Childcare in the U.S.:

Inadequate, Inaccessible, and Crucial to Working Families

In honor of Women’s History Month, SEF launched a series highlighting education and workforce equity issues that affect women and girls in the United States, especially the most vulnerable – women of color and those with the lowest levels of education – each of whom is over-represented in low-wage jobs.

As we close out Teacher Appreciation Week and celebrate National Provider Appreciation Day, we acknowledge the critical role that the 882,000 childcare providers play in the lives of children and their families. Children’s experiences and environments between birth and age five are foundational to their later good health, educational attainment and overall well-being. Every year, 3.8 million babies are born. One-and-a-half million of these babies live in the South, and most are disconnected from the educational, financial, and health resources they need to have a healthy start.

The pandemic negatively impacted access to quality childcare providers in outsized ways as health restrictions and higher operating costs forced many childcare providers to reduce enrollment capacity or close temporarily. The childcare workforce lost nearly 400,000 jobs, with 95 percent of those jobs held by women – 40 percent by women of color. Just half of those positions have returned, and recent estimates show that as many as half of all pre-COVID childcare programs have closed permanently.

These childcare provider closures further exacerbated longstanding inequities in access to quality childcare. A 2017 study from the Center for American Progress found that over half of the U.S. population lived in childcare deserts – 20 minutes or more from a licensed childcare provider. Deserts are especially common in rural and Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native communities, and in urban areas where the median family income is below average.

Childcare and workforce participation

Access to quality childcare is also a career and workforce issue and it impacts women the most. When families can find care, issues still arise for parents who work outside the typical 8am to 5pm window. For them, formal childcare options may simply not be available during all their working hours, leaving them to rely on a patchwork of care options. Of all the parents who dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic, nearly  two-thirds were mothers. Historically, the burden of childcare has been borne primarily by women – a continued trend during the pandemic. As childcare centers shuttered and schools shifted to remote learning, parents unable to work from home had to find alternative solutions, including cutting work hours or leaving the labor force entirely.

Black families are nearly twice as likely as white ones to have to make job sacrifices due to childcare challenges. As we noted in the first piece in our  Living, Learning, and Earning series, by January 2021 there were 2.3 million fewer women in the labor force than before the pandemic, with Black women’s unemployment rate remaining twice as high as white women’s. By March 2021, 1.5 million moms of school aged children were still missing from the pre-pandemic workforce. And jobs lost to Black and Latina women during the pandemic have returned at rates that lag behind those of white and Asian women.

The longer women remain out of the workforce, the harder it is for them to reenter. They lose their career momentum, and for many whose pre-pandemic jobs no longer exist, there’s little time to look or prepare for other career opportunities. Between virtual and hybrid schooling, increased responsibilities at home, and the permanent upheaval in many of the industries in which women are concentrated, millions of working mothers have been forced out of employment. Threatening long-lasting damage to the workforce, the childcare crisis is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Economic impact of low childcare access and high costs

Before the pandemic, childcare inadequacies cost states, businesses, and individuals millions every year – $57 billion a year nationwide. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation estimates that each state lost between $479 million to $3.47 billion in economic activity in 2019 alone. And parents who struggle to maintain childcare miss out on other career-related opportunities, such as enrolling in training programs and accepting promotions at work.

In 33 states, the cost of yearly attendance at a childcare center exceeds the annual tuition at an in-state public university and in 2020, just one in six families who were eligible for financial assistance received any. For many low-income families, especially those who lost hours or lost their jobs during the pandemic, higher costs may put care completely out of reach, assuming it wasn’t already.

The average cost of care for one child requires more than 10 percent of the national median income for a married couple with children under 18, the equivalent of 35 percent for a single working parent. The pandemic further increased the true cost of childcare by as much as 47 percent. Without significant investment, that both addresses the cost of childcare for low-income families and the crippling thin margins on which centers operate, the childcare crisis is likely to continue to have a negative effect on women’s workforce participation.

Recent policy advances have shown signs that childcare providers may truly get the appreciation they deserve. The recent $10 billion allocations through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) allow states to flexibly use funds to address these challenges with access, quality, and affordability. Among many options, states may use CCDBG funds to help childcare providers stay open and offset costs, to compensate childcare providers, and to reduce co-payments and enrollment fees to put childcare in reach for more families.

Today and every day, the Southern Education Foundation appreciates the role childcare providers play in creating a world where every child, regardless of neighborhood or background, enjoys a strong start to an education that propels them—and their families—toward the opportunity-rich life they deserve.