For nearly a century, conventional wisdom held that two defining spheres of American life—work and family—are, and should be, separate and unrelated. Living through the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this understanding has proven painfully misinformed.
Most Americans now understand the needs of families and businesses are intrinsically linked and interdependent. Today, creating a ready, qualified and prosperous workforce requires that we prioritize the needs of young children, particularly those in a critical developmental period of birth to age 3.
Federal legislators now have the ability to make historic investments in programs that will strengthen American families with young children. This includes everything from resurrecting the expanded Child Tax Credit to strengthening health care and affordable housing.
These are steps that will result in practical outcomes for both supporting a stronger, more skilled workforce and giving children what they need to succeed in education, work and life. We believe the biggest boon to the economy and the future of our nation’s youngest children would be the expansion of high-quality, affordable child care and access to comprehensive paid family and medical leave.
The pandemic puts on full display the critical role of child care in allowing parents to work. According to a ReadyNation report from July 2021, the child care sector, which was already in crisis, “lost one in six workers, for a total of nearly 167,000 jobs lost” during the first year of the pandemic. Even as some sectors are rebounding, the latest figures show child care workers leaving jobs in record numbers.
Relatedly, we are witnessing the lowest participation rate among women in the workforce since 1988, according to analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Women’s Law Center. Lack of child care opportunities is stifling the ability for many women to hold onto their jobs or reenter the workforce. Racial discrepancies have also been impossible to ignore, with Black and Hispanic Americans among the hardest hit by coronavirus layoffs and experiencing the slowest return to work.This affects the economic well-being of entire families and the viability of many businesses.
Investments in child care are not only essential to enable parents to work, but are also an important first step in improving the health of our nation’s youngest children. During the first three years of life, the brains and bodies of infants and toddlers make huge gains in development, making this period of their lives critical for their physical and social emotional development. Negative experiences early in life can lead to long-term health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and mental health challenges.
Paid parental leave facilitates healthy child development and family bonding during the critical developmental window of early childhood. Paid medical and caregiving leave ensures that illness or injury won’t push families into financial instability and poverty.
Early childhood is our biggest chance to promote lifelong health and well-being. Businesses, pediatricians and other health care professionals can work closely together to improve support structures for parents and caregivers essential to a child’s positive development and future success. However, these two sectors alone cannot solve the child care crisis. Employer incentives and strides in health care must be coupled with robust public investments, including subsidies for families with low incomes and direct assistance to child care providers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the business community can largely agree that the ability for every family in America, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or zip code, to access high-quality child care and paid leave is critical for building the foundation for our youngest children. Affordable child care helps parents reenter the workforce and helps children build healthy, happy, and productive lives, improving the workforce of tomorrow.
Our country is at its best when we recognize that the needs of families and the needs of the business community are interdependent. We must continue enacting policies that make a powerful commitment to both.
Maxine Clark is the founder and former CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, and Co-Chair of theReadyNation CEO Task Force on Early Childhood.Dr. Moira Szilagyi is President of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).