COVID-19 still highlights child care struggles

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The struggle to provide high-quality, or even adequate child care is not new to many working parents — single or partnered. COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem to a crisis level.

As a pediatrician specializing in child abuse, I see the struggle of families to find reasonable care options for their children.

Indeed COVID-19 has brought about innumerable changes in the lives of American families. As the pandemic rages on, children face isolation, as many schools have shuttered and other activities have declined.

Predictably, this has caused widespread disruption for working parents who are tasked with performing their jobs from home while managing their children’s remote learning.

Some well-resourced families have been able to hire in-home help or form learning pods to share responsibilities with other parents, while others have struggled to adequately supervise their children alone.

But the struggle to provide high-quality, or even adequate child care is not new to many working parents.

Despite the fact that safe, dependable child care is critical to both parental career success and child wellbeing, the cost puts it out of reach for many families.

The federal definition of affordable child care is 7 percent or less of annual household income. In the United States, couples spend just over a quarter of their income on child care costs, and single parents spend over half of their earnings.

The average annual cost of full-time center-based infant child care in the U.S. is $14,760, which puts it over the cost of in-state college tuition in over half of the states. Unlike college tuition, which parents have 18 years to prepare for, young parents often have little financial reserve to rely upon.

The U.S. lags behind many other countries in the number of children who are enrolled in formal child care. Most European countries invest heavily in high-quality daycares and preschools that serve all children, while U.S. efforts focus on families earning the least.

But even these efforts often fall short. A recent report found that only 14 percent of children eligible for subsidies actually received them. Many families that struggle to afford child care do not qualify for subsidies. Though the Child Tax Credit is intended to help in these situations, it is non-refundable and is often insufficient to address the financial needs of working families.

In my work, I have witnessed how the lack of affordable child care can lead to vulnerable young children being placed in unsafe caregiving situations. I have seen children maltreated by caregivers who have been used out of economic desperation, whether the caregiver is the mother’s boyfriend or a babysitter caring for too many children in an unlicensed home.

Too often, these arrangements result in abuse or neglect that could have been prevented if licensed, formal daycare was available.

In addition to ensuring a safe environment that all young children should have, high-quality child care imparts physical and cognitive benefits that reduce inequality and prepare children to enter school.

Affordable child care has another critical role; keeping mothers in the workforce. COVID-19 has highlighted the long-standing inequities in child care responsibilities.

A recent report found that during this pandemic, one in four women have considered either leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, which could undo years of progress in advancing gender diversity in the workplace. While the struggles of balancing child care and career may be amplified during COVID-19, this responsibility has always disproportionately rested upon women.

Some will say that child care is a matter of personal responsibility and that it is too costly and radical to consider large-scale government solutions, but it isn’t without precedence.

During World War II, the U.S. government operated a widespread, heavily subsidized child care system prompted by the need for women to work in factories to support war efforts. The term “day care” was coined during this time. While the centers ended with the war, the need for such facilities is arguably even greater today.

The nation’s economic and social success hinges on families having access to affordable, high-quality child care. With women making up roughly half of the workforce, the potential impact in addressing this issue is tremendous.  

Looking toward a new administration with hope for change, now is the time to prioritize and transform child care in order to move this country forward.

Amanda Fingarson, DO, is a child abuse pediatrician at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

Tags affordability childcare childcare affordability Coronavirus coronavirus crisis cost of childcare COVID-19 economic crisis Low-Income Pandemic women labor force women workforce

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