Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. There is virtually nothing more quintessentially American than the entrepreneur who works long hours, taking risks beyond those that mere employees take, providing a product or service that people need, and creating jobs.
One type of business that may not immediately come to mind when thinking of a small business, are home-based child care centers. Relatively invisible, almost always run by women, home-based child care centers vitally underpin the American economy.
Just like any business, home-based child care centers provide a living for their owners, and create jobs for people who work for them. And just like any other business, home-based child care centers provide a service that people desperately need.
Unlike many other businesses, however, child care makes possible thousands and thousands of other types of business and stimulates local economic growth. Without that affordable child care option, with the flexible hours that many of them provide, it would simply not be possible for countless workers to go to work.
These small, local businesses are especially important because they provide the nurturing and educational environment essential to develop the next generation of citizens. But they are at risk. They are at risk from the very economy that they make possible by providing child care so that parents can go to work.
Today’s economy forces many American workers to work in low wage jobs, often outside traditional 9 to five hours, and often with varying and unpredictable schedules. Home-based child care is here for these families, offering more affordable and flexible options than other institutional child care settings, providing care that works for parents trying to make ends meet and just barely getting by.
These home-based child care providers are your neighbors, friends from your faith institution, and the grandmother down the street the children flock to. But as wages continue to stagnate relative to cost of living, as more and more jobs require work outside 9-to-5 hours, and as hours become increasingly irregular and unpredictable, even the relatively affordable and flexible home-based child care centers struggle to cope.
Combined with substandard child care subsidy reimbursement rates, the situation puts enormous strain — economic, mental and emotional — on home-based child care providers.
A bill just raised in Connecticut would begin to address the problem many families face, by limiting "on call" shift scheduling. Nationally, the Schedules that Work Act would require minimum two-weeks advance posting of work schedules for various categories of employees.
Policy changes like these ease pressure on working families, and on the small businesses that care for their children. Along with increases in the minimum wage, and reforms such as those proposed in the Child Care for Working Families Act, which will improve the quality and quantity of child care and increase wages for child care teachers, more parents will be able go to work knowing their children are nurtured and safe.
Home-based child care center owners are extremely committed to their work caring for other people’s children, and they are remarkably resilient.
They adapt their hours to accommodate their clients’ sometimes long and fluctuating schedules, they cut back at home when families cut the hours they send their children, and they help out struggling families by undercharging when they know parents simply cannot pay what they owe.
But despite this resilience, home-based child care providers struggle to keep up with their expenses. Their profit margins are extremely thin to start with; without reliable income streams it becomes even harder to stay afloat. Home-based business are more able than most to absorb losses, and to scrape by on wages that would send most other businesses under.
But they are not invincible, and the costs are high, both in terms of the health of the business, and the emotional and mental health of the business owners. And if their businesses fold, the impact on those they serve is profound. The continuity of care that young children need is disrupted.
Their parents have to find alternative child care arrangements, making tough choices between quality, affordable, and accessible child care and their family’s economic sustainability. Add to that the lack of child care options across our nation, child care deserts leave families without any child care options. As a result, our youngest children suffer.
Non-profit and community based organizations that work with and support home-based child care businesses, offer them vital services including the educational and business supports they need to run sustainable, quality child care programs. But more needs to be done to address the fundamental weaknesses in our nation’s economy that threaten so many businesses and workers. America has long prided itself on being a nation where entrepreneurs can succeed in their small business dreams.
Home-based child care businesses are that dream and they enable the rest of us to go to work and provide for our families. It’s time that these essential caregivers were able to provide the service so many of us need, without constantly fearing for their survival.
Annie Harper is a cultural anthropologist in the Yale School of Medicine. Janna Wagner is co-founder and chief learning officer at All Our Kin. She is a lecturer in education studies at Yale University and a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow. Both authors are Public Voices Fellow at Yale.