Now that my children are grown and out of the house – more or less – I think back on the issue of childcare and the decision we made to have one parent home with our children. It did not make economic sense as even 18 years ago it often took two people working full-time to make ends meet. As a college teacher, I had a bit more flexibility than many workers do and had a vacation schedule that matched my children’s. My wife stayed home to care for the children when they were young and taught violin lessons in the home several evenings a week and on weekends. This extra income was critical for our family. We both sought out opportunities to work in the summer. It was a juggling act, but we made it work. We have never been a family of 2 full-time working parents. After the children got older and were in school, my wife took on several part-time jobs to add to the family resources. It was never easy and perhaps if we had both worked full-time we would be in a more financially secure position today, but it was a choice we made and are glad we did.
American Women Join the Workforce
Since the 1950’s American women have joined the workforce in increasing numbers forever changing the way we live and work. For many families, having one parent stay at home to care for children and manage the home is not an option. It is now the norm for both parents to work unless the cost of childcare is too high, or one parent makes enough to meet the family’s needs. It is unfortunate that we live in a society that does not value the “unpaid” work of the family caregiver highly enough to put policies in place to make it easier for families. The U.S. is the only developed country to lack a national paid parental leave policy.
Low Wage and Unaffordable Childcare
The challenge of providing child care has only gotten more difficult in recent years as the cost continues to rise while wages for many remain stagnant. Data from Child Care Aware’s 2017 report, Parents and the High Cost of Child Care, shows that the annual cost of childcare for 2 children in a licensed center exceeds the average annual cost of rent in all 50 states!
“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers child care affordable if no more than 10 percent of a family’s income is put towards it”
Without assistance such as a subsidy, many can’t afford childcare and must look to family or friends for assistance. The lack of high quality and affordable child care is a major barrier for many seeking to enter or remain in the workforce. An article from The Guardian by Mollie Redden includes the following statistics:
“Today, roughly one in four families spend more than 10% of their income on child care, including more than half of families below the poverty line and two out of five families earning twice the poverty level.”
Cost is just one issue. In many locations, there are not enough spaces available in licensed centers. The shortage is especially severe in rural, low-income areas.
A report published by the Center for American Progress (CAP) finds that “approximately half of Americans live in “child care deserts.” Child care deserts are defined as neighborhoods or communities that are either lacking any childcare options or have so few child care providers that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.”
If you can find affordable childcare, the next part of the equation is quality. What is the ratio of caregivers to children? What are the staff’s qualifications? Is there an enrichment plan in place? What is the condition of the facility?
State regulations set the required number of staff based on the age of the children being cared for. For example, a center located in Minnesota caring for infants age 6 weeks to under 16 months must have 1 staff member for every 4 infants. The ratio of worker to child increases as the age of the child rises. Read the regulations for all 50 states on Daycare.Com .
Low Wages for Childcare Providers
An issue that affects the availability and quality of childcare is the low wages of staff members. Turnover in the industry is extremely high and for those that continue to work in childcare a second job is often a necessity. The average pay is around $10 an hour. Many of the workers do not earn enough to pay for childcare for their own children. An article in The Atlantic from 2015 examines the reasons behind low pay for childcare workers and concludes that one of the barriers is that quality is often defined by a low teacher to student ratio. A center cannot simply enroll more children without hiring more staff. The job of caring for our children is important and those working in childcare deserve higher pay.
In 2017, a group of parents in New York City went to bat for childcare workers after discovering how little they were paid. CBS This Morning broadcast a story about the parent’s efforts and the issue of low pay in the industry.
“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, full-time childcare workers make about $20,000 a year, or $9.77 an hour.”
WWII and the National Daycare System
Our nation tackled this problem during World War II when it established a national daycare system to make it possible for women, think Rosie the Riveter, to join the workforce in support of the war effort. Supported by federal and local funds authorized by an amendment to the Lanham Act, these centers provided essential care for the children of working mothers and deployed fathers. The end of the war brought the end of the federally subsidized daycares. An excellent article in The Atlantic, Who Took Care of Rosie the Riveter’s Kids? explains the context and history of the national childcare program.
While doing research for this article, I found out about a national non-profit organization, ChildCare Aware, dedicated to helping people find and pay for childcare as well as professional development opportunities for caregivers.
“Child Care Aware® of America is a national membership-based nonprofit organization working to advance affordability, accessibility, development and learning of children in child care.”
The organization publishes an excellent parent tip sheet offering many helpful suggestions for how to find childcare and what financial assistance may be available.
When the norm is for both parents to work and an economic necessity, it stands to reason that the need for quality and affordable childcare will continue to increase. Perhaps the problem is the lack of jobs that pay a living wage and provide benefits. In an ideal world, families would have the option of having one parent stay at home. The question remains how to fund this vital need so that those providing care are paid a fair wage and those needing childcare can afford it.