The pandemic has taken away so much from our children—schools, daycare, babysitters, and in many cases, loss of loved ones and parental income. Children haven't seen their grandparents, their friends, or their teachers; they haven't played sports or hide and seek, attended summer camp or had a sleepover. With almost every aspect of childhood put on pause, parents have been forced to fill the void. In most cases, this has meant women leaving their jobs to become a full-time childcare worker, all but erasing 30 years of progress in gender equality in the workplace.
It's been a double whammy for mothers who work as caregivers, including in education. With children at home, it's been an exhausting task to care for both their own children and the children in their virtual classrooms. Since teachers are paid about 20% lower than similarly educated professions, affording childcare costs is a luxury at best.
When a teacher is forced to choose between taking care of her child or taking care of her class full of children, everyone loses.
The truth is, underpaying teachers and childcare workers in general has nothing to do with a pandemic and everything to do with our country's values. We are the only wealthy nation that does not have paid maternity leave, which pushes many women out of the workforce to give their children the social and emotional care they need. With little to no options for childcare, women are often out of work for years, if they are able to return at all, leaving their talents and earning potential on the sideline.
Given the critical importance of social and emotional care during the first three years of a child's life, it is absolutely backwards that we aren't properly funding childcare workers or educators. According to Harvard's Center on the Developing Child, "Healthy development in the early years (particularly birth to three) provides the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities, and successful parenting of the next generation." Since we make no such investment as a society, what outcome are we hoping for?
Unfortunately, we're unlikely to make serious progress unless we confront the racist and sexist roots of this dilemma. Caregivers are the victims of the wage gaps between women and men and between white women and Black and Hispanic women. As Julie Kashen told New York Magazine,
"The people who care for our children are paid about $11 an hour, which is a significant undervaluing of that work. It has racist and sexist roots, because caregivers were often enslaved black women. It became something that people didn't think needed to be paid for. And we need to reverse that long history of discrimination, and start valuing care."
To begin with, we have to shift our policies to strengthen family relationships rather than offer women a lose-lose option of choosing work or childcare. The most obvious place to start is paid maternity leave. While this is now guaranteed for federal employees, it must extend to every woman who works. Family leave extending beyond the mother to both parents would be even better.
Paid family leave should be coupled with appropriate compensation, training, and supervision for childcare workers. When parents head back to work after having a baby, childcare workers step in to provide the daytime support and care for the child that the family would otherwise. If we value that support and care, if we truly think it's important, childcare employees deserve professional development and pay that reflects the importance of the work they do.
Some states have tried to find a solution for this problem by using federal grants to help eligible parents pay for childcare by subsidizing part of their childcare costs. But those grants come with a catch: The grant program only recommends that states pay for 75% of what childcare centers already charge. While this helps parents, it doesn't help childcare centers pay their employees what they deserve—and what those employees need to take care of their own children. After all, how can someone who is underpaid afford childcare?
Aside from these basic measures, we need to live up to the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. Community centers, religious organizations, and places of work should all be invested in childcare, whether that's offering support for parents or for childcare services. These institutions already have strong relationships with community members and can reduce barriers to quality childcare.
Ultimately, children, mothers and teachers all need reassurance that places of work, government, and community organizations will support healthy, happy kids and families. If that's not worth investing in, I'm not sure what is.