Dragging California’s child care crisis into the light
This story first appeared on Capital & Main.
Addressing the child care crisis, worsened by the pandemic, is a matter of equity on several fronts. Black mothers have borne the brunt of the child care crisis, according to The Fuller Project, a nonpartisan global newsroom that centers reporting on women. Child care that’s unaffordable or inaccessible disproportionately impacts Black moms, “who are more likely to be breadwinners and take on a larger share of child care, compared to other parent groups, economists say.”
The child care crisis in California has long been a story hiding in plain sight. As with other facets of life in the Golden State, the pandemic exacerbated child care issues that have been simmering for years if not decades; from 2019 to 2021, the state lost nearly 18,000 spaces in licensed care facilities, adding to an ever-growing shortage.
The through line isn’t hard to follow. Child care workers are paid wages well below those of pre-K or kindergarten teachers, and many of them didn’t return to their jobs after the peak of the pandemic. The resulting shortage of spaces at centers, coupled with prices that many families cannot meet, means that some working parents have to decide whether to cut back their own jobs — or give them up entirely — in order to care for their children.
Again: Not a new story. Only now we have numbers to go with it. And what those numbers tell is the kind of tale that may prompt policymakers to sit up and consider the issue from a different perspective.
The child care crisis costs the U.S. $122 billion a year, according to a new report by ReadyNation, a business coalition, and the Council for a Strong America, which lobbies for child care policy. That total represents an estimate of the impact of lost wages, lost business revenue and lost tax revenue that can be directly traced to workers experiencing child care problems.
The figure is more than twice what it was in 2018, when the two groups issued a similar report. (Both reports were based on the survey responses of hundreds of workers across the country, not just in California). And the 2023 report contains some staggering nuggets:
- For every child under age 3 without sufficient child care, families lose an average of $5,520 per working parent in forgone earnings and time spent looking for work. Taxpayers wind up with $21 billion less in tax revenue.
- More than half of those surveyed said they’d been distracted at work within the last three months because of a child care issue — and 44% said they had missed part of a shift to deal with it.
- Four in 10 said they had been demoted, let go or fired “as a result of child care problems.”
California carries a significant chunk of the financial burden described in the report. Its $17 billion total is far greater than that of any other state, with Texas a distant second at $11.4 billion in estimated costs related to child care shortages.
“That’s telling, because we think of our state as this very progressive, inclusive sort of place,” said Max Vargas, vice president of economic justice for the L.A.-based advocacy group the Latino Community Foundation. “But the rising cost of child care, and the lack of access to it, is driving many people out of their jobs.”
The pandemic reshaped the workforce, but it also bifurcated it into those whose jobs could be done from home and those who had to be on site. As Vargas noted, women of color are overrepresented in low-wage jobs and underrepresented in high-wage jobs.
“And as we all know, those higher-paying jobs are also the most flexible, the ones most likely to allow you to do them at home if you need to,” Vargas said. “Not surprisingly, Latinas left the workforce in higher numbers than anyone else during the pandemic, because they needed to be home with their children. A lot of them did a simple cost/benefit analysis and quit.”
Now, with businesses largely reopened, the child care question has swung back into view. The issues themselves, though, haven’t changed much: There isn’t enough care available, and what there is often costs too much.
The shrinking of child care slots can be traced to that diminished workforce. According to the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, California is still running almost 6% behind pre-pandemic levels of employment in the child care industry. One likely reason: The median hourly wage for a child care worker in the state was $13.43 in 2019, the most recent period for which the center has data. The median for a preschool teacher was $16.83. And even the director of a child care center ($24.78) made far less than a kindergarten teacher ($41.86).
“California also has more basic challenges,” said Anna Powell, a senior research and policy associate at the center. “There’s a high cost of living for the families and the children, and also for the child care workers. Fundamentally, a lot of parents can’t afford the cost of care, and a lot of the workers are just not paid what they’re worth.”
The federal and state response to COVID’s strafing of the economy may hold clues for how to proceed on child care issues. Federal stimulus payments kept 1.7 million Californians out of poverty, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, and the state’s enhanced unemployment insurance prevented another 1 million residents from falling into poverty.
Much of that relief came via the American Rescue Plan Act, whose provisions have largely expired. Powell suggested that the state consider a similar type of enhanced funding — either to child care workers directly or to child care centers, with the money earmarked for workers’ wages. California policymakers should also consider expanding existing state programs that do things like subsidize available slots in child care centers.
According to the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, the number of available spaces in licensed child care centers shrunk from 706,334 in 2019 to 688,462 in 2021. That is a 3% decrease that the state cannot sustain. The strain on its working families is obvious.
“There is financial support needed — both public and private,” Vargas said. “This is an issue that requires attention on both sides.” The numbers themselves are speaking louder and louder.
© Capital & Main