By Danielle Gonzales,
Managing Director for the Aspen Education and Society Program,The Aspen Institute
The U.S. economy is still reeling from the pandemic and getting it back on track requires one critical step that is long overdue: guaranteeing affordable child care for working parents. There is some momentum these days to see real change due to the White House proposal, which would also extend the expanded child tax credit through 2025, and a Congressional bipartisan infrastructure package, funding pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds nationally. Further, the House recently passed a budget resolution that will act as a framework to move the American Families Plan bill forward.
Making reliable and affordable early care and education available and accessible for all is among the most important policies we can enact to create equity and economic stability, especially for women—who often bear the responsibility of caregiving. This is especially true for families of color and from low-income backgrounds, who face significant childcare affordability challenges.
By the Numbers
- One in ten working mothers with children under 18 said they quit a job due to COVID and half of this group cited school closures as one of the reasons. This was even more likely to be the case for younger, Black or Hispanic, uninsured, low-income women, and those with less than a Bachelor’s degree. For example, 17% of low-income women had to quit a job for a COVID-related reason, compared to 5% with higher incomes.
- In 2018, annual childcare costs surpassed tuition fees at public universities in 28 states. And the pandemic showed how fragile families’ arrangements are.
- 92% of American families dealt with fluctuating availability from their child care provider during the pandemic, meaning almost every family had to scramble for child care to tend to their jobs.
- 78% of essential workers have been left with the stress of making new childcare arrangements since the start of the pandemic.
This isn’t just about providing space for children to be while parents are working. Healthy early childhood experiences are critical to long-term success; research has found that the accumulation of trauma throughout childhood can cause toxic stress in children, which can lead to long-term negative effects on both the body and the brain. The pandemic—and associated housing insecurity, food insecurity, decreased reporting of child abuse, and social isolation—have exacerbated these adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), especially among children of color. Children who arrive at kindergarten prepared to learn perform better throughout their K-12 school years and increase their chances of post-secondary success. If we want greater economic mobility in this country, we need greater support for families in these early years.
From the Field
There are already some great organizations out there helping families. But they, too, need more resources. For example, new direct investments in our child care sector will allow organizations like the Atlanta-based Sheltering Arms to coordinate affordable child care for families and additional two-generation supports—providing opportunities for children and their parents together—creating economic stability and helping families escape poverty.
Solutions need to broadly consider the role of employers, the nonprofit sector, and the government in creating a stronger safety net for American families.
The federal COVID-19 aid packages already passed by Congress and signed into law are providing investments to improve childcare facilities, maintain payrolls, and provide PPE to child care workers. In addition, the American Rescue Plan expanded the Child Tax Credit and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, short-term relief bills that can serve as bridges to long-term solutions. Policymakers have an opportunity now, however, to strengthen the childcare sector and advance economic mobility for families beyond pandemic recovery. This requires coordinating solutions across agencies and policy areas and would include implementing policy solutions to address issues such as the impacts of the benefits cliff that occurs when people lose public benefits due to an earnings increase but do not make enough to make up for the lost services.
State advocates, policymakers, grassroots activists, business and community leaders should engage their federal representatives to invest in these early childhood programs.
Policymakers must commit to the future of our nation and our economy by making parenthood manageable and by making investments in families to keep child care affordable, accessible, safe, and responsive to the demands of today’s workforce.
Danielle Gonzales is the Managing Director for the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute. The Program works to inform, influence, and inspire education leaders across policy and practice to improve Pre-k-12 education, especially for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. In this role, she leads efforts to convene senior education leaders at all levels of education to tackle the most vexing issues in education, to develop and foster partnerships with a diverse range of education leaders, and to write and develop publications and resources associated with professional learning; social, emotional, and academic development; and educational equity.