Child Care Must Be a Public Good, Not a Privilege for Few

Solving the child care crisis requires bold national policy and local wisdom from state-based funders.

Solving the Child Care Crisis Requires Bold National Policy and Local Wisdom From State-Based Funders
“Child care is an essential work force support,” Barajas-Román writes, “making it not just a family issue but a core economic issue for workers and employers.” (Herald Post/Flickr)

Calling the 2.5 million women forced to leave the work force since the start of COVID-19 a “national crisis,” Vice President Kamala Harris last month hosted a roundtable to discuss the pandemic’s disparate impact on women, bringing long-overdue attention to the current child care crisis.

Expressing concern that without significant public policy interventions, we risk losing decades of progress made by women in the work force, Vice President Harris not only discussed child care, but paid leave and other policies supporting women and families to their rightful place at the top of national economic policy priorities. 

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we seek to honor the past by creating women-led solutions across the globe for women, children and families. Child care is an essential work force support, making it not just a family issue but a core economic issue for workers and employers. Yet despite the exponential benefits adequate child care provides to society and the economy, decades of underinvestment has exposed the fragility of the market-based child care industry—and the pandemic may have dealt the final blow. 

During a typical year, employers lose about $13 billion in potential earnings, productivity, and revenue due to inadequate child-care resources, according to the Council for a Strong America. The pandemic has forced 11 million women out of their jobs in just four months, leaving many with the choice of staying home to care for their children or seeking out child care centers to continue as essential workers.

Three-in-four private child care providers have closed during the pandemic, heavily impacting an industry where  92 percent of businesses are  female-owned. Seventy-six percent of parents reporting the need to stay home and not work due to child care were female. Eight in 10 families cannot afford the full cost of high-quality infant and toddler care. This disparity is even higher for families of color—94 percent. 

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Solving the Child Care Crisis Through Legislation

To solve our country’s child care crisis, we need an expansive approach that fundamentally shifts the narrative about child care from a privilege for few to a public good for all. That’s why women’s funds across the U.S. are supporting bold policy that centers caregivers as essential to a thriving economy and that secures private-public support for work force flexibility and universal access to high-quality, affordable child care and early childhood education (ECE). 

Fortunately, some elected officials are working to do just that. 
The proposed federal Childcare for Working Families Act would expand access to affordable child care, ensure child care workers are paid a living wage and invest in improving the quality of child care services.

It is also critical to expand access to paid medical and family leave policies, to provide additional supports that strengthen working families. Both the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act and the Healthy Families Act would give families the ability to care for their children and loved ones without losing their jobs.

But amid the calls for legislators, philanthropy and industry leaders to “do something,” in many cases the demands for action and proposed solutions remain frustratingly vague. In contrast, women’s funds have differentiated themselves as leaders in these efforts by advocating concrete actions that address the daily reality that child care is simply too expensive and scarce—especially for women of color.

Grassroots Efforts to Support Families and Children

Across this country, women’s funds and foundations are supporting grassroots efforts to build a stronger, more equitable future for families and children. Based on a study conducted in partnership with the University of Arizona, the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona (WFSA) found that although 89 percent of Arizona low-income single mothers of young children have a high school education, lacking a postsecondary degree substantially limited their job prospects and earning potential. As a result, WFSA launched a pilot program for single moms eliminating barriers to enrolling in education that can get them onto higher-paying career paths. 

The Women’s Foundation of Colorado has expanded its child care advocacy, becoming active leaders of a policy coalition focused on bolstering Colorado’s work force to address the state’s shortage of qualified workers within the early care and education (ECE) sector. 

The Iowa Women’s Foundation also is leading a statewide initiative working with business, policymakers, child care providers and nonprofits to “bring Iowa’s child care sector into the 21st century,” using a multi-pronged approach to tackle the issue from all angles. 

Women’s funds recognize that change happens at the local level and help local nonprofit leaders across the country collaborate with funders, businesses and other key community stakeholders to create policy that can have a lasting impact in the financial lives of women and their families. By following the wisdom of local voices who are already blazing the trail and centering marginalized communities, we can create and implement policies that advance a fair and equitable recovery post-pandemic.

As these state policies spread (which is possible through collaboration of women’s funds across the network), it will drive federal legislators to also take action. While there is no single solution that will work for all caregivers or all communities, we believe it is possible to create a bold set of options for families and communities to consider and decide what works best for them. We call on state and federal elected officials to make child care legislation a priority in economic recovery efforts. We must seize this incredible opportunity to implement child care policies that truly serve the needs of local communities and our entire country. 

When women thrive, all of society benefits.

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Elizabeth Barajas-Román is president and chief executive officer of the Women’s Funding Network. You can follow her on Twitter at @FuturePresente.