To realize a truly equitable recovery, we must ensure that investing in child care does not take a backseat to infrastructure.
The American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden earlier this month will help ensure the economic security of millions of families.
For many parents, the most meaningful part of the package is the investment in child care. This is especially true for the countless mothers who are burnt out with managing jobs and caregiving, facilitating virtual learning, providing essential work at non-essential wages, or struggling with job loss. Not only will this provision stabilize the sector and support mothers, fathers, children and other caregivers; it will also sustain over a million jobs, which will begin to build the bridge that will bolster our economic recovery.
As President Biden prepares to introduce a new plan aimed at jumpstarting economic rebirth, he must build on a key lesson from the past year: There is no equitable jobs plan that does not include child care.
The pandemic’s damage to the child care sector has had a severe effect on women, especially women of color. More than 5 million women have left the work force, and with women three times more likely than men to stop working in order to care for kids, much of this decline is due to the pandemic’s evaporation of already limited caregiving support.
Women of color, who are a disproportionate share of child care workers and also often their families’ primary breadwinner, have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s effect on the child care sector. Many child care programs have closed and more than half say they are losing money every day while they remain open. One in six child care workers have lost their jobs since the pandemic began. We all pay the price without a care infrastructure, with the U.S. economy losing more than $64.5 billion per year in wages and economic activity as a result.
The American Rescue Plan Act, combined with the child care relief funds in the 2020 COVID-19 relief packages, will bring the total child care relief funding to just over $50 billion, meeting the demand outlined by advocates and activists over the past year. To give an idea of the scope of this impact, we estimate that this $50 billion will sustain 1.1 million jobs—both new and returning jobs—at current wages, and indirectly support 430,000 more jobs throughout the rest of the economy, for a total of 1.54 million jobs, based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
And this does not include the millions of parents who will be able to return to work or increase their hours once they have the safe, reliable child care options that disappeared during the pandemic. For women of color, this relief is especially significant, as more than half of Latinas and 44 percent of Black women say their unpaid care responsibilities negatively affect their ability to take on paid work.
The recent investment in child care relief is remarkable, representing the largest one-year infusion of funding in the sector since World War II. But we must remember that this investment only gets us back to the status quo before the pandemic, when child care funding was woefully insufficient to meet demand. We must view this relief as just the start of a long overdue commitment to adequately funding a sector that is critical to our economic growth.
With early reports that President Biden plans to propose a significant investment in the care economy in addition to funding new infrastructure jobs, we may finally build the child care and early education system this country needs. But to realize a truly equitable recovery, we must ensure that investing in child care does not take a backseat to infrastructure. After all, for example, if a single mother of two young kids does not have access to affordable child care, she cannot participate in the training that could prepare her for the influx of in-demand infrastructure jobs. Not to mention that investing in jobs that are primarily held by men leaves out the millions of women hit hardest by the events of the past year.
In addition, we must also prioritize investment in higher compensation for the child care and early education work force. Most child care workers are paid poverty-level wages: A typical worker in the formal child care work force, which included over 1 million workers pre-pandemic, was paid a median hourly wage of $11.12 in 2019; at 32 hours per week—the average for non-supervisory employees in the field—that’s an annual salary of only $18,503. To truly “build back better,” as President Biden has made a centerpiece of his recovery agenda, all child care workers should be paid family-supporting wages.
To ensure a prosperous future that is broadly shared among all families, we need a comprehensive child care and early education system that serves every family and pays early educators appropriately for the valuable and complex work they do. We must ensure that child care is affordable, culturally responsive, available when and where families need it, and supports children’s healthy development.
The recent American Rescue Plan Act will not build that system, but it restored a baseline that will help more than 60 percent of the child care programs in the United States by providing safe, nurturing care for millions of families across the country. Many parents, especially mothers, will be able to return to their jobs, paving the way for a just and equitable economic recovery.
With the new jobs plan, we have a chance to finish the work by building a new, sustainable child care infrastructure that bolsters women’s work force participation, supports healthy child development, and ensures a flourishing economic future that includes everyone.
This analysis was originally published by The Century Foundation.