The key to happy, healthy homes? Universal child care

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, people in power—the primarily white male business leaders and policymakers who set the standards, policies, and cultural norms for the rest of us—didn’t think much about home. It was a man’s castle. One’s private domain. What went on in the home, to them, was an […]

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, people in power—the primarily white male business leaders and policymakers who set the standards, policies, and cultural norms for the rest of us—didn’t think much about home. It was a man’s castle. One’s private domain. What went on in the home, to them, was an oasis of family and leisure, separate from the vital workings of the economy. Economists even had a name for it: separate spheres (PDF). Men specialized in the sphere of paid work. Women were responsible for the unpaid domestic labor of home.

But once the pandemic hit, those power brokers, along with everyone else, were forced to reckon with what women and caregivers have known for ages: There are no separate spheres. At least not for women.

The majority of women and mothers work outside the home, contributing an estimated $7 trillion to the economy every year—more than the entire GDP of other advanced nations. About 40% of mothers are breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. And the majority of children are being raised in families where all parents work. Yet when the schools and childcare facilities shut down in the pandemic, without a second thought, it was women who took on the bulk of schooling and caregiving at home. That impossible task—combining work and care at one in the same time—contributed to more than 2.3 million women (PDF) being forced out of paid work in order to do the unpaid work of care at home—a phenomenon that may set women’s economic gains back a generation and cost as much as $1 trillion globally in the coming years.

The pandemic sharply revealed to the wider world that the care work of the domestic sphere of home, much like roads, bridges, libraries, and fire departments, is actually part of the critical infrastructure that makes the economy go. And that, for most families with young children, having a stable home—or even being able to afford one—requires stable childcare. Activist Ai-Jen Poo calls it a “Care Awakening” that has junked the outdated separate spheres ideology and completely redefined the way we think of care and home.

Now, the question is, what are we going to do about it? Canada just committed $30 billion Canadian ($23.9 billion U.S.) to create a high-quality, universal early care and learning system in the next five years. It’s time for the United States to not only catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to supporting families and home, it must go farther.

A vision of the future

Imagine for a moment: After months of excellent prenatal care, you and your partner have at least three months of paid leave each to recover physically, get the hang of breastfeeding, bond and set your new family dynamics. (Solo parents have a longer paid leave.) You have plenty of time to find high-quality childcare that will be open when you need it and close to work or home. The care is easy to find—perhaps there’s a local or regional quasi-governmental authority that connects you to a network of all the stable, well-funded options in your area—public, private, faith-based, center-based, in home. You aren’t worried, because you know any option will be excellent; the child care workers and early care and learning teachers are well-trained and well-paid.

You don’t worry about straining the family budget, because none of the options will cost more than 7% of your family income, the benchmark set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as affordable, or, if you’re living in poverty, it won’t cost you anything. And if you choose to stay home to care for your child yourself for a while, you receive a cash stipend and later, help transitioning back into now-enlightened workplaces where flexible work and flexible career trajectories for all workers are the new norm. (Remember, we’re dreaming here.)

You don’t feel guilt, blame, or stress because you live in a country that values care and family well-being and where investing in universal high-quality childcare is seen as a child’s right and a public good.

The reality

Now, let’s pause a moment. If you’ve ever had children in the United States and known the heartache of having to leave an infant a few weeks after birth to go back to work, or known the sheer terror of scrambling to find, much less afford, quality childcare, you know that this rosy picture is the polar opposite of your stressed-out, financially strained, time-starved and jury-rigged reality. With no national paid family medical leave policy, only 20% (PDF) of private sector workers have paid leave to care for loved ones. One in four mothers returns to work within two weeks, most of whom earn low wages.

Quality care is hard to find. Some families put their names on endless waiting lists before they even get pregnant. Others pay full price for slots before their children are even born. Quality care is also difficult to afford. We don’t expect parents to pay the $12,000 per child cost of K-12 public education. Yet we expect parents to cover the bulk of 0 to 4 early care and learning. Parents cover about 60% (PDF) of the cost of the entire patchwork childcare system, the federal government about 40% in subsidies to the very poor, and businesses and philanthropy less than 4%.

