For a little while, life in America was different. The pandemic brought mass death and gave rise, temporarily, to a stronger welfare state. Three years on though, that welfare state is vanishing. A recent report from the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, draws attention to part of the problem: a looming child-care cliff. On September 30, a third of the child-care programs supported by the American Rescue Plan Act’s stabilization funds are set to expire, which means that around 3.2 million children could lose their spots. “Child care for millions of children and families nationwide will begin to disappear,” researchers write, “with dire consequences for children, families’ earnings, and state economies.”
Families would then face difficult choices, researchers add: Many parents will leave the workforce to stay home with their children, which would cost families an estimated $9 billion in earnings. Families and workers find their causes linked: When the former suffers, so does the latter. If lawmakers don’t step in, the child-care industry could lose some 232,000 jobs.
Politicians in both parties brandish pro-family rhetoric as though it can shield them from criticism. The Republican Party is particularly fond of such language as it scaffolds its anti-abortion zeal, but public remarks from members never line up with policies that meaningfully address the needs of families. In the gap between talk and action, families live with harsh realities. America is rare as a nation that does not guarantee parental leave. The pandemic simply exposed old cracks in the child-care and early-education system. ARPA funds papered over those cracks, but more permanent solutions are in order. Lawmakers don’t suffer from a lack of political imagination; they can act, as ARPA itself made clear. The problem is a lack of political will. The child-care cliff is a policy choice.
As funds expire, the country is set to regress. Child care was already in crisis by the time the pandemic struck. High costs burdened even middle-class families, and as researchers point out in the report, slightly more than half the country lived in a “child-care desert,” which the report defines as “an area where there are more than three children under age 5 for each licensed child-care slot.” Child-care homes and home-based child-care (HBCC) slots were also declining, researchers add. “One study found that the number of HBCC providers on state administrative lists has declined by 25 percent across the country over the past decade, despite the significant demand,” they write. “Similarly, the number of small child-care centers — those serving fewer than 25 children — declined by nearly 30 percent prior to the pandemic.” Families had few options, and child-care closures during the pandemic further deprived them.
As researchers note, ARPA funds kept the child-care sector from falling into total collapse — and in doing so kept many families afloat. Should funds disappear at the end of September, parents may have no choice but to cut back hours or leave the workforce altogether. That could destabilize the millions of households living paycheck to paycheck. “Research has repeatedly shown that even short disruptions in work can lead to long-term lifelong earnings losses,” researchers write. The effects can be especially pronounced for women: “Even reducing hours to work part-time can have negative effects on lifelong earnings for women.” Women lost 2 million more jobs than men in the early stages of the pandemic. Though they’ve since returned to the workforce at a faster pace than men, a fall off the child-care cliff could threaten the progress they’ve made.
Pandemic relief makes the case that federal investment, not the magic of the free market, is the best way to shore up child care and early education. “The distribution of emergency relief funds during the pandemic alleviated these issues and demonstrated that government support of child care through tuition waivers, stipends, reimbursements, expanded eligibility, and direct payments to parents and providers alike can keep child care programs open and parents in the workforce,” researchers point out. “A child-care sector without public funding that is once again simply left to ‘the market’ to support will see the return of long-term problems.” A few politicians have internalized that lesson, and some states are taking steps to protect their child-care sectors. The researchers cite Governor Janet Mills of Maine, a Democrat, who has proposed allocating $24 million in federal funds for child care and early education to continue ARPA’s investments in educator wages and professional development opportunities.
At the federal level, however, progress is slow. Though there isn’t much evidence that the free market can resolve America’s child-care crisis, federal intervention will be a tough sell to Republicans and conservative Democrats alike. The Child Care for Working Families Act, proposed by Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, and Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, would lower costs and increase the supply of child-care slots, but it suffers from unfortunate odds in the Republican-controlled House. In the absence of legislative solutions, families suffer — and that means kids suffer, too. When families lose their spots in a quality child-care setting, their households experience a level of instability that harms children and parents alike. That’s a national emergency. Lawmakers should respond in kind.