Locating good childcare wasn’t exactly a breeze before COVID-19 showed up. Parents could swap stories of years-long waiting lists and the need to start looking basically the moment the pregnancy test came back positive. As the writer Liz Tracy put it last year, “trying to find affordable childcare is not the job I wanted,” yet it’s the one many parents (particularly mothers) find themselves saddled with.
Like so many parts of life, the pandemic has made the work of finding childcare so, so much worse.
Start with the fact that the overall supply of childcare in the U.S. is currently constrained. According to a recently released survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and MorningConsult, 32% of a nationally representative sample of parents reported their childcare is still temporarily closed, while for 9%, the closure is permanent. The latter is most concerning, given how scarce slots were to begin with.
The numbers aren’t theoretical, they’re tragic: California has already seen 1,200 childcare programs shut their doors for good, taking out capacity for nearly 20,000 children. Pennsylvania has lost 200 of their 7,000 licensed providers, and could lose another 1,000 in the coming months. All told, data suggests nearly 4.5 million childcare slots could be permanently lost unless states and the federal government step up to stabilize the industry.
Childcare closures are happening because Covid wasn’t so much the straw that broke the camel’s back as a monster truck.
Childcare economics have long been precarious. The U.S. makes the sector operate more like restaurants—reliant on paying customers—than a public good like schools or libraries that have consistent funding. This choice, marinated in a history of sexism and devaluing care, creates extreme fragility in the system.
Childcare is expensive to provide (as it should be!) due to very low adult-to-child ratios that require high personnel costs. Yet with pitifully low amounts of public funding, programs can’t charge the true cost of care, so instead they slash employee salaries to the bone and get by on tiny operating margins, even though parents are paying a migraine’s worth of fees. That $10,000 you’re shelling out for childcare may feel like it should buy a car, not barely get a program to payroll. Unfortunately, the fact is programs are taking a loss when they can’t charge you the $30,000 they should in order to sustainably run a quality program with well-compensated educators.
Enter the pandemic. A combination of temporary closures, reductions in group sizes and increased costs and safety demands have collectively blown a hole in an already leaky boat. “At this point, we’re working about 12-hour days Monday through Friday and on off hours we’re required to sanitize,” one family child care provider who recently scaled back to only opening two days a week told The Los Angeles Times, “It’s nonstop. It’s tiring.”
Even among programs that are staying open, there are fewer available slots. Although childcare providers in some states have returned to pre-pandemic group sizes, many still operate under deep restrictions. For instance, programs in Minnesota and Oregon can only have a maximum of 10 toddlers per classroom, where they could normally have 20. Many, like the L.A. provider, have also scaled back hours or days of service; 10% of the BPC survey respondents noted their provider had reduced hours.
This dire state of affairs is already (surprise, surprise) falling on the shoulders of mothers. According to the Center For American Progress, “Millennial mothers are nearly three times more likely than Millennial fathers to report being unable to work due to a school or childcare closure,” with fully one-third of Millennial mothers currently out of work unable to return to the labor force due to childcare challenges. This doesn’t even take into account the millions of pregnant and soon-to-be pregnant women who will need infant care, already the unicorn of childcare slots.
What’s to be done? Advocates have been calling on Congress for major financial relief that would stabilize the sector. The House of Representatives passed $50 billion in dedicated childcare funding, while the Senate passed $15 billion. Moving forward, there is a need to wholly rethink the way we fund childcare to take the fragility out of this critical piece of infrastructure. Of course, Congressional negotiations are currently stalled and going nowhere fast, so parents and providers are being left to suffer.
In the end, whether there are available childcare slots for today’s and tomorrow’s children may come down to how loudly parents are willing to push their elected leaders. Nonpartisan efforts like Care For All Children and Child Care Relief have cropped up to provide easy avenues for parents to make their voices heard.
Very little good is coming out of our current moment, but one positive step would be a childcare system where parents are able to find affordable, quality care that works for their family without a carafe of cortisol. There weren’t enough slots before, and there are hardly any unfilled ones now. That’s a policy choice, and a different, more abundant future is possible.