What’s at Stake: Your Family’s Child Care

It’s just days until Election Day, and women’s votes are more crucial this year than ever. We must have not only the will, but also a firm grasp of what we need to hold candidates at all levels accountable for policies that work toward social justice and equity for women.

What’s at Stake is a new bi-weekly series of abbreviated excepts from Ms. money editor Martha Burk’s book “Your Voice, Your Vote 2020-2021.” Using an intersectional approach of gender, race and class to issues ranging from health care to Social Security, violence, pay equity, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, the ERA and everything in between, Your Voice, Your Vote is a must for arming activists with the facts for meaningful change. A signed copy benefiting Ms. can be ordered here.

Child care in the time of corona is one of the most challenging financial and logistical hurdles facing families. But while it’s certainly much more difficult now with many child care facilities closed, it’s far from a new problem.

Most families—single parent and two-parent alike—have struggled with child care in normal times, regardless of whether their incomes are low, medium or high. That’s because we have a hodge-podge of arrangements with no national system, and the availability of good care depends as much on where one lives as on ability to pay.

Women’s jobs—concentrated in service industries—are particularly vulnerable in the coronavirus economic meltdown. Women are being laid off or furloughed at a significantly higher rate than men.

But there is another threat to women’s paid labor that can be harder to see: With kids at home, families are forced to take on not only child care but significantly more domestic labor.  Since the gender pay gap is still very much with us, and most men make more than most women, if somebody has to drop out to take up the slack financial sense dictates that it be the lower earner.

What’s at Stake: Your Family’s Child Care
The COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a permanent loss of nearly 4.5 million child care slots,” writes Burk, “leaving millions of families without the child care they need to return to work.” (Province of British Columbia / Flickr)

There’s a longer-term threat to women’s employment as well.

About half of child care providers have been forced to close due to COVID-19, and many face the possibility of permanent closure.  According to the Center for American Progress, the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a permanent loss of nearly 4.5 million child care slots, leaving millions of families without the child care they need to return to work.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

A stopgap measure, The Child Care Is Essential Act, was recently introduced by Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Patty Murray. It would provide grant funding for child care providers to stabilize the industry so they can safely reopen and operate. The money can be used for necessary modifications due to COVID-19, personnel pay, and fixed costs like rents.

Short-term help is of course welcome and needed. But if there ever was a time to demand systemic change, this is it.

The situation in the U.S. differs markedly from other countries, where child care and/or early childhood education is viewed as a public responsibility with national child care provided.  For example, almost 100 percent of French 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled in the full-day, free care—staffed by teachers paid good wages by one national ministry.

In contrast to other parts of the world, the U.S. government and families alike have historically regarded child care as a family problem, not a public responsibility. Universal child care is still controversial in some sectors of society, with a few decrying it as “socialism” (at one time, public schools were also controversial with the education of children viewed as a “family matter”).

While the U.S. is a long way from a full-blown national solution, we should be making concrete plans for one where most if not all children in the country can be served. Except for a few children’s advocacy groups, there is no organized lobby for a national child care system.

This is an election year. Parents, regardless of party, need to become that much-needed organized lobby.  Candidates must be challenged with questions like these:

  1. What kind of bill would you sponsor to help working families with child care?
  2. Do you support public funding for universal pre-kindergarten?

Opponents will claim universal child care costs too much, and we can’t afford a new system. But reliable estimates say two-parent families are already forced to spend over 25 percent of net income for center-based care for two children.

Right now Congress is appropriating literally trillions to keep businesses afloat in a post-corona economy. Are families less important?

This piece was excerpted from Ms. money editor Martha Burk’s new book: “Your Voice, Your Vote 2020-2021.” A signed copy benefiting Ms. can be ordered here.

What’s at Stake: Your Family’s Child Care


Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.