The child care industry was already a broken system—but this pandemic is exposing even more cracks

Our centuries-long lack of public investment in childcare has created a huge problem.

The child care industry was already a broken system—but this pandemic is exposing even more cracks

The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly laid bare some important truths: Children love video-conferencing with each other. Mo Willems is as amazing in person as his books suggest. We all could have taken more than 4 ounces of liquid onto airplanes all along. And speaking more soberly: Our centuries-long lack of public investment in childcare has created a huge problem.

While parents across the nation are struggling with what to do now that they've abruptly opened a homeschool, parents of young children are in a particularly crushing double bind.

In addition to having their kids home, they can either:

A) shell out thousands of dollars per month for childcare that they now either cannot use or are being encouraged not to use.

B) unenroll their child and give up a childcare spot that was likely hard to come by to begin with, thanks to the prevalence of childcare deserts in America.

Childcare providers are in a crushing bind, too. Unlike public schools, which can continue paying teachers during school closures without charging parents, the childcare industry is on financial life support for lack of government funding.

The U.S. spends over $700 billion of federal, state, and local money on K-12 public education each year. That's enough to put us above average among 34 developed nations in spending as a percentage of GDP. Meanwhile, the U.S. ranks a whopping third-to-last in spending on early care and education (thanks, Ireland and Turkey!).

This is especially absurd when you consider that childcare is significantly more expensive than K-12 education. Adult-to-child ratios are required to be significantly lower in early childcare settings—one infant caregiver can legally care for only four children, versus a middle school teacher who can have thirty or more in their classroom—so the human capital costs explode.

As a result, despite charging fees so high it makes many parents want to weep, most childcare providers operate on margins of less than 1%, and the average daycare center teacher makes around $11 an hour, with limited if any benefits. In fact, more than half of early childhood practitioners qualify for public assistance.

This is, of course, a ridiculous state of affairs. It was ridiculous before COVID-19 ever appeared, and now, unfortunately, it's gone past ridiculous to take the shape of a true crisis. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson has written, "Most Americans accept—even demand—the public subsidy of education from the moment kids turn five and enter kindergarten to the day they graduate from a state university or community college. But from birth to the fifth birthday, children are on their own—or, more precisely, their parents are."

It shouldn't be lost on us that it took the Great Depression to give us Social Security, and World War II to give Great Britain its National Health Service; human nature is such that it sometimes takes a crisis to get us to where we should have been all along.

So what does this mean in practice?

First, we need to start treating childcare like public schools in the sense of being government-funded with no parent fees. We could start by having the federal government step in now to assume the parental portion of childcare funding until the pandemic passes. The childcare industry is asking for a $50 billion dollar bailout. It sounds like a lot, but other (arguably less essential) industries are asking for even more.

Federal support will at least provide a bridge that keeps care providers open and takes the boot off the neck of parents, as opposed to the wasteland of care we'll be facing otherwise: A survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children has found that two-thirds of programs can't survive a closure of even one month.

We are a resilient people, but we require resilient institutions. This crisis has shown us the deep fault lines in our childcare infrastructure. As we battle back the disease, we cannot simply return to business as usual. No one can any longer doubt the importance of childcare; now it's time to convert that understanding into action.

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