Hopes for a thriving economy in the wake of COVID-19 are dependent on a robust child care system. Alas, the United States has lagged for decades in making child care affordable and accessible, and now the pandemic has exposed the system’s weaknesses.
A poll released last week from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard University found that 34 percent of families with young children are facing severe problems finding child care. It also found that 44 percent of households with children under age 18 have faced financial difficulties, and that the struggles are more common for Black families and Latino households.
Those are national numbers, but a shortage of affordable child care has been a lingering issue in Clark County since before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, like many economic sectors, child care facilities are facing a shortage of workers.
In July, Elliot Haspel of the Virginia-based Robins Foundation 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.”
President Joe Biden’s proposal for sweeping legislation to address social infrastructure and climate change includes $350 billion for child care subsidies and free pre-kindergarten. Giving parents the flexibility to return to work and take jobs in industries that are short of workers would more than pay that cost.
The legislation is facing opposition from Republicans and pushback from factions within the Democratic Party. Congressional leaders are working to trim what was a $3.5 trillion proposal to $2 trillion.
But whether or not it is included in the Build Back Better legislation, American child care is in need of an overhaul. Parents who are essential to a full economic recovery must have reliable child care that makes going to work a viable option.
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.
And Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has helped introduce the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act in Congress. Last month, she said: “After years of banging on doors … trying to get my colleagues to talk about child care, COVID-19 has thrust this once silent epidemic to the center stage — and now, my colleagues are coming up to me saying, ‘Patty, child care is a big problem.’ ”
It didn’t have to be this way. In 1971, Congress passed a bill that would have created universal government-supported child care. President Richard Nixon vetoed the legislation, saying it had “family-weakening implications.” Instead, the lack of robust child care has weakened families by hampering economic prospects for millions of Americans.
In other wealthy nations, the typical government invests more than $14,000 per child annually in care for toddlers, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the United States, the average is $500.
The United States must make more of an investment in future generations. In the process, we will help our nation’s economy recover from the COVID pandemic.