The cost of childcare is high and rising, costing as much as or more than housing in many states. Infant care costs more than in-state college in more than 30 states. The average cost of center-based childcare, about $9,000, would eat up two-thirds of the income of a minimum-wage worker working full-time, and is what drives many women out of the workforce. And despite the high cost to families, childcare workers, who are disproportionately women of color, earn poverty wages and most providers operate on razor-thin margins.

Before the pandemic, the high cost of childcare was already shaping the future of families and their homes. In fact, in one survey, young adults chose “childcare is too expensive” as the top reason why they expected to have fewer children than they’d like. And a recent Freddie Mac study found that rising childcare costs—up 49% in the last 25 years—is one of the major obstacles keeping young families from buying a home. The median cost of childcare, they found, eats up about half a median mortgage payment and nearly 80% of the median rent payment. For families living on the margins, a lack of stable childcare keeps parents from working, which can lead to housing instability, evictions, or worse. And that instability in quality care and housing has enormous negative consequences (PDF) for child development.

[Source photo: IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock]

A failed attempt at universal childcare

Still, the aspirational vision for a universal childcare and early learning program has been around for a while. And it hasn’t always sounded like a pipe dream. During World War II, the federal government, through the Lanham Act, spent millions to set up on-site childcare centers in all states but New Mexico, so Rosie the Riveter could go to work. In the early 1970s, national surveys found that a majority of people in America supported the idea of using public dollars to create a high-quality universal childcare system. Building on that momentum, Congress passed a bipartisan bill that would’ve funded a network of locally administered affordable, high-quality child care options available to all families on a sliding scale.

In both cases, the idea faded. Men came home from war in need of work, and the U.S. government shut down the Lanham Centers and instead funded propaganda films to get women to return home. And in the 1970s, a particularly toxic mixture of racism, sexism, and Cold War hysteria quashed the idea. Though president Richard M. Nixon had vowed to sign the childcare bill, an up-and-coming right-wing firebrand on his staff, Pat Buchanan, convinced him to veto it instead. Conservative columnists had been warning that universal childcare would lead to “race mixing.” And in the veto message Buchanan said there was not only no “immediate need” for universal childcare, but warned that, like dreaded communism, it would put the “vast moral authority” of the government on the side of “communal approaches” to child-rearing. In other words, Buchanan worried it would upend the neat and tidy world of separate spheres that, outside of white largely middle and upper middle-class families in the Leave it to Beaver 1950s, no one else in the United States has really ever lived in.

When I interviewed Buchanan a few years ago, he proudly said that his goal was not only to kill the bill, but to kill the very idea of childcare in America. Because, he said, every mother should be home with cake or pie at 3 p.m. when children get home from school. That view still holds sway. In recent weeks, the Republican-controlled state legislature in Idaho rejected $6 million in federal funds to improve access to early care and learning, because, one argued, it would make it more convenient for mothers to work rather than care for their children at home. “We are really hurting the family unit,” said Republican Representative Charlie Shepherd.

In fact, the General Social Survey still picks up the strong pull of the separate spheres ideology of work and home. Though nowhere near the high of 66% in 1977, nearly one-third of Americans surveyed in 2018 said preschool children suffer when their mothers work.

The most efficient system

For 50 years, other advanced economies invested in childcare and policies to support working families—yes, in Sweden families pay no more than 3% of their income, or at most $160 a month for childcare. But here, Buchanan’s narrow vision that family is a private matter has dominated: Outside a stingy safety net for the very poor, government should play no role in supporting families, and women belong at home raising children. For years, that constrained view meant advocates worked diligently to essentially tinker at the margins of an anemic and dysfunctional childcare subsidy system that has only ever covered one in six eligible children (PDF). Buchanan, who never had children, said he wasn’t opposed to women working. “But if you want me to pay for your childcare? No way, José,” he told me.

