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A child care emergency for working families

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Three months ago, my wife and I became parents and joined the 41 million other Americans — one-third of the U.S. workforce –— who balance the demands of work and parenting. Anyone who has weathered the many late nights, early mornings  and diaper changes quickly learns three things: Parenting is hard. Being a working parent is even harder. And being a working parent during a pandemic is downright herculean.  

There is a child care emergency unfolding across the United States. Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 741,000 children in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus. As a result, some 40 percent of U.S. daycares have closed. 

Families have been left with few options. Without child care, parents are being forced to choose between work and their children’s development. In fact, women exited the workforce in August and September at four times the rate of men. 

This is not sustainable. Working families need help as the country appears to be entering a third wave of coronavirus infections, with hospitalizations rising in 37 states. Because of the federal government’s botched pandemic response, 4.5 million U.S. child care slots could be permanently lost. 

It’s clear we need new leadership and real action — not wishful thinking. As a former state government official who responded to emergencies, I see opportunities for change with three key solutions: 

First, provide more support to child care providers and facilities. The CARES Act provided $3.5 billion to child care providers, but this is woefully insufficient. According to industry experts, the need is closer to $96 billion. There is no more important investment than our children, and Congress must provide more support immediately.  

Also, since many of these providers operate as small businesses, an expanded second Paycheck Protection Program should specifically support child care facilities. Unfortunately, only 5 percent of child care facilities reportedly benefited from relief loans nationwide.  

Second, help child care facilities meet pandemic safety standards and expand availability. Before the pandemic, 43 percent of parents reported difficulty locating child care. Many faced long wait lists and many more struggled to find convenient, affordable care. With the pandemic shrinking child care availability and social distancing requirements limiting enrollment, we need to construct new facilities and renovate existing ones to ensure parents have access to care that meets new safety standards. 

To support and spur this development, we need a new child care construction tax credit of at least 50 percent for the first million dollars of construction costs to encourage all businesses to provide on-site child care at places of work. Minority-owned and smaller child care facilities should have access to grant funding for upgrades too. 

Third, pay, protect and support child care workers. Ninety percent of child care educators and caregivers are women. They work long, stressful hours and now, in the middle of a pandemic, are being asked to risk their health, and maybe even their lives, to care for our children for an average of $10 an hour. They are among workers who make up the backbone of our economy, yet they have limited career growth prospects. 

Their pay should reflect the value of their work. Child care professionals should be valued like teachers, with similar pay and benefits. These workers should have professional avenues for growth, including ongoing training and education.  

It’s time to prioritize solutions that boost our economy and support working families and caregivers. As parents, we shouldn’t have to choose between caring for our children and pursuing our careers. This November, we must elect leaders who will invest in child care and support working families.   

Jeff Le is a partner with the Truman National Security Project. He served as deputy cabinet secretary to former California Gov. Jerry Brown (2015 to 2019) and oversaw economic development, homeland security and disaster preparedness issues. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyDLe.

Tags Child care COVID-19 pandemic Working parents

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