On July 4, Washington residents submitting unemployment claims must once again actively search for jobs in order to receive payments. That requirement was suspended early in the coronavirus pandemic, and the hope is that reinstating it will help ease a labor shortage throughout the state.
Yet while the provision might help incentivize people to return to work, a full post-pandemic economic recovery will depend on adequate, affordable child care. The American child care system long has been chaotic, and the pandemic has exacerbated its shortcomings.
As Elliot Haspel of the Virginia-based Robins Foundation recently wrote for The Washington Post: “There is only one solution: public investment. Child care programs don’t obey the classic rules of supply and demand; many experts consider the sector a failed market. Parents are already tapped out, but the obscene prices they pay don’t come close to covering the true cost of care in such a personnel-heavy enterprise. Only programs serving the most affluent can reasonably charge more to boost wages.”
Most child care facilities do not cater to the affluent. The industry is most needed by people in low- and medium-wage jobs, by single parents and by families that require two paychecks to cover their bills. According to the Department of Education, about 90 percent of families with two workers use some sort of child care. Now, like many sectors of the economy, child care is facing a shortage of workers — and that impacts all other sectors by keeping many parents out of the workforce.
About 360,000 child care jobs disappeared last year in the early months of the pandemic. Many facilities have closed, and many that remain open have difficulty attracting workers; according to Washington’s Employment Security Department, the Portland metro area has 3,363 child care workers, and they earn an average of $14.59 an hour.
All of this could have been avoided. In 1971, Congress passed a bill that would have created universal government-supported child care. President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, saying it had “family-weakening implications.” Instead, the lack of robust child care has weakened families by hampering economic prospects for millions of Americans.
To deal with the crisis, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has introduced the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act. Murray said: “As we work to build back a stronger, fairer economy, we must recognize that investment in child care is essential … Our legislation will ensure every working family can get high-quality, affordable child care, and that our child care educators are paid what they deserve.”
Some would argue that child care educators deserve to be paid whatever the market will bear. But that ignores the fact that child care is an investment that boosts the economy, providing workers with more freedom to seek and fill jobs.
President Joe Biden’s proposed American Families Plan includes vast spending to support and build child care facilities, as well as increased tax credits for families with children. And Gov. Jay Inslee this year signed the Fair Start for Kids Act (Senate Bill 5237 was supported by Southwest Washington Democrats and opposed by Republicans) to boost access to child care.
But legislative solutions will take years to have an impact on the market. In the meantime, Washington employers might face a long-term labor shortage that hampers the post-pandemic recovery.