Time to address the childcare crisis


Finding reliable, affordable child care was tough for many parents before the pandemic. Now the pandemic has made things worse — so much worse that the crisis needs the urgent attention of businesses, government and society as a whole.

Well before COVID, it was apparent that child care had not evolved to match changes in the economy and in American families. The days when most mothers didn’t work outside the home are long gone.

The reality now is that about a fourth of American children are being raised by a single parent, and most of those single parents are mothers who need to work to support themselves.

In families with two parents, it’s usually a necessity, not a choice, for both parents to work to afford a home and a way of life that offers their children a good future. Working is important even if most of one parent’s income goes to pay for child care. Putting work on hold to stay home while the children are young can mean that parent — usually the mother — sacrifices advancement in her career, jeopardizing future security.

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Unfortunately, the other reality is that the United States — unlike other advanced nations — has never done much to help working parents find affordable, quality child care.

COVID starkly exposed the inadequacies in child care even as it made them worse. Maybe, just maybe, we have reached the point where things are so bad that meaningful change will result.

Across the nation, federal data show there are 100,000 fewer child care workers than before the pandemic. Other fields are rebounding, but employment in child care keeps shrinking.

Several factors are at work, including rules about licensing, masking and vaccines. But the primary reason there are fewer child care workers boils down to money. Even before COVID, 98% of occupations paid better than child care. Most child care employees are women, whose pay lags behind men’s anyway, and many worked for minimum wage or little more because they loved the work. Now, with inflation driving prices up and more employment options, fewer people are willing to work in a low-paying job.

The employee shortage and other strains of the pandemic have driven many child care centers, which operate on small profit margins, out of business. Others accept fewer children. Pandemic relief funds helped for a while, but the problems persist.

Full-time day care can cost as much or more than college tuition. But that doesn’t mean child care providers are raking in profits. Children need personal attention and healthy foods. There are few ways to cut costs and still keep children safe.

This is a crisis for parents, and it’s a problem that ripples across the economy. In Virginia, as elsewhere, many women must quit work or work part time, leaving employers short staffed and forcing businesses to reduce hours or limit services.

The Virginia Chamber of Commerce is among those pushing for “bold and concerted action” to make child care more affordable and available. Creative thinking is a must.

Public officials should make wise investments in innovative approaches such as the Mixed Delivery preschool program that uses public funds to help families send children to private child care programs. Incentives for child care businesses and their workers might help.

Businesses should step up to provide and/or subsidize child care for their employees. Academic institutions could train more workers for the child care field. Community organizations and churches could step up efforts to provide child care.

Our communities need good quality child care. It’s essential for working parents, and that makes it essential for the places where those parents work and the economic health of the region. Early childhood education also helps prepare children for success in school. Stable families make healthier, happier communities.

The pandemic has pushed the long-simmering problems in child care into a major crisis. It’s time — past time — for our determined focus on making quality, affordable child care available for all families.

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