Child care in the time of corona

Times Standard (Eureka) - - OPINION - By Martha Burk Martha Burk (@MarthaBurk) is the di­rec­tor of the Cor­po­rate Ac­count­abil­ity Project for the Na­tional Coun­cil of Women’s Or­ga­ni­za­tions (NCWO). This op-ed was dis­trib­uted by OtherWords.org.

Child care in the time of coro­n­avirus 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 — strug­gled with child care even in nor­mal times, re­gard­less of their in­comes. 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.

And with kids at home, many two-par­ent fam­i­lies are find­ing that they need one par­ent to drop out of work to take up the slack at home. Fi­nan­cial sense dic­tates that it be the lower earner — which, thanks to the gen­der pay gap, is usu­ally women.

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.

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 early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion are viewed as pub­lic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, with na­tional child care pro­vided at no cost to fam­i­lies. For ex­am­ple, al­most 100 per­cent of French 3-5 year-olds are en­rolled in full-day, free care, staffed by teach­ers paid good wages by one na­tional min­istry.

In con­trast to other parts of the world, in the U.S., the 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 even pub­lic schools were 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.

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.

Congress has ap­pro­pri­ated lit­er­ally tril­lions to keep busi­nesses afloat in a post-corona econ­omy. Are fam­i­lies less im­por­tant?

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