(Courtesy of Stephanie Lane) Stephanie Lane and Her Family
(Courtesy of Stephanie Lane)

Moms are not okay. The pandemic has taken a toll and they are exhausted and struggling to find affordable child care. But help could be on the way, as President Joe Biden has a plan to pass a once-in-a-generation investment to help working families.

Pick a night of the week—any night—and odds are high that Stephanie Lane is “touched out.”

For nearly a year and a half, Lane has focused much of her energy in keeping her three younger children happy, healthy, and engaged amid a pandemic. By the end of the day, the 43-year-old Harrisburg area mom often feels exhausted from being constantly grabbed at by her kids. 

“Any primary parent will tell you, they are non-stopped touched. Touched, touched, touched,” Lane told The Keystone. “I tell my kids all the time, ‘I am just touched out. Just for one minute, hands off. Just give me a little bit of a break, I love you all, just a little bit of a break.’”

The nurse-turned-stay-at-home-mom also struggles to balance the different interests of her kids, who range in age from 3 to 9; one daughter also needs additional attention due to intellectual disabilities. 

“It sometimes makes me go a little crazy when I’m doing dinosaur sand with one, magnatiles with the other, and trying to help the other one with figuring out something in a video game that I know nothing about,” Lane said.

While her husband Josh helps out as much as he can, he works during the day, leaving Lane as the primary caregiver. She would love to enroll her children in daycare, but the costs put it out of reach.

The family’s stressors don’t end there. Lane’s oldest daughter is 20 and in college, which has created some financial pressure. Additionally, Josh was diagnosed in March 2018 with a rare form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Although he has been in remission for nearly three years, the threat of recurrence always looms.

Image provided by Stephanie Lane
Lane and her husband Josh. (Courtesy of Stephanie Lane)

Lane loves her family and her life, but navigating these various issues takes a toll. “We do our best, but I’ll be honest, we’re a family of six with a child in college, living off a $50,000 a year income,” she said. “It’s hard.”

While her specific circumstances may be particularly challenging, Lane does not believe her family’s situation is all that uncommon. “That’s probably average for a lot of Americans,” she said. 

Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to raise a family in the US. More than half of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, and millions of families like Lane’s can’t afford the steep costs of child care. 

The lack of affordable, quality, and available child care has been an issue for years, but finally boiled over during the coronavirus pandemic, forcing millions of women to leave the labor force in order to care for their kids.

The past 18 months highlighted what many moms already implicitly knew: “Other countries have social safety nets. The US has women.”

Moms, to put it mildly, need some help. That’s where President Joe Biden’s agenda comes into play. Biden is currently working with Democrats in Congress to pass a once-in-a-generation investment in helping working families. His Build Back Better Act would:

  • invest in subsidies to increase the availability of child care and make it more affordable.
  • fund free universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
  • extend the Democrats’ child tax credit expansion that was included in the most recent COVID-19 relief law.

The plan—which has received no support from Republicans—would represent a wholesale overhaul of the American childcare system and bring the nation one step closer to actually meeting the needs of families. 

“The last time we had any sort of a comprehensive childcare system was World War II,” Julie Kashen, director of women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, an independent progressive think tank, told The Keystone. “We say we value families, we say we value children, but this will actually demonstrate that we as a country do.”

Child Care in Pennsylvania Is ‘Insanely Expensive’

Lane wasn’t always a stay-at-home mom. She previously worked as a nurse and put her son in daycare part-time when he was born. But the program cost $200 per week—an amount she described as “crazy” and “insanely expensive.”

Costs have only risen since then, and her family’s complex situation means daycare just isn’t economically feasible. “I stay home because I have to take care of the family,” Lane said. “With so many kids, there’s no way we could afford daycare for them—especially with a child with special needs.”

Image provided by Stephanie Lane
Lane and her youngest daughter. (Courtesy of Stephanie Lane)

In fact, many Pennsylvania mothers are struggling to afford child care.

“Prior to the pandemic, there were often waiting lists for subsidized child care, because there weren’t enough slots,” explained Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children.

The numbers speak for themselves. While the median household income in Pennsylvania is $61,744, the average annual cost of infant care in Pennsylvania is $11,842 per year, or $987 per month, according to the Economy Policy Institute. For a 4-year-old, those numbers drop slightly to $9,773 per year, or $814 per month. 

Regardless of age, child care is one of the largest expenses that most Pennsylvania families face.

