The economy has recovered all of the jobs that were lost during the pandemic, but the childcare sector is still lagging. There were 57,600 fewer childcare workers in January of this year than in February 2020, even as the number of children needing care grew. Childcare employment is 5.5 percent lower than it was before many centers closed in February 2020 and others scrambled to stay open for the children of essential workers.
The strain proved too much for many providers. According to Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit research organization that advocates for childcare investment, from December 2019 to March 2021, nearly 16,000 centers or family-based programs shuttered, about 10 percent of the pre-pandemic supply.
The childcare providers that have managed to stay open are struggling, desperately trying to hire enough workers. Many of the staff left to preserve their own health—childcare workers experienced an elevated Covid death rate in 2020, in contrast to pre-K and K-12 teachers, whose death rate was slightly lower than average. Many childcare workers haven’t returned, thanks to poverty-level wages that even McDonald’s and Target can best. Childcare providers perform important and demanding work while earning about $13 an hour.
Because of laws that require a certain ratio of childcare workers to young kids, staff shortages prevent many providers from legally accepting all of the children whose parents need help. Some centers can’t stay open at all. Add to that the “tripledemic” of Covid, respiratory syncytial virus, and flu, which continues to create childcare disruptions long after the country has decided to move on from a pandemic mindset.
All of these problems are holding parents back from working. The number of employed people who had to miss work because of problems with childcare hit a record 104,000 in October, and it remains higher than it was before the pandemic. In a December survey of more than 800 working parents with children age 3 or younger by the Council for a Strong America, half of the respondents said they had missed part of a work shift due to childcare challenges, and nearly two-thirds had to arrive late or leave early. A quarter quit their jobs altogether.
But the childcare system has long been broken. In 2018, childcare was unaffordable everywhere, consuming between 8 percent and 20 percent of a median family’s income. And that’s for families who could find openings—more than half of Americans live in childcare deserts, where there are either no providers or so few that there are more than three kids for each available spot.
The supply of childcare was already declining before the pandemic. The numbers often don’t add up: Providers must rely on how much families can afford to pay or how much the government is willing to subsidize them, which is often far less than the fixed costs of providing quality care. Many just can’t make the finances work.
When childcare is unaffordable or unavailable, people can’t get to work, and it’s mainly mothers who are held back. A 10 percent increase in median childcare prices in a given county is associated with a one-percentage-point lower maternal employment rate. The rising cost of care since the 1990s has lowered the employment rate among women with children under 5 by 13 percent. In 2016, problems finding or holding on to childcare led nearly 2 million parents of young children to quit, refuse job offers, or change their jobs. On the other hand, universal preschool in Washington, D.C., which enrolled about 90 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds and 70 percent of 3-year-olds as of 2017, increased mothers’ labor-force participation by 10 percentage points.
Things clearly got much worse during the pandemic. The Council for a Strong America calculated that in 2018, because of lower productivity, lost earnings, lower employer revenues, and diminished tax revenues, the childcare crisis cost the economy $57 billion. That estimate has since ballooned to $122 billion.
The federal funding to stabilize the childcare sector included in the American Rescue Plan is dwindling, and after childcare investment was stripped from the Democrats’ reconciliation package last year, it’s not likely that other money will follow. Without additional government funding that would enable providers to be paid what it costs to offer quality care without nearly bankrupting American families, the system will only fall further into crisis.