Childcare is looking quite different these days, but the cost is still high. Parents find themselves balancing working from home or pulling to add new measures or materials to their work routine outside of the house due to the pandemic demands. Add that to the question of school starting in the fall, and how it will look, or if homeschooling may be a better option – and parents can get quite overwhelmed. But how do we support families in this new era of care needs?
For years, Democrat and Republican administrations alike have previously passed budgeting reforms for early education. Some have proposed universal childcare, and others argue that private enterprise platforms and fewer regulations are the best way to go. However, all schools of thought can agree that there is still a lot of opportunity in creating educational and care equity. Pandemic or not, most parents will tell you that quality childcare is not affordable, and affordable childcare doesn’t offer equitable quality.
There have been schemes set up to assist low-income families, and tax credits for working parents to ease childcare expenses. But even at that, the problem persists as reality, as half of Americans live in places inaccessible to licensed child care providers, and have been in a situation where they have to keep their children in overcrowded or low-quality services, just to cut down the budget.
Flashback: The Evolution of Universal Childcare
In 1941, during the World War, America was the closest to having federally-funded universal childcare. (Fun fact: it was the Lanham Act that directed federal funding to create government-run childcare centers so that women could work and support the war effort) Lawmakers were careful to make sure the universal childcare was an emergency measure and stressed that the centers would not become permanent.
When in 1972, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act with a bipartisan support bill, President Nixon did not sign because he was under pressure from some members of his party. Some of them suggested that “the bill will diminish parental involvement” in the upbringing of children.
How is Universal Care different than what we have right now?
The current system is a private one and encourages parents to make their own choices for care. Any assistance that exists for parents comes directly from states because childcare assistance is not a federal entitlement program. That means that if a state has created a childcare supplement program, parents can apply it, but the state and not federal monies fund it. There are minimal grants available for childcare center startups at a federal level, although, similarly to consumer subsidies, some states offer business subsidies, grants, or incentives to start childcare programs in specific (usually rural) areas. Unfortunately, as with other education systems like public schools, often lower revenue regions generate fewer subsidy programs and funding support mechanisms. If you have fewer businesses in a region, you tax less, and if you tax less, you have less money for subsidy programs. Some neighborhoods, regions, and states get less care diversity because of the general economic health of a region.
Why Universal Care isn’t the answer
A directive to create and funnel children needing care to government-run centers may leave individual and family-based caregivers at the short end of the stick, even though a survey shows that those types of care are what most parents prefer for their kids. One-size-fits-all government-subsidized care might help relieve parents of the financial burden of childcare. Still, it will likely not provide the model care that they would ideally choose for their kids if given the opportunity. We see this in public school education during the pandemic. School districts lack the resources they need to deliver educational material to students online now and struggle to engage students who need support or hands-on learning. The same problems will arise with universal childcare.
Pandemic closures have also impacted the childcare industry like every other, and some providers are unsure of how they will be able to recover. Many are not sure if they will be able to follow the CDC’s guidelines and afford the new expenses for cleanliness. Meanwhile, American parents are left with minimal options of squeezing their kids into the little spaces available in daycares that are operating or finding virtual alternatives. Neither is considered affordable, and both are distressing. While some states like Colorado have launched emergency childcare funds for essential workers, any working parent not classified as essential is left to pay the increased childcare fees or, worse, left with no care options.
Recently, there have been childcare propositions championed by left-leaning people and organizations to revisit establishing universal childcare in the US and to provide a federally funded care model. This effort to make childcare “free” to parents and heavily subsidized by federal monies will raise taxes and potentially create additional government-run centers.
So, what’s the solution?
The short answer is there isn’t just one answer. Keeping the system dependent on states to provide subsidies and private business focused allows parents more choices with less financial support. It promotes healthy competition within childcare providers leading to a higher quality of services. A more competitive market offers businesses the opportunity to introduce new and innovative development-oriented programs in which parents are more responsive. Moreover, neighborhoods, where public childcare daycare is not accessible or able to be propped up with sufficient tax monies, can still have childcare in their communities in our current model.
Leaning on budget audits, states may be able to create more dynamic or even establish new care subsidy programs based on tax monies they already collect. TIFs, or tax increment financing, could be used in communities where marginal taxes (a few cents on the dollar) wouldn’t significantly impact the community’s quality of life. Other options include corporate-sponsored solutions or revolving loan funds that bring different community funders and nonprofits to solve the problem.
The bottom line is that American plurality and diversity of life are clear examples of a one-size-fits-all method that will not work. Embracing the informal care sector, creating maps of care, and encouraging private solutions are the best ways to impact the cost of care and support parents struggling in the pandemic. The under-utilized potential of women and the historical consequence of not including them actively in policy decision-making got us here. The solution isn’t to make sweeping changes and implement government centers or force parents into a choiceless care cycle. It’s to incorporate feedback and listen to what people need, now more than ever during this pandemic. The best thing the government can do is lessen the burden on care providers and business owners so that parents can get back to work and get the care they need for their kids; development.