“If a mom or a caregiver is trying to work, the cost of early learning may be more than they earn. It may be more than the cost of college,” said Karen Showalter, MomsRising’s Pennsylvania Moms Force Director. 

‘Staffing Is Always An Issue’

Affordability isn’t the only issue; access is also a problem. As of 2018, 57% of Pennsylvanians lived in a childcare desert, defined as a census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that lacked an adequate supply of childcare slots.

The shortage in Pennsylvania owes largely to the meager wages childcare workers earn. “The average childcare teacher in Pennsylvania makes $10.69 an hour,” according to DeBell.

The borderline poverty wages cause constant turnover. 

Sophie Estrella is the owner of Elevation Child Care Center in Allentown. She is one of the many providers who struggle to find and retain staff.  “Our budget is pretty much paycheck to paycheck, we can’t pay our staff very much,” she said. “When we first started, I want to say we were paying our staff $9 an hour, which is horrible.”

Estrella’s employees now earn $12 an hour, but she regrets that she can’t pay more or offer benefits. “If they’re coming in with a bachelor’s or something like that, we’re still not able to compensate them for what they would be worth,” Estrella said. 

The constant turnover of the childcare sector has real consequences; only 42% of the state’s childcare capacity in Pennsylvania is considered “high quality,” meaning STAR 3 or STAR 4. Children need “consistent, stable connections with the adults in their lives to thrive,” DeBell explained, and without high-quality teachers in the classroom, it’s impossible to maintain a high-quality program.

Elevation, which charges $200 per week for infants and slightly less for older children, is a STAR 3 center. Estrella has just submitted for STAR 4 recognition—the top rating in Pennsylvania—and knows she’s fortunate to even be in this position. The pandemic devastated her business and the only reason she’s remained open, she said, is because of federal funding from various pieces of COVID relief legislation.

Others haven’t been so lucky. Since the pandemic began, the state has suffered a net loss of roughly 200 childcare programs as of July 1, according to DeBell.

Currently, four out of five childcare centers in Pennsylvania are dealing with staffing shortages, with 78% identifying low wages as the main barrier to recruiting educators, according to a new survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. As a result, 60% of programs are serving fewer children, 41% have longer waiting lists, 30% are unable to open classrooms, and 27% have reduced operating hours.

Moms Step Up to Fill the Void, Often at Their Own Expense

The residual impact of these losses trickles down to parents, especially moms. The existence of the gender pay gap—in which women earn only 84% of what men do—and the gendered expectation that women are primarily responsible for child care mean that moms like Lane have historically been more likely than fathers to leave the workforce or make career concessions to care for their children. 

That proved doubly true during the pandemic. Mothers were more likely than fathers to lose their jobs or leave the labor force during the early months of the pandemic, and 45% of mothers of school-age children were not actively working last April, according to the US Census Bureau. That number dipped to 35% by January 2021, but 10.1 million mothers who live with their school-age children were still either on leave from work, unemployed, or not in the labor force altogether, compared to only 3.8 million fathers. 

Being the primary parent during the pandemic has taken a toll on moms. A March 2021 poll found that 52% of mothers across the US said their mental health has gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic began, compared to just 30% of fathers. 

“I think a lot of mothers have just been in a pressure cooker,” said Haley Swenson, the deputy director of Better Life Lab at New America, a nonprofit think tank. “You’re hearing a lot of stories from moms about burnout, about ‘Something’s got to change, something’s got to give,’ and lots of moms who are in various levels of distress and loneliness and dealing with anxiety.”

The toll isn’t just mental and emotional either; the financial consequences of leaving the workforce are also severe, according to Kat Menefee, a fellow with the Income Security Team at the National Women’s Law Center. 

“Having to actually leave the labor force—either temporarily or permanently—means that later on women are going to have less retirement security, even less Social Security benefits,” Menefee said. “So they have less security now and they’re going to have less security in the future.”

The past 18 months have been brutally difficult for everyone, but mothers—particularly Black, Latino, and lower-income moms—have been put through the ringer in ways that fathers and their childless peers haven’t. 

“I think the pandemic really revealed just how much of a house of cards that so many women, and especially mothers, have built their lives on,” Kashen, of the Century Foundation, said. “It blew the house of cards all the way down.”

Biden’s Plan to Build Back Better

Once the house of cards has fallen, there are two options: Do nothing or build it back better. 

