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Child Care Should Be Free

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“When I found out I was pregnant again, the first person I told was my husband,” a friend recently half-joked, “and the second was my kid’s child care director so we could get on the waiting list.” Finding child care has become an increasingly fraught and desperate exercise. My wife and I were lucky; we were frantically casting about after her cancer diagnosis, and a high-quality center nearby had a part-time opening for our daughter. It was a close call — our city, Richmond, Virginia, faces a major child care shortage and was rocked a few years back when two 75-year-old child care institutions announced their closures.

Alissa and Jacob Swartz weren’t so lucky. The couple lives in Santa Barbara, California, where, as Alissa puts it, “There is a significant lack of quality infant child care. You have to sign up right when you get pregnant, and you're still not guaranteed to be able to find a spot. Preschool registration lists fill up years in advance.” Alissa recounts that when Oliver, their second son, was born, “We ended up selecting a college-aged nanny at first because she was affordable and we didn't get a spot in an infant center. The stress that she caused us was incalculable, because she was inconsistent and unreliable. I missed work or had to balance the baby and work at the same time. But we couldn't afford a more expensive nanny and didn't have another place to send him!” Eventually, after months of anxiety, they managed to get Oliver into a home-based daycare.

Richmond and Santa Barbara are not the exception. They are, disturbingly, the rule.

A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that roughly half of Americans live in “child care deserts.” These are defined as census tracts with at least 50 children where there is either no formal child care provider (center, home-based care, church, etc.) or where there are more than three children for every one available slot. A different study by Harvard’s School of Public Health found that roughly two-thirds of parents report having “only one” or “just a few” viable child care options. Given that fully two-thirds of families with young children have all available parents working, this is nothing short of a crisis. Child care deserts exist in urban, suburban, and rural settings, red states and blue, and they cut across income levels.

The reason for child care deserts stares us in the face: child cares are increasingly expensive to run and parents are leaving because they can’t afford the fees, often $10,000 a year or more per child! For instance, half of Connecticut’s care providers that closed in 2017 reported it was due to an inability to stay solvent.

The answer? Give every family an annual Child Development Credit of $15,000 or so per child — quality child care costs more than the $11,000 we spend on average for K-12 students, after all — and let them use it on care during the birth-to-5 years period.

There’s simply not enough money in the system. Many parents are utterly tapped out and child care costs are decimating the ability to build wealth and savings.

While these days it may be difficult to envision large-scale change, remember that big societal shifts tend to occur in a state of “punctuated equilibrium,” to borrow a term from evolutionary biology: long periods of little-to-no change followed by spikes of massive change. A good example: American enrollment in high schools.

From 1910 to 1940, the percentage of American teenagers enrolled in high school leapt from 18 percent to 71 percent. This was a tectonic shift in the very structure, rhythm, and expectations of American life, and it happened in a generation.

Child cares fees are often $10,000 a year or more per child — out of the realm of possibility for many families. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Those with an undying belief in market forces might cry out, “the market will respond to child care needs; exceptionally high demand should lead to an huge increase in supply!” They’re wrong. Supply and demand are not working here. The number of new providers, already unable to keep up with demand over the past half-century, began to plateau starting in 2007, per Census data. Nowadays, centers are actually closing at an increasingly rapid rate. Connecticut saw a 226 percent increase in the number of closures just from 2015 (67 closures) to 2017 (219 closures). Oklahoma lost more than 40 percent of its centers and home-based care providers from 2005 to 2017, a loss of 21,000 slots during a time period when the state’s young child population increased by 17,000 kids.

The reason behind this? There’s simply not enough money in the system. Many parents are utterly tapped out and child care costs are decimating the ability to build wealth and savings. Providers have cut teachers’ wages to the bone; the average center teacher, responsible for a critical developmental period when children are literally making a million neural connections per second, makes about as much per hour as a parking lot attendant.

But if we embraced Child Development Credits, which might seem radical on its face, it would be echoing earlier huge positive changes in this country, other prior examples of punctuated equilibrium. Take the GI Bill, which reshaped American higher education as the country emerged from World War II. By 1947, nearly half of college admissions belonged to veterans. Almost eight million WWII veterans went to college utilizing the GI Bill, in the process spurring the mass normalization of college and the strengthening of public universities and community colleges.

In this time of relative prosperity, what does it say about our country that while corporate profits soar, millions of families are being brought low by an inability to locate and afford quality child care?

How do we get to big, bold policy changes like the GI Bill or wildfire-like expansion of high schools? At the simplest level, the pressures — businesses’ need for better educated workers, society’s need to do something with 16 million returning soldiers — become too intense to patch with small bits of legislation or piecemeal funding.

Remember, these shifts proved expensive, and the government at different levels was footing the bill. The federal government shelled out over $100 billion in today’s dollars on the original GI Bill. Localities across the country raised taxes to fund their new high schools. Yet taxpayers were willing to help out, even if their children weren’t veterans or teens, because they understood the democratic and economic imperatives as well as the consequences of inaction. We’re still reaping the benefits of that willingness to broaden social support today.

The pressure is building again, and the center — the child care centers — won’t hold for much longer. In this time of relative prosperity, what does it say about our country that while corporate profits soar, millions of families are being brought low by an inability to locate and afford quality child care? We’ve reached a point where the care crisis is causing many couples to choose to — or, worse, have no choice but to — have less children. That’s a trend with negative implications for all of us.

Finding out a baby is on the way should be one of the greatest joys in life. We deserve a nation where the next conversation isn’t an anxiety-riddled question about child care, but one full of limitless dreams about the future.

Elliot Haspel works in education policy and has a Master’s in Education Policy & Management from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The Economic Hardship Reporting Project supported the development of this piece.