Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. Earlier this month, editors at The Washington Post Magazine asked me for a big policy idea that the Biden-Harris administration should tackle. As a new mother myself, juggling childcare and working from home during the pandemic, my response was to build an affordable national childcare system that engages the business community as well as federal state and local governments.
Since the pandemic began, hundreds of thousands of women have left the workforce, and the burden of childcare has fallen squarely on the shoulders of working women. These pressures have been exacerbated by race, social class, and even marital status. Last Tuesday, President Biden announced his plan to address the US childcare crisis for both the people who need childcare as well as the people who provide it.
Biden's proposal includes a $25 billion emergency stabilization fund that would help childcare centers that are hit hard by the pandemic stay afloat, as well as provide things like PPE and other resources. The plan also provides $15 billion to low-income families that need help affording childcare. For more on managing the childcare crisis we're facing is Lea Austin, director of the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment at UC Berkeley. Lea, welcome to the show.
Lea Austin: Hi, thanks for having me.
Tanzina: My call for a national childcare system, would you say that that's kind of what we need or am I just off-base there?
Lea: You are totally on-base. That is absolutely what we need.
Tanzina: I mean, to me, the issue is one that really presents a question of inequity within the childcare system. What does our national childcare picture look like right now, Lea?
Lea: Well, you've really nailed it in talking about inequity. We don't have a comprehensive national childcare strategy right now. I mean, really the default strategy is to leave it to most families to figure it out. We have a system that was really under-resourced and really quite a frail system before the pandemic. What the pandemic has done to the child care system is really just in many ways bring the system to its knees. It's a system that was not working well, for most parents and children, access was limited, many people still didn't have access to childcare. From a parent's perspective, it's costly and expensive
On the other side, when we look at the people who are providing the services, most of whom are women, almost half of who are women of color. In states like my home state of California or in New York, most of the women providing services are women of color. This is a workforce that is consistently among the lowest-paid occupation in every state in this country. It's really been a broken system and the pandemic has just put more and more pressure on the system without the resources that are necessary.
Tanzania: Let's talk a little bit about what the pre-pandemic patchwork looked like. I was not in the childcare world before the pandemic started. I've now become a parent, and so I'm much more aware of the limitations, but what are we talking about when it comes to childcare? We're talking in-person, in-home, au pairs, daycare? What was the patchwork like prior, and about how much were Americans spending on childcare?
Lea: The patchwork was really all of those things. What a time for you to be entering parenthood and trying to manage all of this, right?
Tanzina: Tell me about
Lea: Parents are trying to put together childcare in whatever ways they can. In our work at the center I work with, we tend to focus on the formal childcare system, but even that is complicated and is delivered in many different ways. You do have people who will, of course, are accessing individual providers, but many are utilizing center-based childcare, many are utilizing home-based or family childcare. These are people, again mostly women, who are operating businesses out of their home, group childcare.
Parents are footing most of the bill for childcare in this country. About 60% of childcare is paid for by parents to the tune of $40 plus billion a year, with the federal government and state and local government paying a little bit through some public pre-K programs. Head Start might be the one people most hear about, Head Start programs, and some childcare subsidies, but that really touches a small segment of the population of children and families who need it.
Those programs, with few exceptions, are not funded at a level that really brings the level of quality of care and services that children need and that support providers and the workforce. There's just not enough resources to make sure that the women doing this work are paid living wages.
There's really high levels of economic insecurity, and we see a lot of variation in a workforce that's struggling as a whole, that there are real racial disparities in terms of who's working where and being paid which wages, with Black women in particular being paid the lowest wages among the educators doing this work.
Tanzina: Lea, the pandemic has shut down a lot of our childcare options.
Lea: It has, and the pandemic has really, again, just brought this the system to its knees, and many programs have shut down because they simply could not afford to operate. One thing that's been interesting as we're talking across the country about reopening and schools developing reopening plans, and what is this going to look like, the childcare system for the most part, has actually remained open. There were very few places in the country that closed childcare when schools and everything else was closing. That actually put more pressure on childcare as schools were closed and parents were really desperate for options.
This is a system, and again women, who have been operating since day one of the pandemic. What's happened is, number one, there weren't enough resources before the pandemic, and it's just become harder as many parents weren't showing up with their children for childcare, so that's a loss of revenue into programs. It's become more expensive to deliver childcare, because you have to be operating with smaller groups, you have higher costs for cleaning and PPE and all of these things, that make it much more expensive to operate.
Tanzina: Lea, let's talk about what this pandemic has meant for people who need childcare. We know a record number of women have been pushed out of the workforce and some of that is because they don't have the childcare that they need.
