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Kristel England-Keefe has helped literally hundreds of families find child care over the last three years in her role as a referral specialist with a nonprofit organization that serves Sonoma County, California. But when she and her husband have tried to find care for their own two boys, they’ve struggled.
Both parents are college graduates. Both have jobs. But England-Keefe says that putting the two kids in child care at the same time would cost at least $2,000 a month and probably a lot more. As it is, she says, they can barely cover rent in their two-bedroom apartment, which has no washer-dryer, no air-conditioning and sits just above a noisy street next to a fire station in the city of Santa Rosa.
Their makeshift child care solution is sending the older boy, who is four, to preschool. There, he gets the kind of activity and outdoor time he can’t in the apartment building. But keeping him at preschool all day would be too expensive, so England-Keefe drops him off on her way to work and picks him up on her lunch break to drive him home, where her husband has been watching the younger boy, who is two, since morning.
A few hours later, at around 4:30 p.m., England-Keefe finishes work, drives home again and takes over watching the kids so her husband can go to his job auditing tables at a casino. His shift ends at 2:30 a.m., which means he gets only a few hours of sleep before the 2-year-old is awake and the cycle begins again.
When England-Keefe and her husband get a day off together, they frequently spend the time taking turns sleeping. “We are not married … we are housemates,” she quips. “Our entire family is in a constant sense of stress.”
If they could find more affordable child care, England-Keefe says, they could get a little time every day to recharge. Or maybe her husband, who has trained as an emergency medical technician, could go back to school and get a nursing degree ― and the much better pay it would bring. “We would just be a family and work on our relationships or work on our economic status, or really work on anything,” she says.
Finding good child care is a struggle all over the U.S.
Stories like England-Keefe’s are pretty common in the U.S. For two-parent families, the average cost of child care for each child works out to about 10 percent of income, according to Child Care Aware of America, which has been compiling these figures for more than a decade. But that figure disguises a lot of variation. The cost burden can be absolutely crushing for parents who live in high-cost areas, have lower incomes or are paying for more than one child at a time.
In Mississippi, for example, the average cost for accredited infant care is $5,300 per year. That’s about 7 percent of median income for a couple in that state. But in California, the average cost is $16,000 a year, or 18.6 percent of a couple’s income.
For single-parent households, the burden is a lot higher because household income tends to be a lot lower. In California, that $16,000 for infant care represents a whopping 60.4 percent of a single parent’s income, on average. And, again, that’s for just one child.
This problem is almost uniquely American. In France, Sweden and pretty much any other economically advanced country, the government finances extensive child care programs. The systems don’t work perfectly, but the reality is that working families in those countries can usually find high-quality care for their children at prices they can afford.
In the U.S., working parents seeking help with child care must rely on a patchwork of relatively modest federal, state and local initiatives. Some families find their way to programs like Early Head Start, which has a heavy focus on child development and is available at no cost. But only low-income families are eligible and, even for them, slots are extremely limited.
In Texas, more than 46,000 low-income children were on a waiting list for subsidized child care as of last September, according to a report in the Texas Tribune. That number was actually 38 percent lower than earlier in the year, thanks to new federal funds that became available, and experts think it still represents just a fraction of the families that would be eligible if they applied.
The consequences of unaffordable child care are particularly perverse for women, who frequently end up with primary or sole responsibility for child-rearing. Some end up turning down jobs or promotion ― in some cases, because better-paying jobs require different, more expensive child care arrangements that they are unable to make. In other cases, it’s because higher income could mean they are no longer eligible for government programs that target the poor.
“For families who qualify for subsidies, many times a promotion and raise of even 20 cents an hour would push them over the income limit for programs and so they have to turn down these opportunities,” Lauren Hipp, senior campaign director at the advocacy group MomsRising, told HuffPost.
Many experts believe the lack of affordable child care in the U.S. is among the reasons that the percentage of women in the workforce has actually fallen slightly since the 1990s, while it is has risen in peer countries like Canada, Germany and Japan.
“This has important ramifications for their future work prospects, including their career path and earnings potential,” a trio of researchers concluded in a major 2017 report from the Economic Policy Institute. “Likewise mothers’ career paths and earnings have implications for family income levels and well-being and the economy as a whole.”
Not that the only effects are economic. Kids end up in poor-quality settings, the worst of which are downright hazardous. Parents like England-Keefe end up with complex, overwhelming arrangements that undermine the whole family’s well-being.
And the political system has paid only fleeting attention ― until now.
Child care is on its way to becoming a top-tier issue.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton introduced a proposal designed to make child care more affordable while simultaneously boosting its quality. A year later, a group of Democratic senators led by Patty Murray, from Washington state, wrote and formally proposed legislation to do the same thing. And just last month, Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator running for president, unveiled a major child care initiative of her own.
At the moment, the odds of any of these proposals becoming law are low. In theory, child care isn’t a partisan issue. In practice, the most serious initiatives require some combination of new spending and new regulation, two things the Republicans who have run Washington for the past few years generally oppose.
But Murray and her allies, including her counterpart in the House, Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott, have been working to shore up support for their measure. Warren’s proposal could give the issue a much higher public profile — because she made it the first major spending proposal of her campaign, and because the size of the investment she has proposed works out to something like four or five times what the federal government already spends on existing early childhood programs.
