Childcare Is a [Fill-in-the-Blank] Issue

By Meagan Crowe and Max Altman // March 21, 2022

This blog is based on information in SEF’s recent report, “Economic Vitality and Education in the South: The South’s Pre-Pandemic Position.”

We would like to begin with a personal anecdote.

When Meagan was in graduate school, she was working a full-time job as a café and catering manager at an athletic club, taking a full courseload, and working 10 hours a week as a graduate research assistant (GRA) for a professor at Georgia State University. That’s more than 40 hours per week of full time work, 12 hours of weekly classes, and 10 hours for the research position, plus homework time. During this time she was also a single mom to a pre-school age son. Meagan was able to succeed in school while maintaining her full-time job, but this was only because, for two years, her son’s grandmother either paid for or provided childcare. Meagan didn’t make enough money to afford the nearly $1,200 a month that full-time childcare cost in her area, even with the full-time job and a stipend for her GRA work. And, with more than 60 committed hours every week for work and education, she certainly didn’t have the time to watch her son all day. In other words, had Meagan not been fortunate enough to have someone who was both willing and able to provide care for her son, she may well not have succeeded.

Meagan’s situation is not unique. There are thousands of parents and guardians who need to provide for their children while working full time (or more than full time at two or three separate jobs). Many of them also want to further their education, earn credentials, or take advantage of other opportunities that will help them get ahead and improve their quality of life. However, most parents do not have a family member who can provide or pay for childcare. Without free and reliable childcare, Meagan would likely have had to choose caring for her child over advancing her career and education, and she would not be here sharing this story now.

Millions of American parents and caregivers lack access to affordable childcare and early childhood education (ECE). That  deficiency, which prevents many adults from taking advantage of opportunities to advance, creates an enormous drag on the country’s economic potential. Childcare is not just a family issue, it is a major workforce and economic issue. Without it, many people either cannot advance their careers or even enter the workforce at all. According to the First Five Years Fund, “access to stable, high-quality child care helps parents improve their labor productivity by increasing work hours, missing fewer workdays, and pursuing further education.”

Parents of infants and toddlers are not the only beneficiaries of reliable childcare.  Working parents of school-age children often need care that extends beyond school hours. Now, as the Senior Analyst for Research and Policy at the Southern Education Foundation, Meagan works a 9-to-5 job with a 30+ minute commute each way. Her son’s elementary school day only lasts 6.5 hours, but she needs at least 10 hours of childcare per day. The other 3.5 hours of care cost her around $450 a month – a price unattainably high for many working parents and one that she likely can only afford now because she was able to take advantage of the opportunity to advance her career in the past.

Low wage earners, individuals in rural areas, and workers whose hours extend outside of the traditional 9-to-5 workday are most likely to have difficulty accessing childcare. According to the Center for American Progress, in 2018, more than half of the U.S. population lived in childcare deserts – areas with more than 50 children under age five that either have no childcare providers or have more than three times as many children as licensed childcare slots. Childcare deserts occur more frequently in Hispanic communities, in rural areas, and in urban communities with incomes in the bottom quintile – nearly 60 percent of each of these populations live in such areas.  The number of Americans with limited access to care options has grown due to the pandemic, during which thousands of childcare centers closed their doors because of decreasing enrollments, staffing issues, and rising costs associated with increased health and safety protocols.

Even when early childhood programming is available, it can be prohibitively expensive.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asserts that affordable childcare should account for no more than seven percent of a working family’s pre-tax income, but by 2020, infant childcare cost the average American family 16 percent of their pre-tax income. Black and Hispanic workers, who on average are paid less than their equally qualified White peers, spend, on average 22 and 18 percent, respectively of their family’s income on childcare.

Sadly, subsidizing childcare is not the solution for every family. If the government were to subsidize care so that it cost just seven percent of the U.S. median income, only 14 percent of families could afford it at their current income level.

