The growing support for a national program of high-quality affordable child care has reached new levels in recent months as political figures, including several declared 2020 presidential candidates have endorsed it and placed it on their agendas for the coming campaign. A powerful impetus for a publicly funded program of early child care has come from its success in New York City since its inception in 2014 (see previous posting on our website: A Study in Success: New York’s Pre-School Program.)
An indication of the movement of this issue from a back-burner wish-list item into the mainstream of American political life is the lead page one article in the Feb.10 Sunday Review section in the New York Times. The article by Katha Pollitt highlights the stark necessity for a national publicly funded program both from the point of view of working parents and the boon it would be to the national economy.
Child Care Now a National Family Crisis
The point has been reinforced many times in many sources familiar with the child care issue, which has now taken on the dimension of a nationwide family crisis. Most recently, a New York Times article based upon interviews with families around the country (8/17/19) details the strain that the cost of child care presents to the middle-class. It is a problem that now extends to millions of American families who must rely on two incomes, both husband and wife, to keep the family from slipping into poverty. According to the Economic Policy Institute, child care for these families is now one of the biggest expenses they face, costing thousands of dollars annually, ranging from $5,400 in Mississippi to $24,000 in Washington, DC.
In one family in South Dakota, the mother of three children faced the stark choice of paying her student loan bills or paying $1,000 a month for child care. Her husband suffered a military injury that has rendered him physically incapable of working or caring for their 18-month-old. Keeping her job was a necessity so she had to pay for the child care. She elected to invoke forbearance on her student loan which allowed her to make only interest payments but other normal family expenses led to her falling behind on these payments. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service this year took her entire $8,000 tax refund, money the family was counting on to replace their car that had broken down.
For Jobs that Need High Levels of Training – Near Poverty Wages
Another mother in Connecticut, who herself runs a child care center and has a master’s degree in early childhood special education and some two decades of experience working in child care has an annual salary of only $30,000. She gets by only because her 3-year-old attends her center but it reduces the number of children she can enroll. Her small salary for someone with her level of education reflects the pittance paid to professionals in the field where good child care should be entrusted only to people with high levels of education and training – all of which costs a lot of money to obtain. Her seven employees who care for the children earn only between $13.25 and $16.50 an hour. Nationwide the average hourly wage for early child care professionals, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is $11.11 an hour, barely a living wage.
Among the points Katha Pollitt makes in the February article cited above are:
“Child care is one of the biggest costs a family faces. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s state-by-state tables, in Alabama it’s $5,637 a year for an infant and an only slightly less daunting $4,871 for a 4-year-old. That’s 69 percent of the average rent and 33.7 percent less than the cost of in-state tuition at a four-year college…. West Virginia parents are worse off: For them, infant care, at $7,926, is 32 percent more than the cost of college. Pick a state at random and the results are no better. New York: $14,144, or double the cost of a year of college. Illinois: $12,964. California: $11,817. No wonder child care is affordable for only a small minority of families, meaning they pay 10 percent or less of their income for it.” She points out that families in Minnesota pay 17.8 percent of their income for child care, in Massachusetts they pay 18.7, in Georgia 37.7 percent. And that’s for just one child. Most families have more.
“Parents on tight budgets may be forced to seek informal, cheaper care. A neighbor offering in-home care might be a godsend — or she might just plunk her little charges in front of a TV, take in too many children or not know how to handle a medical emergency. The high cost of child care doesn’t even have the silver lining of providing decent jobs for child care workers, who are so poorly paid they may be eligible for food stamps. In most states, if child care workers have children of their own, their childcare costs would eat up half their pay or more.”
“When President Richard Nixon vetoed the 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act, he blasted it for committing ‘the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing in opposition to the family centered approach.’ That was the end for a bill that had passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, and it was the last time Congress took the issue seriously.
“Nearly a half-century later, times have changed. Working mothers of small children are the norm and hostility to them is, finally, ebbing.”
“It’s good for workers and employers, for communities and families and children. It would create lots of jobs. It would allow lots of people to go to work. It would raise incomes and relieve a lot of stress and unhappiness and give children a good start in life. “
Nearly 50 years after President Nixon’s veto, Pollitt writes, it’s time to put child care back on the top of the nation’s political agenda.