Graphic via Tania Lili
Graphic via Tania Lili

Millions of parents have been forced to navigate a broken childcare system that’s both financially inaccessible for many families, and offers low wages to its workers.

Eliyanna Kaiser, a Manhattan-based mother, has twin boys who were both diagnosed with autism at the age of two. They’re now seven, but Kaiser hasn’t been able to return to work full time since they were born because qualified, affordable child care has been difficult to find. Although the boys were at school every day before the pandemic, she still had to be available to pick them up at 2 p.m.  

Compounding her search for someone to care for her kids is the additional burden of needing a provider trained in working with developmentally disabled children. Because the boys had functional communication issues when they were younger, it was hard for them to express what they needed. 

“Once in a blue moon,” Kaiser said, “we were able to hire … an occupational therapist, speech therapist, someone like that who really could handle it because they were familiar with children with autism.” Specialized care, however, is more expensive. 

Kaiser is one of millions of parents who have been forced to navigate a broken childcare system that’s both financially inaccessible for many families (because it’s a private industry), and offers exploitative wages to its workers. As Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden has introduced a plan to address this crisis by making child care affordable for all families, making preschool universal, and increasing wages for all caregivers.

“Biden believes that if we truly want to reward work in this country, we have to ease the financial burden of care that families are carrying,” his campaign states, “and we have to elevate the compensation, benefits, training and education opportunities for certification, and dignity of caregiving workers and educators.”

RELATED: Childcare Isn’t Going to Be the Same After the Pandemic

Child care is astoundingly expensive, particularly in major metropolitan areas like New York and the Bay Area. Washington, D.C., tops the national average at a whopping $24,243 per year for infant care and $19,112 for preschoolers, according to the Economic Policy Institute

That means child care in some places can surpass the cost of in-state college tuition. 

But the situation is especially hard for parents of neurodiverse kids and those with developmental disabilities. Kaiser, for example, needs a provider familiar with common behaviors of autistic children, like self-harm, elopement (wandering or running away), extreme meltdowns, and putting dangerous things in their mouths. 

In New York state, families with children with developmental disabilities are able to access funding for care through Medicaid. Kaiser got approved about a year ago, but she hasn’t been able to complete the process to get a provider, partly due to the pandemic. But even before then, she said, the wages the state pays are so low that it’s difficult to find qualified providers. “I didn’t look for more than a few months, but I could not find anyone that was able to work at the rates that were being offered.” 

Desperate for help, Kaiser was willing to supplement the state’s wages with a little bit of extra money on the side. But, she explained, potential providers “would look at the hurdles that it takes to get certified for the job, like the fingerprinting and the training program … and they were like, ‘it’s really not worth my while.”

Eliyanna Kaiser (photo by Tova Friedman)

“The Whole Industry Is Subsidized”

In a recent interview with Politico, Betsy Stevenson, a labor economist at the University of Michigan, said she believes the United States has been in a childcare crisis for many years. “The pandemic has just pulled the lid off it, so we’re all staring at that crisis right now.” 

As Erin Robinson, campaign manager for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told COURIER, the United States has made the business of child care a mostly private industry instead of a “public good, like K-12 education is.” 

Nonetheless, care for young children is as essential a service for working parents as public school is. 

One of the reasons schools closed in the early days of the pandemic while many daycares remained open, childcare policy expert Elliot Haspel wrote in a recent New York Times opinion piece, was because of the racial and gender gaps between the two sectors: “Today, the child care profession is disproportionately made up of women of color … In comparison, 20 percent of K-12 teachers were nonwhite in the 2015-16 school year.” 

In short, a low-paying industry whose workers are primarily women of color “is being asked by society to assume more risk by remaining open,” Haspel wrote. Childcare workers make only $10.72 per hour on average. 

RELATED: Biden Has Detailed Plans That Could Help Women in America. Trump Has Nothing.

As HuffPost reporter Emily Peck put it, “The whole industry is subsidized — not by government funds, really, but by the cheap labor these women provide.”  

Beyond racialized and gendered associations, child care is also considered an individual problem instead of a societal one, Stevenson told Politico. “‘You made the choice to have those little rugrats. You deal with them.’” But, as the economist pointed out, other types of caregiving, including nursing homes and institutional care, are publicly supported. 

“We have been having a national conversation for 20 years about how can parents pay for college,” Stevenson concluded. “And yet, we’re expecting them to shell out basically in-state college tuition for four or five years for early childhood education and child care. And nobody’s talking about how parents come up with four years’ worth of tuition as the kid is coming out of the uterus.”

Quality Child Care Is Harder to Find in a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has exacerbated the childcare crisis, and a federal response from Congress has been slow to come. 

