By: Kathleen Stoll
April 25, 2022
Among news stories about our nation’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and current low unemployment, one really grabbed my attention. A new report and survey from the National Women’s Law Center shows that women are lagging far behind men when it comes to how quickly they have recovered from the COVID-19 recession — and the lack of affordable, quality child care is a big reason.
The report found that more than 1.1 million fewer women are in the labor force today than in February 2020. Among parents who lost or quit a job during the pandemic, only 41% of mothers have gotten a new job, compared to 78% of fathers. And yet, nearly 40% of women say their family’s financial situation is worse today than before the pandemic.
If the 1.1 million women who have left the labor force were counted among the unemployed, the unemployment rate for women would have been 5.1% in February 2022, instead of 3.6%.
Women are not “choosing to stay home with the kids.” The report documents lack of quality, affordable child care options as the primary factor that pushed women out of the workforce and makes it harder to return. Other surveys validate the lack of child care. According to a 2021 poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, 34% of families with young children are facing serious problems finding child care.
The lack of quality, affordable child care options existed before the pandemic and is now growing worse. Many lower-wage women were struggling to make economic sense out of going to work and sacrificing half or much more of their paycheck to pay for child care. With little net financial gain for struggling low-income families, women can’t afford to work.
For women with higher income potential, a safe child care slot at any price is often completely unavailable or waitlists are long. A survey by ChildCare Aware found that at least 8,899 child care centers and another 6,957 licensed family child care (home-based care) programs closed from December 2019 to March 2021. At the centers that remain open, prices have soared for parents.
Staffing shortages are a key reason why the supply of child care is shrinking. According to a survey of 7,500 providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 80% of child care providers experienced staffing problems. Of that 80%, 50% now serve fewer children and one-third have longer waitlists.
Staffing shortages are the result of very low wages. The average child care worker in West Virginia makes $9.70 per hour for a job that carries great responsibility and demands.
To recruit and retain child care workers, wages must increase. But, in turn, wage increases raise the price of child care — and then more parents can’t afford it.
This cycle of unavailable/unaffordable is why the private market alone cannot be the answer. The federal government must invest in expanding child care and child care worker availability, as well as helping parents with affordability. As a start, Congress should significantly increase funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, to expand access to quality, affordable child care for families in every state.
But our nation needs a multi-faceted long-term strategy for investing in child care.
Congress has debated but not yet passed proposed expanded monthly Child Tax Credit payments that can help a parent pay for child care or other family needs.
Also on the table is a proposal that families with incomes up to about $300,000 would see their child care costs capped at no more than 7% of their income; families with lower incomes would pay on a sliding scale, with child care free to families with the lowest incomes. As part of this proposal, the federal government also would help pay providers for child care worker wage increases.
Child care is a bipartisan issue.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress, please come together to invest in child care — for our families, our kids and our economy.
Kathleen Stoll is the policy director for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care (wvahc.org) and operates a policy and economic consulting business, Kat Consulting.
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