The following editorial appeared in the Washington Post. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Times-News.
Many sectors are reeling from massive labor shortages, but few touch families more intimately than what is happening with childcare. With long waiting lists and skyrocketing costs, the scale of the crisis is clear. What is less clear is how the country can fix it quickly.
First, the problem: Like other childcare industries, childcare has been hit hard by COVID-19. There are nearly 90,000 fewer child care workers today than in February 2020, an 8.4% reduction in the workforce. According to a February report from Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit, nearly 16,000 programs in 37 states have been closed during the pandemic. With birth rates rebounding and millions of workers returning to the office, these closures have put tremendous pressure on parents.
Yet child care was struggling long before the pandemic. The industry has operated on a flawed business model for decades. Because infants and toddlers require more staff than other age groups, programs are labor intensive and expensive to run. But charging a higher fee to reflect those costs would make them unaffordable for many families. As a result, the centers operate with very thin profit margins, offering workers low wages and few benefits for grueling work. It’s no wonder so many carers have left to work in sectors such as retail and hospitality.
Additionally, providers are concentrated in high-income neighborhoods, while communities of color and rural areas are severely underserved. In 2018, the Center for American Progress found that more than 50% of Americans lived in “childcare deserts” — places with insufficient supply.
The status quo is clearly untenable. But creating a better model will take creative thinking, collaboration, and resources.
Without government intervention, the child care crisis will almost certainly worsen. Currently, government spending on child care is fragmented, inconsistent, and relatively meager: the U.S. government spends about $500 a year on child care, while the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development average is $14,436. Pandemic relief programs, particularly the US bailout, have been lifelines for the industry at a desperate time. But those funds are set to expire in September 2024, leaving states and DC with a nearly $50 billion budget cliff. If we don’t want American families to bear the financial burden of a declining industry, the government will have to step in.
This could take several forms. The most politically feasible option would be for Congress to strengthen the Child Care and Developmental Block Grant program, which supports low-income families. This would ease pressure on the most vulnerable households but would not solve labor shortages. Other possibilities include expanding the credit for child care and dependent care – or extending and strengthening the child tax credit for all families. Both would help more families pay close to the true cost of childcare, allowing providers to raise wages.
And it shouldn’t all fall to the federal government. New Mexico, for example, announced in April that it would provide a year of free child care to families earning up to 400% of the federal poverty level, using funds from taxes on fuel production. fossils. While it is difficult to make this type of expansive model permanent or replicate it elsewhere, states have an opportunity to get creative with revenue streams.