Why the child care crisis is a national security issue
© CSCCE, UC Berkeley

The U.S. faces an array of threats to its national security, from terrorism and Russian hacking to China’s increasing military assertiveness and the growing and inevitable dangers posed by climate change. 

Here at home, our nation is facing a threat that doesn’t generate as many headlines but that also poses clear and growing risks to the future of our country: the lack of affordable, accessible child care.   

As retired generals with more than seven decades of combined service, we don’t lightly decry the state of child care in America and its impact on parents, especially women and members of communities of color. 

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But the military is only as strong as the nation it represents, and the child care crisis is doing real and growing harm to the future of our youngest Americans, and inevitably to the future security of our country. Left unabated, millions of American parents — particularly from historically disadvantaged communities —  will be forced out of the workforce while tens of millions of children won’t get the care and attention they need to succeed later in life.

The Senate just passed a $3.5 trillion measure that would significantly boost federal spending on child care. As retired military officers, we won’t be advocating for or against that bill or any other specific legislation or provision. But, as patriots who care deeply about the future of our country, we hope that lawmakers can see the wisdom of this approach to our children, their parents, and the future of our country, and craft legislation that will make child care more easily available and affordable.

During our time in uniform, both of us witnessed the military adjust to the reality that the spouses of many service members — regardless of their gender — have jobs of their own. Depending on where they live, most military families can now either send their children to child care facilities on their bases or receive financial assistance for private-sector child care.

The civilian world is very different from the military one, and we’re not suggesting policymakers should replicate the military's child care system. Instead, we want to highlight that those looking to solve the child care crisis have a wide array of possible models to choose from. The question is whether they’ll summon the political will to do so.

The costs of inaction are clear and growing. A 2019 report from the business leader group ReadyNation found that the child care crisis for infants and toddlers alone was costing the nation $57 billion per year in lost earnings, revenue, and productivity. 

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Those numbers have almost certainly gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many schools and day care centers closed, forcing large numbers of women to quit work in order to look after their children. Women’s workforce participation fell to a 30-year low, a dynamic some have called a “she-cession.” And, even with the economy showing clear signs of recovery, the unemployment rate for women remains stubbornly, and frankly, unacceptably high. 

Even in families where both parents hold steady work, child care can be prohibitively expensive. It costs families, on average, more than $9,000 per child per year, which is more than the average cost of in-state public college tuition in 30 states and Washington, D.C. Married couples spend about 10 percent of their household income on child care, a figure that rises to 34 percent when it comes to single parents. 

Access to child care can be just as daunting. Half of all American families live in a so-called “child care desert,” where there are at least three children for every licensed child care slot. Some facilities that closed during the pandemic may not reopen, magnifying the shortages.

Making matters worse, the true scope of the child care crisis can’t be measured in dollars and cents alone— and will have a direct impact on the future strength of our armed forces.

A 2018 report by Mission: Readiness, a non-profit group of nearly 800 retired generals and admirals, found that obesity alone disqualified  31 percent of youth from military service. Obesity rates are rising for children as young as two, and it’s more important than ever to keep children physically engaged and teach them how to eat healthier foods. That’s what good child care programs are designed to do, and why hundreds of retired senior military leaders have long seen them as key to reversing a growing threat to public health and military readiness.

And the benefits of expanded child care don’t stop there. A multi-year study of more than 1,300 children found that those who had received higher-quality child care were better prepared for school at age four than those who had received lower-quality care. At age 15, the students were still performing slightly better than their peers, and had fewer behavioral problems.  

Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas for how to expand access to child care. The question now is whether they’ll have the compassion, wisdom, and political will to do so. We hope that elected officials will confront this crisis with the same sort of determination and resolve that they have used when faced with other sorts of challenges to our national security. The stakes for our future couldn’t be higher, and the need for action couldn’t be clearer.

General (Ret.) John R. Allen is a retired Marine Corps four-star general. General (Ret.) Lester R. Lyles is a retired U.S. Air Force four-star general. Both are members of the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness.