-scale system of child-care for those younger kids based upon household incomes. With the signatures from 122 House members and 32 Senators (including Minnesota Senator Tina Smith, and Mikie Sherrill), the letter was sent to President Joe Biden.
“We stand ready to work with you,” the letter says, “to enact legislation through reconciliation that ensures middle-class and working families do not spend more than 7 percent of their income on child care, expands access to pre-K, and invests in the early childhood workforce and infrastructure.”
The universal pre-K and sliding-scale child care subsidy proposals were both originally in Congressional Democrats’ $1.7 trillion social spending and climate change legislation, Build Back Better. The Administration’s signature legislation was shelved in December after centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin pulled his support. But polls show that 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’d be more likely to support a budget reconciliation package that includes provisions to make childcare and preschool more accessible.
Democrats view supporting these programs as both good policy and political action. With slim majorities in both Congressional chambers at risk in the midterms—and Biden’s approval rating hovering at its lowest point since his January 2021 inauguration—Democrats are happy to push for popular childcare policies. Katherine Clark (assistant speaker of Congress), who was the head of the House letter to Biden’s, stated that these proposals are also economically sound. “We lose a staggering $57 billion per year in earnings, productivity, and revenue because parents can’t find affordable quality care,” Clark told TIME. “Our recovery and our ability to build a better, more inclusive America hinges on us creating a child care system that finally works for working families.”
Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the “kitchen table” childcare crisis is not limited to the parents of young children, either. “This isn’t just an individual issue, it’s kind of a collective issue. And it is an economic issue,” she says. “[The pandemic] really kind of put on steroids, the idea that childcare 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 childcare 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 bolster the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program, which provides states funding to subsidize low-income families’ access to child care and helps childcare centers recruit well-trained staff. The current funding is sufficient to support just 11% of the eligible children.
Scott and Burr proposed expanding CCDBG so that any family with less than 75% State Median income pays no childcare cost and that no CCDBG eligible family contributes more than 7% to childcare. The GOP bill doesn’t request additional funding for these changes, and neither have Senators provided an estimate of what would be required to expand the benefit.
Reached for comment on whether Burr would vote to increase funding for a larger CCDBG program in the appropriations process, a spokesperson says: “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 target 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 she will request, but said it will be in excess of the White House’s request for $1.4 billion more funding for CCDBG versus the current Fiscal Year’s allocation.
CCDBG funding is not what Democrats want in their White House letters. The GOP-invited testimony witness in March’s Senate Committee hearing on early school policy said that the funding needed to resolve the current crisis would be inadequate. “We believe funding must be included in the reconciliation process because we do not believe Congress will allocate enough funding to make a material difference in access to childcare through the traditional budget process,” Ellen Reynolds, CEO of the Georgia Child Care Association, said.)
Oldham insists that the final legislative solution must come quickly, regardless of what it is. “Childcare,” she says, “has been broken for a long time.”
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