October 22, 2021

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U.S. child care system is heading for catastrophe, and the economic damage could be widespread

That high staff turnover had a very good explanation. Early childhood care providers, “more than nine in ten of whom are women and more than four in ten of whom are women of color,” a Biden administration fact sheet noted, “are among the most underpaid workers in the country and nearly half receive public income support programs. The typical child care worker earned $12.24 per hour in 2020—while receiving few, if any, benefits, leading to high turnover and lower quality of care.”

Now workers are leaving for other industries. That exodus isn’t just about the first year of the coronavirus pandemic: Labor Department data shows that 10,000 workers have left the industry since June.

”The pay is absolute crap for what’s required for the position,” former child care worker Tanzie Roberts, who quit in June, told The Washington Post. “I can’t afford to live on my own and work the child-care jobs that I am qualified for.” She now does administrative work for a tech company, from home, avoiding COVID-19 exposure while earning several dollars an hour more than she did in child care and getting health benefits she did not get in her previous job.

Owners and managers of day care centers told the Post they had lost workers to the higher pay as bank tellers, retail workers, nannies, and more. “More than a third of child-care providers are considering quitting or closing down their businesses within the next year, as a sense of hopelessness permeates the industry, according to a report last month from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Over half of minority-owned centers are in danger of shutting, the report warns.”

“This is a crisis,” Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, told the Post. “Parents are looking for child care, but now it’s this Catch-22. We don’t have the staff, so we can’t open the classrooms, so families can’t go back to work because they can’t find child care.” That’s a significant factor in the nearly 1.6 million mothers of young children who haven’t gone back to the labor force after dropping out earlier in the pandemic to care for their kids.

President Joe Biden has proposed a plan to pay child care workers a minimum of $15 an hour and give subsidies to families to ensure that care is affordable. However, not only Republicans but Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are blocking the way to those desperately needed policies. Meanwhile, only 14 states have started taking applications for the $39 billion in child care relief included in the American Rescue Plan. That wouldn’t solve the long-term, structural problems with the system, but it would buy some time and keep centers from closing in the near future.

This is a crisis, and it’s one that’s not resolving. It’s time for policymakers to treat it as such.

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