Lea: That's right. Just to return to one point that's connected to that before the break. We have lost over 150,000 childcare jobs since the start of the pandemic. What that has translated to is, losing as many as 4.5 million childcare spaces that could potentially be a permanent loss of spaces and options for children and their families. There was not enough childcare pre-pandemic, so this is certainly exacerbating a very difficult situation. You're right, that this is impacting parents, particularly women. We've known for decades that a lack of childcare, either because it's just not even available to you or because it's too costly, has impacted mothers more than it has fathers.
Estimates pre-pandemic tell us that parents, mostly moms, were losing wages, between 30 and $35 billion a year, because they couldn't participate in work due to a lack of childcare. That has, again, just really crushed working moms during this pandemic. We've long had this situation that is really coming into focus now, where our childcare system or lack of comprehensive system in this country, has really pitted the needs of one group of women against another group of women.
You have working mothers who really need childcare. They need childcare to be available and they need it to be affordable, and the women providing the work, because they're relying on parents to pay most of childcare with the resources available to them, the money available for their wages and pay are always directly tied to the ability of a parent, and again of working mothers to pay.
Tanzina: This feels, Lea, a lot of this, and I think your point is exactly, as I'm listening to you. This tension between these two groups that exists, really feels like a failure, not on the part of the child care providers or the people who need child care, but more on our business and federal and state and local governments to not understand that if you have parents that are working, they need to put their children somewhere, especially when there are no school options available. What do you think Lea, are the failure of US childcare policy here? Also, this new proposal from the Biden administration, do you think that will help mitigate some of the tension you're talking about here?
Lea: Well, there's absolutely a failure of policy in terms of how policy is shaped and resourced. There's two things. President Biden has introduced a relief bill, which would provide some immediate resources and stabilization funds that are desperately needed for childcare programs, both so that parents can, again access with a childcare subsidy, access childcare, and that there are resources going into programs to pay their bills and to pay their staff.
That is an immediate need. It would absolutely help to provide some much-needed intervention and relief, and at the same time, we also have to be thinking long term. President Biden as a candidate introduced a plan for early care and education that really centers on the workforce, recognizing that early educators, the women providing services are the key, and ensuring that families have access. What I think we want to make sure we get right with any long term plan is having a program that is effective and equitable for children, for their families, and for the workforce.
Making sure we're looking at a system from each of those perspectives, in that parents can work, that they have access to childcare that is open and universal. That the women who are doing this work are paid a living wage, and that they're able to take care of and feed their own families.
Tanzina: Lea, I want to ask you where you think the business community needs to fit in here, because a lot of people are doing this work, are working for companies, not necessarily just for themselves. Shouldn't it be, at some point, incumbent upon the business community to understand that childcare is a necessity for their employees, not a luxury?
Lea: Absolutely. I think that the business community can play a really key role in helping to push for a publicly funded childcare system. I think that the business community in the pandemic has really recognized just how important childcare is, as families have had to make choices about leaving jobs, reducing hours, moving things around on a daily basis in some cases to try and get to work.
I think there is a real recognition that wasn't there before the pandemic, and if there's any silver lining, we can find as it relates to childcare, perhaps that's it. I do think that the responsibility of businesses is to push for that publicly funded system. I think if we lean on businesses to pay for it just for their employees, then we're just bringing more inequity into an already inequitable system, with some businesses that are bigger and have more revenue and resources doing one thing for their employees, and other businesses not able to do that. I think there are ways we can look at our tax system and raising revenue for that publicly funded system.
Tanzina: Lea, finally, in my piece in The Washington Post Magazine, I called for a national childcare system. Do you see that even being possible, maybe not under this administration, but sometime in the future?
Lea: I do see it as being possible and I think that the Biden-Harris administration can lead the charge on that. I think they have a real commitment to an early care and education system. The devil's in the details, but I think that there was a recognition of how important this is. Other countries have done it. There is absolutely, I think, the will to do so, and we can have a system that is working for children, for their families, and for the women who do this every day.
Tanzina: Lea Austin is the director of the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment at UC Berkeley. Lea, thank you so much for joining us.
Lea: Thanks for having me.
Christie: Hi, this is Christie in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I think that moms are an underrepresented part of society that are taking an extra hit, because a lot of us have had to quit work or we're trying to work and homeschool our kids, feed our kids, everything having to do with our kids. For example, my child has been diagnosed with dyslexia. He's nine, in third grade. Now I'm having to be a special education teacher on top of everything else. Just the amount of work, it's invisible work that mothers do.
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