After the various catastrophes of the past 18 months, there is now substantial momentum behind a push to overhaul the nation’s childcare infrastructure, with President Biden leading the charge. As part of his Build Back Better agenda, he and Democratic lawmakers in Congress have already made the child tax credit more generous, providing nearly all working families with direct payments of $250 to $300 per month per child, through the end of the year. Families will also receive another $1,500 to $1,800 per child in 2022, when they file their taxes.

Biden’s child tax credits, which began going out in July, have already proven to be a game-changer. Data from the US Census Bureau found that after the first round of payments went out, the number of Pennsylvania households with children reporting that they did not have enough to eat dropped by more than 17%. 

Of the 1.7 million households in the state that reported receiving the first set of payments, 38% said they used some of the money to buy food, but when looking at only the 571,000 Pennsylvanians who said they mostly spent the credit, that number skyrockets to 68%.

Families used the benefit in all sorts of ways, however. Nearly a third (32%) of the 1.7 million households said they used a portion of the credit on utilities, 14% spent some of it on rent, 13% used some on car payments, and 10% directed some of the funds to cover childcare costs. 

Lane, the Harrisburg area mom, is among the roughly 367,000 Pennsylvanians saving some of the money in case her family runs into any unexpected medical bills. But she and her husband also decided they wanted to use the payments to enrich their kids with an activity, so they signed two of their children up for karate lessons at a local studio. She’s also used some to buy extra groceries that they can’t usually afford, take her kids to the beach, and have “pizza nights” as a family. 

Image provided by Lane
Lane’s daughter and son in their karate uniforms. (Courtesy of Stephanie Lane)

“We’re trying to use part of it to make sure that it goes to helping keep us afloat, but also to help them with being kids,” Lane said. 

For many other families—approximately 35%, according to the Census Bureau—the expanded credits are mostly going towards paying off debt.

Swenson likened the policy’s impact to releasing a little bit of steam from the “pressure cooker” moms and families have been under. She also pointed out, however, that more needed to be done because “a lot of people are still in that boiling mode.” She wants to see legislation that helps parents afford the costs of child care while also helping providers stay open. 

Biden is aiming to do exactly that. He and Democrats in Congress—including Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey and the state’s entire Democratic congressional delegation—are working on a bill that would raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans and corporations in order to expand childcare subsidies to make it more affordable; increase pay for childcare providers to a minimum of $15 per hour; fund universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds; and extend the child tax credit. 

Biden’s proposal—which would serve an additional 8.3 million children—has earned praise from experts. Polling has also shown it is widely popular

“These kinds of supports and measures are really game-changing for parents like us,” Showalter of MomsRising said. “We need all of these things.”

Despite its popularity, Republicans have made clear they have no intention of supporting Biden’s plan, even as they’ve branded themselves as the party of family values for decades.

“I think that if Republicans want to say that they’re the party of family values, they need to start demonstrating that they value families,” Kashen said. “Playing partisan politics with families’ lives is really disappointing.”

While conservatives have championed the role of the traditional family and broadly oppose government subsidies, one might not survive without the other. Individual responsibility only gets you so far, as Showalter of MomsRising made clear. 

“When we see tens of millions of people experiencing these issues, we know there are systemic challenges that we have to address,” she said. “The system that supports and underpins women and families in the workplace is in need of massive investment.”

Lane marvels at how much Biden’s plan would help her family, and especially her youngest daughter. “It would allow her to go to a pre-K that is better suited for her to give her more education and prepare her for kindergarten,” she said. “She would benefit from it immensely.”

Research backs up Lane’s observation that early childhood education has significant long-term benefits for children, but moms would also benefit from these programs. “Providing additional child care and universal pre-K—these are both things that would provide mothers with the caregiving support they need to be able to return to the workforce,” Menefee said. 

DeBell agreed; she knows from experience what a relief quality child care can offer working mothers. 

“As a mom, I was fortunate that I had a STAR 4 childcare center option,” she said. “That first time I dropped my son off, it’s scary. But after a few weeks, I realized he was safe, he was well-cared for, the staff communicated with me daily to tell me what he did during the day, they supported me, immersing him at lunch breaks. When you have a high-quality program that’s supporting you and your child or your children, it gives you the peace of mind to be able to work effectively.”

Lane echoed that sentiment. If she knew quality, affordable child care was available to her, she would return to work at least part-time. “It would make a huge difference in our family,” she said.