For the U.S. economy to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, Congress must recognize that the child care industry — and child care workers — are essential.
COVID-19 has hampered child care by causing stringent safety protocols and limiting the number of clients — increasing costs while at the same time reducing revenue. According to a survey of 5,000 providers, the ongoing pandemic could force roughly 40 percent of child care facilities to close permanently.
In addition to creating turmoil for workers in the child care industry, such a scenario would reverberate throughout the economy; parents cannot return to work without having a trusted, reliable provider to watch after their children. According to Child Care Aware of Washington: “Child care matters to employees who are parents, and businesses rely on working parents. Most children under the age of 6 in Washington live in homes where all adults work. Without child care, these employees cannot work.”
As of July 13, according to the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, more than 1,000 child care centers in Washington remained closed as a result of COVID-19 (about 4,400 licensed facilities remained open). The closed locations typically would serve more than 47,000 infants and children.
“We are hearing from parents who are not sure they can go back to work because their child care provider closed,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said.
Locally, the Southwest Washington Child Care Consortium permanently closed its private-pay child care program in June, erasing about 400 slots.
According to Murray, the nation is at risk of permanently losing 4.5 million child care slots, with 42,000 of those losses happening in Washington. In spite of that, previous coronavirus relief bills have provided only $3.5 billion for child care — compared with, for example, $25 billion to the airline industry.
Belatedly, there is growing bipartisan recognition of the situation in Congress. Murray has introduced the Child Care is Essential Act in the Senate, which would provide $50 billion in relief for child care facilities, and a companion bill in the House of Representatives has drawn more than 130 co-sponsors. Republicans in both chambers have introduced their own legislation, calling for a $25 billion fund to assist child care facilities, and Republican leaders in the House have recommended assistance for child care be included in the next pandemic relief bill.
Child care too often is an afterthought for lawmakers, creating a situation that is turning into a crisis. And the crisis is inordinately hitting women and people of color — who make up a disproportionate percentage of providers — along with working mothers. That impact will linger well beyond the pandemic.
As Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist at the University of Michigan, told Politico: “The work of recovering from it will not end just because we have a vaccine. We are making choices right now about where we will be as an economy in 20 years, in 30 years, based on what we do with these kids.
“When you talk about upward mobility, this puts families on just a completely different trajectory that’s not about losing two or three years of income; it’s about being on a lower earnings trajectory for the rest of your life. We are letting the whole child care system erode in such a way that it’s not going to be there for us when we are fully ready to go back.”
That requires some long-term vision on the part of lawmakers. In the short term, a stable child care system is essential in order for the economy to recover.