Supporting Caregivers Supports Us All

Serving over 7 million children in the U.S., home-based providers are often the unsung heroes of the early childhood workforce. But their heroism is not financially rewarded.

In the absence of a federal system for affordable childcare, many U.S. families rely on family, friend and neighbor caregivers who work for little to no cost. (d3sign / Getty Images)

When I had my second baby a few years ago, I returned to work six weeks later due to my lack of paid leave as a consultant. We were left without childcare as my older child kept getting sick, and we didn’t want to expose our nanny to illness. In-home daycares had nearly a year waitlist, and childcare centers were more than double that. For many days, I was taking care of a baby and a toddler while also managing a full-time job.

The situation reached a breaking point when I attended a meeting with a colleague and simultaneously had to breastfeed my newborn. Just as I was trying to unlatch one kid, the other came barging in, and my illusions about trying to make it all work came crashing down. I was angry at my toddler, angry at having to work while trying to keep a new human alive, angry that the career I’d worked so hard for seemed to now be in direct opposition to the home life I also wanted to cultivate. I broke down in tears, realizing I couldn’t keep up with the competing demands of childcare and work. While it was a tight financial squeeze even for my solidly middle-class family, my partner and I agreed I’d take time off to care for both children while we figured out a long-term childcare solution.

That took nearly a year. The precious time that was hard enough for me—someone with relatively ample resources—was practically impossible for single working moms, those who make minimum wage, or those who fall in both categories. That’s where family, friend and neighbor (FFN) caregivers play a vital role: home-based providers who work for little to no cost. Serving over 7 million children in the U.S., they are often the unsung heroes of the early childhood workforce. But their heroism is not financially rewarded.

When paid, they typically earn just $7,420 annually and rely on multiple jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated their struggles, as families pulled their kids out of daycare as they worked from home and feared their children would get sick.

Nearly 2.2 million women left the labor force between February and October 2020, reversing decades of progress toward gender equality in the workplace.

In response to the worsening caregiver crisis that emerged during the pandemic, the Thriving Providers Project (TPP) was launched in 2022 to stabilize the economic well-being of these essential workers—nearly all of whom are women—through direct cash transfers.

Caregivers form the backbone of our society, providing an essential service that enables parents to work and allows children to be safe and healthy. Investing in programs to support caregivers, such as TPP, not only uplifts those who provide care but also creates ripple effects that benefit society more broadly. TPP’s innovative guaranteed income pilot for home-based child care providers demonstrates how targeted financial support can transform lives and strengthen our communities, with promising results from TPP’s first year in Colorado.

One hundred home-based providers received $500 monthly for 18 months, alongside support services like access to mental health resources. Full research on the program will be released later this year, but early data shows promising results.

  • More than 80 percent of participants said the program allowed them to stay in the caregiving field.
  • Caregivers also saw significant improvements in their economic stability, as well as the quality of care children were provided.
  • This increase in the level of care tracks with previous research that connects high stress among caregivers with worse outcomes in care quality.
  • Additionally, fewer TPP providers experienced material hardships such as difficulty paying for food, housing, and medical care.

The program has also been effective in keeping caregivers in the field, an essential step in curtailing the childcare shortage when many are leaving the field for better-paying jobs at Starbucks or McDonald’s—hardly surprising when you consider the average wage for a childcare center employee is barely $14 an hour. Supplementing their wages through TPP has both economic and confidence-boosting effects.

For mothers in the workforce, the caregiving crisis manifests as a significant barrier to career advancement and financial stability. Women are more likely to take time off or reduce their working hours to care for their children, leading to lost income and missed opportunities for promotions and career development. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted these challenges, with many women leaving the workforce due to the closure of schools and childcare facilities.

Nearly 2.2 million women left the labor force between February and October 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reversing decades of progress toward gender equality in the workplace.

When women are forced out of the workforce or into precarious employment due to caregiving responsibilities, their economic contributions are diminished, leading to lower household incomes and increased reliance on social safety nets. This impacts the economic stability of families and communities. Moreover, the lack of support for caregivers perpetuates gender inequities, as women continue to bear the brunt of unpaid and underpaid care work.

When caregivers are financially secure, they can better support their own families, reducing the need for additional social services and contributing to overall community well-being. The experience of TPP participants in Colorado shows that direct cash transfers can reduce income volatility, decrease material hardships, and increase the quality of care provided to children.

The success of TPP provides a compelling case for policymakers and leaders to reform how our current systems compensate, and thus value, caregivers.

Direct cash transfers can reduce income volatility, decrease material hardships, and increase the quality of care provided to children.

Addressing the caregiving crisis requires a multifaceted approach that includes investing in affordable childcare, providing financial support and benefits to caregivers, and promoting policies that enable work-life balance. Programs like TPP demonstrate the positive impact of such investments, highlighting the need for continued efforts to support caregivers and ensure their economic well-being.

By recognizing and valuing the essential role of caregivers, we can create a more equitable society where women are not forced to choose between their careers and their caregiving responsibilities. Let us invest in those who care for our youngest and most vulnerable, ensuring that they too can thrive. 

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MacKenzie Fair is a senior program manager at Impact Charitable, specializing in program design and implementation. Fair holds a master's in international development with a focus on global health.