Universal Pre-K, Childcare and Paid Leave Aren’t Just for Women and Families—They’re Key to Economic Recovery

The U.S. loses $57 billion a year because parents are unable to find and afford care. It’s time for a nationwide reckoning on behalf of women and families.

House Assistant Speaker Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) at the “Time to Deliver” for Home Care Workers rally and march on Nov. 16, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Jemal Countess / Getty Images for SEIU)

Experts predict that approximately one million more women workers would be in the labor force today if mothers with young children could work at the same rates as women with school-age children.

Why are these women being pushed back and left behind in our economy?

Lack of childcare. Lack of home care. Lack of paid leave. Lack of the critical social supports that allow women to join, stay, and succeed in the workforce.

Our care system has been broken for a long time, and specifically childcare.

I remember clearly the day when I realized the cost of childcare for my three children exceeded my take-home pay. And when I was first elected to Congress, I was juggling care for my children and sick parents while flying back and forth from Washington. I would often pull up in my driveway at my home in Massachusetts and just cry, torn between the people who all needed my help, and my job. I felt like I was failing someone every day.

And I was one of the lucky ones, with a supportive spouse and resources to pay for help. For millions of moms and working parents, the bills, the choices and the squeeze are simply impossible to manage.

I would often pull up in my driveway at my home in Massachusetts and just cry, torn between the people who all needed my help, and my job. I felt like I was failing someone every day.

Parents struggle with impossibly high costs for care, often equaling a month’s rent or mortgage. (In Massachusetts, the average annual cost of childcare is $20,000!) Care providers operate on the thinnest of margins—as of February 2022, 16,000 childcare providers had shut down since the start of the pandemic. As a result, approximately 460,000 families are without reliable childcare.

This doesn’t just impact working moms; it holds back our entire economy. Nationally, we lose a staggering $57 billion per year in earnings, productivity and revenue because parents are unable to find and afford care.

But here’s what gives me hope: The spotlight on this issue brought on by the pandemic has created a window of opportunity to fundamentally change the way we view—and fund—the care economy. We’re having a reckoning that childcare is not a private issue, but a public good.

In 2021, Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan that included $40 billion in childcare relief funding, helping providers to stay afloat, parents to get back to work, and businesses to stabilize.

And to help families afford care, and $65 million to provide student parents access to care while attending school.

While we know that this funding has been critical, it’s not enough for the long-term improvements our families and providers need to succeed.

That’s why I’m calling for us to continue the fight to secure universal pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year olds and affordable childcare for all.

Universal pre-K would be the first expansion of free schooling in America in over 100 years and is desperately needed to support parents, strengthen our children’s early education, and maintain American competitiveness. Ensuring that all children have access to high-quality early education and childcare is how we close achievement gap and end health disparities.

We also need to cut childcare costs for families so that no one is forced to pay more than 7 percent of their income on childcare bills. And, we must raise the wages of providers and early educators to ensure that the professionals caring for our kids can afford to care for their own.

These aren’t just investments in women and families—they’re investments in our economic recovery and our future. This is our path to create a more equitable, just society. We can’t return to the status quo. And we won’t.

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

Up next:


Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) is assistant speaker of the 117th U.S. Congress, after being elected by her colleagues in 2020. This makes her the second highest-ranking woman in House leadership, after Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She is a vocal advocate for ending wage discrimination, protecting women’s healthcare; access to affordable, high-quality childcare; paid family leave; safer schools; and other reforms to address the challenges women and families face.