‘I had no choice but to quit:’ Child care crisis in the U.S. chases many out of the workplace
Editor’s note: CHN Intern Catherine Gorey is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in human development and minoring in English and law & society.
Eliza Navarro, a nurse in San Benito, Texas didn’t want to leave her job back in April. But when she couldn’t find child care for her two children, home from school because of COVID-19, she felt she had no choice.
“I had no choice but to quit. I want to work, but because of everything that happened with schools and day cares closed, I wasn’t able to,” Navarro told the Washington Post. “I’ve been working since I was 17. I love working. I love my patients and my job.”
Like many working mothers, she has felt the pandemic’s blow to America’s already fragile and dysfunctional child care system.
Child care is an economic necessity for many families; however, it is an overlooked and underinvested sector in our country. This trend has created child care deserts, leaving more than half of American families with young children in an area that does not provide quality, affordable options for formal care.
The child care supply directly affects working mothers, as demonstrated by the Maternal Labor Force Participation index. Their participation in the labor force is roughly 12 percentage points lower in child care deserts compared to areas with an adequate supply. The rate for fathers is not affected by this variable, as mothers are more consistently responsible for unpaid domestic labor. Experts have pointed to this gendered role as an explanation for why differences in women’s career success become more pronounced as women start families. This burden of care is disproportionately carried by essential workers who have unpredictable schedules and must work in–person. Stringent income limits to qualify for federal subsidies often leave middle-income families without care even though unsubsidized child care may be beyond their reach.
Left without other care options, 13 percent of parents in the U.S. have had to quit work or reduce their hours, a statistic that was even true before the pandemic’s disastrous economic and social restructuring effects. The informal options for care long used by families as a band-aid solution to cover the gaps in care — such as relying on grandparents or close family – may now be unsafe due to social distancing requirements. Schools have also long been hailed as a publicly available outlet for care, but now schools are forced to make choices constantly about the safety of allowing in–person classes, with many closures happening with minimal to no notice. This all combines to make an already uncertain situation worse for many families.
Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist at the University of Michigan and former member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers points to government intervention and a reframing of child care as crucial first steps to addressing this multifaceted problem.
What’s on the docket for policy solutions?
The Biden team’s newly released American Rescue Plan lays out an aggressive two-part plan that vastly expands this past December’s relief legislation. The $1.9 trillion package provides a comprehensive approach to child care services that ensures financial assistance to both parents and providers. Biden’s proposal pledges an additional $5 billion for The Child Care Development Block Grant program, increasing the $10 billion Congress allotted to state governments in December to $15 billion. The increase is also accompanied by tax credits to help cover the cost of child care for up to half of family spending. The policy also establishes an Emergency Stabilization Fund of $25 billion to ensure that child care providers are able to open and stay open, as the funding can be used to purchase vaccination supplies, personal protective equipment, ventilation systems, and other safety measures.
The Biden proposal’s recognition of childcare in ensuring economic stability is a step in the right direction for our conceptualization of labor force participation of families.
“We need to reconsider what issues are social issues,” Stevenson said. “The same folks who are happy to cut corporate taxes because they think that’s going to unleash a wave of growth, I want them to realize that if they want to unleash a wave of growth, they need to invest in the next generation so that the current generation can do their work and the next generation is prepared to do it even better.”
As for Navarro, the San Benito, Texas nurse: she sent out dozens of applications for telehealth nursing jobs so that she could work from home, but did not hear back quickly. Meanwhile, a day care spot for one of her children finally opened up last summer.
But she couldn’t afford to reserve the space.