The vision of universal childcare, and what some economists like Nancy Folbre call the most efficient and therefore inevitable system, was revived most recently in then-Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 election. She unveiled her plan at a child development center and told her own story of nearly quitting her job as a law professor when her two children were young because she couldn’t find stable childcare. Her proposal would’ve cost about $70 billion a year, one analysis found (PDF). Critics were quick to call her plan too expensive and misguided. Parents, advocates, and the childcare community cheered. And the idea that the childcare system is broken and that that costs all of us—in lost productivity and lost opportunity—finally started getting sustained attention in the mainstream media. Yet the idea didn’t seem to gain much real traction.

That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic. Crises, the historian Patrick Wyman has said, reveal what is already broken or in the process of breaking. And with schools and childcare centers suddenly closed down, the broken, patchwork childcare system and the instability it creates for family and home, once invisible to all but those who had to navigate it, has taken center stage. Children wander in and out of Zoom meetings or, as in the case of Dreama James, a fast food worker in Georgia and A Better Balance community advocate, tag along to the worksite because parents have no other options. The lack of childcare has also taken on a new urgency, as women, in particular, have taken on the brunt of care and homeschooling and have been forced out of the workforce in what the U.S. Census Bureau calls “extraordinary numbers” – 1.6 million fewer women were working in January 2021 than in the same month the year before.

In the space of one year, virtually everything that Pat Buchanan and like-minded policymakers said was impossible or impractical has become not only possible but imperative. Congress passed emergency temporary paid leave for some parents, emergency paid sick days for some workers, boosted unemployment assistance, paid out stimulus checks and, most recently, voted to expand the child tax credit and infuse a total of $50 billion to shore up the faltering childcare system ravaged by pandemic closures. Democratic President Joe Biden, a man who knows what it’s like to be a single father managing work and care, unveiled a plan this week to invest more in families, the care economy, and care infrastructure. Calling Biden’s American Families Plan a “generational opportunity” to transform the broken landscape of home and care, lawmakers, including Warren, are asking for $700 billion (PDF) over the next 10 years. The rate of return on the investment, they argue, would more than pay for the cost: more women would be able to work, the gender gap would narrow, and women’s lifetime earnings would rise nearly $100,000.

Businesses hammered by childcare disruptions during the pandemic are realizing that investing and supporting public investment in childcare is a smart business strategy, one researcher at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation told me.

And parents themselves are beginning to change their expectations. “People have shifted from, ‘This is my personal problem and I’m embarrassed about it,’ to ‘This economy is failing me, and I’m going to expose it,’” Wendy Chun-Hoon, now director of the Women’s Bureau in the Biden Administration, told me last fall. Parent activism, spurred by the pain of the pandemic and enabled by technology, has exploded. In October, so many volunteers turned out to help the advocacy group MomsRising reach voting mothers that the organization met its goal of sending texts to three million low-frequency voting moms in one day, and upped the goal to 20 million. “There is a movement rising,” said Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and CEO of MomsRising, “and an understanding that we need structural change.”

One size fits all?

As much as conservatives like Pat Buchanan feared a one-size-fits all, impersonal factory model of childcare, it’s important to remember parents don’t want that, either. And that what parents want is likely to change as their children grow. In a recent survey (PDF) by the Bipartisan Policy Center, 27% of parents said center-based care would be their ideal childcare arrangement, 10% said a family home-care setting, 9% said a relative. And about one in five—22%—said they’d prefer to take care of their child themselves. So start making this structural change by first asking parents what they need, and building from there, including stipends for those who’d prefer to provide care themselves. “The goal should be [that] every family gets access to the kind of care they want and need for their children, staffed by people who are well compensated for their work,” said Elliot Haspel, author of Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It. “There’s this wildly pluralistic view in this classic American fashion that we don’t all want one thing.”

But I would argue we do all want what’s best for our children. We all want stress-free, healthy, happy homes. And the opportunity for all people to live fully and well in both spheres of work and home.

Brigid Schulte is director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time (Picador). 

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