As a working mother in Austin, I navigated child care waitlists (sometimes years long), paid 20% of my net salary towards daycare tuition (for 7 years), and frequently felt dissatisfied with the facility’s treatment of their workers. I observed a revolving door of predominantly women of color child care providers with few protections struggling to sustain themselves and their families in a demanding and unjust work environment. COVID-19 will exacerbate our child care system failures.
COVID-19 continues to underscore the failure of our public policy nationally, including in Texas, which puts profits over people. Texas, which has one of the highest proportions of low-wage workers in its workforce, places extra burdens on working parents. We have the highest rate of people without health insurance, one of the lowest rates of investment per student in public education, and low rates of availability of paid sick, family, and medical leave (PFML). On top of these existing challenges, the pandemic has required working Texas parents to do even more for their children with significantly less support than working families in other states. In particular, COVID-19 has exacerbated a long-standing crisis: the lack of universal, affordable, quality child care.
The Center for American Progress reports that 60% of child care facilities nationally have already closed. Only 11% of closed facilities are estimated to be able to reopen without more government assistance. Texas is projected to lose over 483,000 of the state’s child care slots (54% of our current total) if the state does not receive adequate federal funding to keep these facilities operational during the pandemic and beyond. The need for child care will be even greater as sector capacity shrinks. Prior to COVID-19, Texas had 2.7 children per childcare slot; post-COVID-19 there will be an estimated 5.9 children per slot. Child care is a for-profit business in the United States, where access is determined by a family’sability to pay. Just imagine what the decrease in supply and increase in demand will do to monthly tuition rates once this is all over, leaving even more Texas families unable to afford quality care. To add insult to injury, Texas will scale back low-income parents’ and essential workers’ child care subsidies starting June 1.
According to Children at Risk, over a million Texas children are eligible to qualify for the Texas Workforce Commission’s subsidized child care, but only about 10% received it in 2018 due to lack of funds and lack of child care providers who accepted subsidies. The Texas Workforce Commission reports 33,596 children waitlisted for subsidized child care as of September 2019.
The federal government has worked to support and protect the child care sector, yet there is still significant need to protect these services. The CARES Act provided $3.5 billion in emergency child care funding to states through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). However, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) estimates the sector will need $9.6 billion every month to sustain itself during COVID-19. The latest proposed federal recovery legislation, the HEROES Act, only includes an additional $7 billion for child care and even then faces a tough road in the U.S. Senate. A more comprehensive and long-term federal commitment to supporting child care is imperative.
Our elected officials have consistently failed to adequately invest in child care infrastructure, despite the economic and social benefits. The benefit to children age birth to 5 years enrolled in child care yields a 13% return on investment. Even prior to COVID-19 working, parents struggled to find safe and affordable child care for their children. The average American family with young children spends approximately 23% of their net income on child care — an astounding cost for the 1.3 million Texan households with children struggling to meet basic needs. For minimum wage workers, child care costs represent nearly half of their pre-tax earnings.
Our child care sector is riddled with racial and economic inequities. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 94% of child care workers are women and are disproportionately women of color. One in six women child care workers live below the poverty line–twice the rate of women in other sectors. Half of Black and/or Latinx child care workers live in poverty. The majority of child care workers do not have health insurance benefits, paid sick time, or paid vacation time. We trust the private child care sector with our precious children and yet the caregivers are systemically undervalued through poverty wages and inadequate access to employer benefits. We are lying to ourselves if we believe our children can receive the best care from an undervalued and exploited workforce.
We were not too far from universal, federally subsidized child care in the United States. Congress passed a bi-partisan supported comprehensive child care bill in 1971. President Nixon vetoed the bill and paved the road for our current expensive and inequitable child care system. It’s not too late for the government to change our nation’s trajectory and build a system that strengthens families.
As we look at the post COVID-19 economic and social recovery, it’s worth a visit to our history and examine ways to rebuild childcare from the ground up and see where our policies went wrong. We need to ask ourselves the hard questions: Why did we decide to make a profit off our children’s need for care to begin with? Why have we decided that profit comes before our child care workers’ dignity and their right to a living wage? How can we address systemic racial and economic disparities in the child care sector?
Our priority for profit over people has resulted in a grim reality that will only further challenge Texan families’ lives in a post COVID-19 world. We know affordable, safe, and universal child care is foundational to a thriving state- let’s not leave it behind. Texas families and child care workers are counting on it.