La Plazita—a Spanish immersion preschool in Oakland, California—served around 110 children before the pandemic, the director told COURIER in June. Now, with new social distancing regulations in place, the large center can only serve half the number of kids, yet must spend more money on cleaning supplies. 

It’s a situation that’s hardly sustainable for most providers: A recent survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) found that 40% of providers in the U.S.—half of which are minority-owned businesses—say they’ll have to close their doors permanently without public assistance. 

One childcare provider based in Texas told NAEYC: “I’m taking it one week at a time, but we don’t have enough students to pay the teachers, and teachers can’t work without enough students, and parents keep saying they need us and please stay open, but they don’t know when they will come back. We have so much expertise and we work so hard, but we can’t do this without assurance and support.”

A federal bailout of the childcare industry has been on the House’s agenda for months: The Child Care Is Essential Act, which would provide $50 billion in grants to providers, recently passed in the House but has stalled in the GOP-led Senate. 

Unlike most political fights related to the pandemic, this issue is overwhelmingly a bipartisan one: Over 80% of voters across the political spectrum favor childcare relief.

A Focus on What Childcare Labor Is Worth

On Wednesday night, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren addressed the childcare crisis while speaking at the Democratic National Convention from the Early Childhood Education Center in Springfield. “Childcare was already hard to find before the pandemic,” she said. “And now, parents are stuck—no idea when schools can safely reopen and even fewer childcare options. The devastation is enormous. And the way I see it: big problems demand big solutions.”

Last month, former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released a $775 billion plan to mobilize “a 21st century care and early childhood education workforce to deal with the caregiving crisis in our nation.” Addressing affordability and employee retention within the childcare industry will help spur economic recovery in a country that’s been decimated by pandemic-related mass unemployment, the plan states.

Biden also aims to provide free, universal preschool to all three- and four-year-olds in the U.S. For kids under the age of three, the plan would create a system of tax credits and subsidies to ensure affordability for parents: “For children under the age of 5, no family earning below 1.5 times the median income in their state will have to pay more than 7% of their income for quality care … A typical family will pay no more than $45 per week. For the most-hard pressed working families, such early childcare costs would be fully covered.” 

RELATED: House Democrats Pass Bill With $60 Billion to Help Child Care Providers Recover

Robinson of the Center for American Progress noted that Biden has embraced many of the core elements of the Child Care for Working Families Act, introduced in Congress last year.

Importantly, the opportunity to send children to a quality, publicly funded pre-K program could attract the attention of many parents who find themselves facing staggeringly high tuition rates—that was Houston-based poet and educator Deborah Mouton’s experience.

She told COURIER she paid more than $1,000 a month for her daughter, now seven, to attend pre-K. That was 1.5 times her rent. There were other options for daycare, she said, but subpar conditions concerned her, including “broken cabinetry and open wiring.” 

Deborah Mouton (photo courtesy of subject)

By the time her son was born in 2017, “$1,000 a month only got my son half day care” at a quality childcare provider, Mouton said, and she’s relied on grandparents to take care of him the other half of the time.  

While affordability is a crucial piece of the childcare crisis, another aspect of Biden’s plan is his focus on caregivers earning a living wage, and being offered health insurance and paid sick leave. 

Robinson said she and her colleagues at the Center for American Progress Action Fund are excited about Biden’s plan: “We feel like it addresses some of the big issue areas,” including wages, supply of care, quality of care, and affordability. “If you have teachers who can’t afford to continue working in child care … even if they love their job, if they’re not making adequate wages, it’s just not tenable for them.” 

Echoing the ways childcare work is devalued, she added, “They’re not getting paid equal to what their caregiving labor is worth.”  

Biden’s plan proposes training and career ladders to higher-paying jobs for childcare workers, and allows them to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. 

“There’s a large percentage of the childcare workforce who is uninsured,” Robinson explained. “And Black women … are more likely to work for childcare centers where they don’t have access to healthcare benefits.” That’s not because childcare owners are disproportionately exploitative as employers; rather, these small businesses tend to operate on razor-thin margins and can’t afford to provide their employees with benefits.  

The proposal introduced by Biden sets the framework for the childcare system we need in the U.S., Robinson said. “Child care is, was, always will be an essential service. What would it mean if we treated it like that?” 

Robinson’s comments echo Sen. Warren’s remarks Wednesday night. After sharing her own story of feeling overwhelmed as a working mom with her “first big teaching job down in Texas,” Warren attributed that moment of speaking at the DNC to having a family member offer to help provide reliable child care.

“I learned a fundamental truth,” Warren said. “Nobody makes it on their own.”