America’s child care crisis is an economic crisis

Opinion by Bryce Covert

(Originally published June 26, 2019, by The New York Times

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and other candidates finally take notice.

Child care is not something nice to have. It is a pressing crisis holding back the entire economy. Growth depends on more people working and working more productively. When parents who want to work can’t fully participate, America hurts only itself. Fortunately, many of the people running for president appear to have gotten the memo, making child care likely to be a topic during the Democratic debates.

Up until the 2000s, American women steadily marched into paid employment, mainly women with children. Our economy would be 11 percent smaller if they hadn’t. But since then they’ve started to fall away. A main culprit: the high cost of care. Labor force participation is today 19 percent lower for women with children than for comparable women who do not have children.

Child care is particularly expensive in this country. In the United States, it easily reaches tens of thousands of dollars a year, often taking up more of a family’s budget than food or even housing. It consumes a larger share of a couple’s income in the United States than in all but two developed countries, New Zealand and Britain. The rising cost of child care since the 1990s has dampened women’s employment in the United States by 5 percent overall and by 13 percent for those with kids under five. Almost two million parents report quitting a job, not taking a job or significantly changing one because of problems with care.

What’s the solution? According to many of the Democratic candidates, it’s universal relief. Under Elizabeth Warren’s plan, the federal government would offer money to states and local communities to expand child care. It would be free for many lower-income families and capped at 7 percent of income for all others. Three other candidates — Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Eric Swalwell — also supportuniversal child care, according to Vox, although through congressional Democrats’ more complicated bill to bolster the availability and affordability of child care and preschool. Bernie Sanders has long called for universal child care but hasn’t put forward a plan for it since 2011.

Investing in universal care can pay off. Quebec instituted low-cost, universal child care in 1996. Since then, the share of working women aged 26 to 44 in the province has come close to 85 percent, the highest in the world. It increased 16 percent for mothers of children 5 or younger, compared with just 4 percent in the rest of the country.

We also have experience here at home. During World War II, when the government ran a nationwide network of day care centers so that women could work in factories, those who used them were more likely to work and to work longer. In a smaller-scale experiment, Washington, D.C., began offering parents free, universal preschool in 2009; the program increased the share of women in the city’s labor force by 10 percentage points.

Other candidates back more incremental ways to address child care. Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bennet and Seth Moulton want to increase tax credits to help ease the cost. Julián Castro, Bill de Blasio, Andrew Yang and Cory Booker are fans of universal preschool, which helps solve the problem for parents of older children.

Child care has even caught Republicans’ attention. In his most recent budget proposal, President Trump included a $1 billion one-time investment that would require states to compete against one another for the money by pledging to reduce regulations on child care. But too much regulation is not the cause of our problem. In 2013, no states got a top grade for their health and safety standards. Few states regulate whether care is enriching or developmentally appropriate, and many allow staff-to-toddler ratios of 1:10 or higher.

Regulation and safety are just one part of the picture. Child care is a three-legged stool: A functioning system that would support parents and providers requires investing in affordability, accessibility and high quality. Just over half of American families live in places where there are either three times as many children as available child care spots or no spots at all. For those who can find one, it means little if they can’t afford it or if the care is so shoddy that they can’t trust it.

If a child care proposal focuses only on bolstering one leg, the others will grow weaker under the pressure. More child care spots won’t necessarily mean parents can afford them. More money for parents won’t help address quality or access. Even Ms. Warren’s plan, the most comprehensive offered so far, doesn’t fix all of these pieces. While her staff says states and cities would get incentives to expand slots, there is no guarantee that enough child care spaces would be created to meet the country’s need.

Those who want to lead the country have finally realized child care is something they must address. Only a bold, comprehensive solution will end this economic crisis once and for all.

Bryce Covert is a contributor at The Nation and a contributing opinion writer.