In addition to being a race equity issue, a socio-economic equity issue, and a workforce issue, ECE is a gender equity issue: Research shows that when childcare is inaccessible or unaffordable, it is more often women who reduce work hours, forego promotions, or leave their jobs to care for children. Data from the pandemic makes this clear – between March and August 2021, nearly a third of women with children under 18 left their jobs to become primary caregivers, some permanently, compared with only one in ten men. Black and Hispanic women are even more likely to be impacted by inadequate childcare situations; not only are they more often breadwinners in their homes and more likely to be single parents, but they were also less likely than their White counterparts to be able to work from home during the pandemic.

Socio-economic and gender disparities are not only produced by our inadequate childcare system, however; they also exist within it. It is likely common knowledge by now that childcare workers are undervalued and deeply underpaid; and these workers are most often women (95 percent), and frequently women of color (38 percent are Black or Latinx, nearly double the prevalence of women of color in the United States population). In 2019, the median hourly wage for childcare workers was 13 dollars or less in every state. In the three lowest-paying states it was less than nine dollars. It is also worth noting that the undervaluing of childcare workers has historic underpinnings dating back to slavery and the Jim Crow era, when Black women were forced to raise children other than their own. It also stems from gender discrimination in the workforce, and the general undervaluing – and underpaying – of industries and occupations predominantly worked by Black people and by women. You can read more about race and gender discrimination in the workforce here and here.

The takeaway here: the system is broken, as it has been for a long time, and this causes major equity issues for both children and adults. Children with access to high-quality childcare and early childhood education experiences do better later in life. They are more likely to be academically prepared for Kindergarten and future grades. They are less likely to repeat a grade and more likely to graduate from high school. ECE has also been shown to reduce rates of depression and tobacco use later in life, meaning early learning experiences are also a public health issue. Perhaps most importantly, early learning experiences can help mitigate the harmful effects of childhood stress and poverty – one of the most reliable predictors of future student success. Finally, children who attend high-quality ECE programs are more likely to be employed and to earn higher wages later in life.

Childcare is a race issue. It is a socio-economic issue. It is a gender issue. It is a workforce issue. It is a public health issue. The effects of inadequate childcare and ECE on both parents and children, and the patterns in who has access to quality care and who does not, make many of these issues generational issues as well.

It would cost a great deal of money over a long period of time to build and maintain a system that works for all Americans, but the current cost of ignoring this failing system cannot be overstated. In 2019 alone, states lost between $479 million and $3.47 billion each in unrealized economic activity due to inadequate childcare. One study found that inadequate childcare costs the nation approximately $57 billion a year. That is not even to mention the individual returns for parents like Meagan who can continue to work and pursue further education when they have reliable childcare, but simply cannot without it, or the children like her son who are better prepared for elementary school academics and have the opportunity to practice social skills before entering the classroom. With the returns on investment so powerful, and the costs of doing nothing so steep, we as a nation must address this issue in a meaningful and permanent way.

The following are a few recommendations for policymakers to consider as they evaluate the costs and benefits of providing high-quality, affordable childcare and ECE to all children. If you’d like to read more on this subject, see the Southern Education Foundation’s Economic Vitality and Education in the South report.

  1. Expand access to free high-quality early childhood and free prekindergarten programs.
  2. Sustainably fund ECE programs based on fixed costs and annual enrollment numbers rather than attendance records, which change throughout the year.
  3. Ensure that all students receive a high-quality, developmentally appropriate curriculum and expand the use of appropriate, culturally responsive developmental assessments, and use reliable tools to identify struggling children at an earlier age.
  4. Use subsidies to reimburse childcare centers based on operating costs and real costs associated with providing quality care.
  5. Dedicate additional financial support to help centers meet quality and equity benchmarks and state licensing requirements.
  6. Raise wages for childcare workers and early education providers, including home-based providers, and ensure that alternative subsidy calculations include appropriate livable-wage estimations. States can establish minimum wage standards for their childcare system and convene educator wage boards to develop pay scales commensurate with educators’ training and experience.
  7. Gather a broad group of stakeholders around a unified vision for universal state childcare that provides quality, affordable childcare and early education opportunities to all families.


Meagan Crowe is SEF’s Senior Research & Policy Analyst and the author of the “Economic Vitality and Education in the South” report and Max Altman is SEF’s Director of Research & Policy.