Who will fill the child-care gap?

Who will fill the child-care gap?

The child-care system in this country is broken — and exacerbated by the pandemic

SAXTONS RIVER — During the years when I worked internationally on MCH - maternal and child health - our mission was to save the lives of mothers and children in the so-called developing world through several primary-health-care practices. The “twin engines” driving child survival were immunization and diarrheal disease control. Family planning was the start point for women's health.

Today, MCH takes on new meaning: maternal and child hell. Its driving engines are lack of child care and mothers driven out of the workforce because of it.

The crisis in child care is not new, but it is exacerbated by the pandemic. Even affluent families who can afford reliable child care are feeling the effect.

The Child Care Is Essential Act introduced in the Senate in June would help, if Mitch McConnell and Republicans weren't in the majority. Driven by COVID-19, the bill would appropriate $50 billion for a Child Care Stabilization Fund to award grants to child care providers during the public health crisis. Without this act - currently stalled in committee - many facilities will close.

If corporations, universities, and other workplaces don't offer onsite day care, who will fill the gap? It's a difficult question for people who work freelance, for people who are unemployed but looking for work, and, of course, for undocumented workers.

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According to the Department of Labor, 30 million people have lost their jobs since COVID-19 appeared. For working moms, already struggling with the work/home balance, this could have long-term negative consequences, including lost opportunities, less upward mobility in the workplace, lower incomes (impacting Social Security and pensions), and difficulty getting back into the job market.

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighting how women's careers could be derailed because of the pandemic noted that “juggling work and family life has never been easy.” For mothers, the pandemic makes coping especially exhausting as traditional gender roles and pay disparities re-emerge as issues. Without child care, working moms are forfeiting or delaying careers because they are still prime caretakers of families and children.

As Joan Williams, head of the Center for Worklife Law at the University of California Hastings Center said in the WSJ article, “Opening economies without childcare is a recipe for a generational wipeout of mother's careers.”

Women who try to maintain careers or jobs often face situations like a woman in San Diego did when she was fired because the firm said her young children were interrupting Zoom meetings. She sued.

At Florida State University things didn't go that far. Following an email to all employees that the university would “return to normal policy and [would] no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely,” the hue and cry forced FSU to back down and issue an apology.

Last March, 2,000 mothers working for Amazon organized an advocacy campaign urging the company to provide a backup child-care benefit as Apple and other corporate giants do.

These workers are not the only ones to organize like this. In most cases, the results are not yet clear.

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What's clear is that the child-care system in this country is broken and has been ever since women became educated, rejected confining their role to marriage and motherhood, and joined the ranks of working women at all levels of a society that has never caught up with that sociological change.

Nor has it realized its obligation and co-responsibility for raising children while committing to work/home balance for the good of American families.

There is an economic gain to seeing the light, however.

Child care allows parents to work, and their working contributes to economic growth. According to the Center for American Progress, U.S. businesses lose more than $12 billion annually because of challenges workers face in seeking child care; and the cost of lost earnings, productivity, and revenue due to the child-care crisis totals an estimated $57 billion each year.

Along with businesses and other employers, states clearly have a role to play in establishing family-friendly benefits for every household but especially for low-income families and families of color. Federal action is also needed, and that action is supported by voters across the political landscape.

With half of Americans living in so-called “child-care deserts,” long-term policy changes are imperative. In addition to including families at all levels of society in the national conversation, government must move beyond relying on disparate organizations to plug the holes.

There needs to be a substantial shift in corporate culture such that universal child care is the norm. Without that, the very nature of “family” will be made to shift in the direction of the affluent, as so much of U.S. policy has done already.

We need to understand and act on the relationships, or “intersectionality,” of race, gender, and economics, which are all part of the fabric of social justice.

Surely, the time to value our children enough that we ensure their safety and healthy development is now. The time to recognize the contributions women make to the workplace and the economy as well as the family is also now.

In short, the time to leave the desert is now.

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