There is even action at the state level. Lawmakers in both Massachusetts and Washington are pushing legislation that would create a universal child care program. Newly elected governors in California and New Mexico have said guaranteeing access to affordable child care is atop their agendas, though they’ve yet to specify how they would do that on a permanent basis.
Only twice before in U.S. history has child care gotten this kind of political attention. One time was during World War II, when the U.S. needed women to build the war machine. Stories of moms leaving young children sleeping in the back seats of cars parked outside factories helped prompt the federal government to set up and run child care centers all across the country.
The arrangement worked well for parents and kids alike. Research later showed that the families ended up with higher incomes, while the kids did better in school. But after the war, Congress let the program lapse, in no small part because many lawmakers wanted men back in the factories and women back at home.
Not that all women were stay-at-home parents. Mothers in lower-income families frequently had to work just to keep food on the table, and finding child care was a struggle. But by the 1960s and ’70s, they had a lot more company, as traditional gender roles started to break down and more women gained access to the workplace.
This created a new demand for child care, and for a brief moment, it looked like the federal government would respond. Congress passed a bipartisan bill to create a universal care program in 1971 ― only to have then-President Richard Nixon veto it because, he said, government provision of child care would weaken families and move the U.S. closer to communism.
Although not everybody in Washington saw child care as such a fundamental threat to the American way of life, there weren’t many lawmakers terribly interested in tackling the issue, either. More often than not, they treated child care as a “woman’s issue.” And without many women in government, that was just another way of dismissing it altogether.
It’s by no means coincidental that it was Clinton, the first woman to be a major party nominee, or Warren, who has spoken frequently about the challenges she faced as a working mother, who made ambitious child care proposals cornerstones of their campaigns ― or that it is Murray, a former preschool teacher and working mom, who keeps pushing for child care to be a top priority for Democrats in the Senate.
Another reason the issue is getting new attention is a surge of grassroots support, not just from unions like the Service Employees International Union, which has long talked about child care, but also newer organizations like MomsRising and the United Parent Leaders Action Network, or UPLAN. These groups rally members through social media and turn out working parents to appear at rallies ― in many cases with their young children in tow.
Child care is too expensive — and yet not expensive enough.
A major challenge of the child care crisis is that it is really two problems, quality and cost, that are difficult to address simultaneously.
Definitive data on the quality of child care is difficult to find, but one of the most comprehensive studies to date, a major federal research project from 2006, found that the majority of child care in the U.S. was mediocre or poor. Only 10 percent was considered high-quality. A newer set of studies by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., determined that just over half of all American families live in a “child care desert,” which researchers defined as census tracts with either no licensed child care providers or less than one slot for every three kids.
Parents “may settle for a child care setting that doesn’t feel as safe to them, or end up on really a long commute from their home because that is the only care they can get,” Erin Moore, national organizer for UPLAN, says. “People are resilient, find workarounds, but it’s not a good situation.”
Quality child care does exist in some places. The models that experts most frequently praise are Head Start and the system that the U.S. Department of Defense created for military families once the Pentagon realized that a lack of child care was hurting troop morale and causing some families to leave the military altogether.
The care in those models earns praise because it adheres to high standards. Head Start has a detailed curriculum and requires its educators to get extensive training. Nearly all military child care providers must meet guidelines set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children that cover everything from safety to worker-to-child ratios.
It costs a lot of money to run programs like these, in no small part because it requires paying child care workers a lot more to attract and retain talented employees. Today, child care workers typically make less than $11 an hour, according to official government statistics. Even parking lot attendants earn more than that.
But child care is already so expensive for families that any effort to drive up quality is likely to make it even more unaffordable ― unless, of course, the government also spends a great deal more money.
This is precisely what promoters of these new plans have in mind. The Murray and Warren proposals differ in some important specifics, but their basic approach is the same. Both would spend a great deal more money on child care. Families could get this care by going through either large centers or in-home providers, as long as those live up to the kinds of high standards that Head Start and military child care are supposed to meet.
Like all policy proposals, these proposed initiatives have drawn some criticism. Some of it has come from progressive writers like Kathleen Geier, who, although supportive in general, thinks the proposals should go farther and make child care absolutely free. (Both the Murray and Warren proposals envision some families paying fees, depending on income.) Matt Bruenig, founder of the progressive People’s Policy Project, feels similarly ― but also says the government should do more to help stay-at-home parents.
Others are more skeptical of the whole approach, arguing that the new quality standards would simply drive up the cost of child care without actually improving quality. The Trump administration just put out a report making that point. Murray, Warren and others promoting these plans will need to address these criticisms and, perhaps, adapt their proposals to win support.
But ultimately, the biggest dispute over any major child care initiative would likely be about the dollars involved. The leading proposals all envision increasing federal spending on early childhood by three, four or even five times, depending on the details, and that’s more than some lawmakers would want to spend.
Advocates of these plans already have a clear, firm response to that concern: They say the investment is worth it.
“I have talked to so many people who cannot afford child care,“ Murray told HuffPost recently. “They are not going to work, they have quit their job, they have turned down promotions. … or they are putting their child in a setting where their child doesn’t get the kind of care they should. Every one of those has a cost ― to the family itself, to the community, to the businesses, to our country’s future.”
England-Keefe knows all about this. She’s seen it happen, at work and in her own life. At one point, she says, she and her husband thought briefly about separating just so their household income would change and qualify them for subsidies. They dismissed the idea, even though England-Keefe says she understands why other couples might do it.
“No one wants to work the system,” she adds. “We just want a system that works.”