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Universal Childcare

America is facing a childcare crisis.

American moms are on the brink.

American children are bearing the brunt.

The American childcare system is an interwoven crisis for parents, childcare workers, and children themselves. It didn't start with the COVID-19 pandemic — it's been a crisis for decades.

More than half of American parents make career decisions based solely on the staggering cost of childcare. For the first time since the 1970s, the percentage of women choosing to stay home after giving birth is increasing because childcare is unaffordable, and in many cases, inaccessible. The United States is simply not investing enough in the wellness of its children and families; it ranks near the bottom of advanced nations in both maternal and child poverty and in child wellness.

It's time to fund childcare as a public good.

By the numbers

  • Childcare costs more than college tuition in 28 U.S. states.

  • For a single adult without children, childcare worker wages are only considered livable in 10 states.

  • 86% of primary caregivers have said problems with childcare hurt their efforts or time commitment at work.

  • The lack of childcare in America costs the United States $57 billion each year in lost earnings, productivity and revenue.

  • Single parents spend nearly 40% of their pre-tax income on childcare annually.

  • 1 in 7 American children live in poverty.

Childcare is an economic issue:

If the U.S. had similar labor force participation rates to Canada or Germany, countries with labor market policies such as paid leave, workplace flexibility, and affordable childcare, we would have roughly 5.5 million more women working, and would put an additional $500 billion into the U.S. economy.

American parents spend nearly twice as much of their income on childcare as parents in other industrialized countries. In spite of the relatively high cost of quality care—often out of reach for working families—childcare centers operate on razor-thin profit margins and many pay their staff at or near minimum wage. Women, disproportionately women of color and immigrant women, make up 94% of childcare workers, and despite the high cost of childcare to parents, about 50% of childcare providers live on public assistance. Many providers can’t afford childcare for their own children. Childcare workers earn approximately $10 per hour, less than one-third of what Kindergarten teachers earn.

Attempts at Universal Childcare in America:

There have been two times in American history where we came close to having government-supported childcare. During World War II, an amendment to the Lanham Act established 3,000 subsidized childcare centers to enable mothers to go to work and join the war effort. A federal legislator argued, “You cannot have a contented mother working in a war factory if she is worrying about her children, and you cannot have children running wild in the streets without a bad effect on the coming generations.” Those government-subsidized childcare centers were closed after the war. In 1971, the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act passed the Senate 63 to 17. This bill would have provided childcare on a sliding scale to all American children and was wildly popular; however, Nixon vetoed it.

Childcare in the United States Military:

For all the pushback we see in establishing universal childcare, we already do have one high-quality Universal Childcare program in America — our military’s. The Department of Defense spends more than $1 billion a year to cover about two-thirds of the cost of childcare for our service members. In 1989, the Military Child Care Act established strict childcare standards for all military programs that greatly exceed requirements for civilian childcare. Ninety-seven percent of military childcare programs have been independently accredited, versus just 12% of civilian programs.  

The United States government must significantly invest in childcare in a similar manner to the K-12 public education system to make it affordable for the average American household.

What we're doing about it

The current childcare market does not work for working mothers and families. Vote Mama Foundation is conducting a 50-state review and in-depth policy analysis into federal and state laws and regulations, regarding the quality and cost of childcare in the United States and their economic impacts on American families. Childcare is the backbone of our economy. We are working to ensure all American families have access to quality, affordable childcare.

We believe that our best bet at making Universal Childcare a reality is to elect more moms — who understand at a visceral level what it’s like not to be able to find quality and affordable childcare — at all levels of government across the country.

Childcare Quality

We cannot say with confidence that America's children are protected by state licensing and oversight systems. Nor can we say that childcare policies are in place to help young children learn and be ready for school.

The United States is the only wealthy nation in the world without paid family leave — 1 in 4 mothers are forced to return to work just 10 days after giving birth. Without paid family leave, many American parents find themselves with few options, and are forced to place their weeks-old infants in group-care of questionable quality for up to 10 hours each day. 

Each week, 12.5 million children under the age of five attend some type of regular childcare arrangement, however there are no national standard training requirements for childcare workers. Only 21 states require some training in early childhood education, 12% of center-based programs are accredited, and only 1% of family childcare homes are accredited. 

Childcare is a health and human rights issue.

Childcare standards for military programs greatly exceed requirements for civilian childcare.

The 1989 Military Child Care Act established strict childcare standards for all military program, including:

  • All childcare centers must be licensed

  • Unannounced quarterly inspection visits 

  • Directors and training specialists must have at least a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education or Child Development

  • Pre-service training in first-aid, CPR, child abuse identification, fire, and other health and safety practices prior to working alone with children

  • 24 hours of annual training

  • State and federal background checks with fingerprints

  • Programs to offer learning activities and opportunities to children and address various developmental domains

Laws vary widely state by state and as a result the safety and availability of childcare is variable. There are 16 states that fully exempt religious institutions with childcare centers from licensing rules. Indiana is one of them.

In a 4 year period, Indiana saw the death of 31 children in childcare centers — 21 occurred at unlicensed or illegal day care centers. The American Academy of Pediatrics states there should be 1 childcare provider to every 3 children aged 6-18 months, but this is not the norm in childcare centers across the country. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ranked 38 industrialized countries in children’s well-being, and the United States came in 36th.

States recognize quality childcare programs in a number of ways, including accreditation from early childhood organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and ratings through a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). A Child Care Aware survey showed that only 48% of center-based childcare programs participated in QRIS, and a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development survey found that only 10% of childcare centers across the United States are considered high quality.

The Department of Defense understands how important high-quality childcare is for both the health and development of children and the readiness and retention for service members. M.-A. Lucas, Founding Executive Director of Army Child, Youth & School Services, has said that “In the Army, childcare is called a 'Force Multiplier.' What this means is that Army leadership recognizes that childcare helps reduce the conflicts between meeting mission requirements and parental responsibilities. I think we would all agree these links also exist in the private sector.” 

Vote Mama Foundation is working to build a national movement to pass Universal Childcare, but access is only one piece of the puzzle. We must also address childcare quality.

What we're advocating for

  • Creating a national standard to ensure that all childcare centers have a safe child to staff ratio

  • Eliminating the religious exemption so that all childcare centers are licensed and regulated and our kids are protected

  • Investing in our childcare workforce by:

    • Paying our childcare workers a living wage

    • Ensuring safe working conditions

    • Providing access to training and professional development

Childcare Deserts

Childcare is a critical piece of our economic infrastructure, just like roads and bridges.

A childcare desert is an area with limited or no access to quality childcare, and more than half of Americans live in one. While market principles dictate the supply of childcare should rise to meet demand, many of the most important aspects of quality childcare are externalities — risks and benefits that the market cannot respond to. Providing quality resources and staffing ratios is expensive — unlike with older children, each childcare worker should only supervise three infants at a time. Childcare subsidies do exist, but only 1 in 6 eligible families receive them, and they are not adequate to cover high costs of care for infants and toddlers. Even with childcare workers making poverty-level wages, parents cannot afford to make up the difference, nor should they have to. The benefits of well-raised children extend well beyond the household, and the costs of raising children well easily outstrip household budgets. We are one of the only wealthy nations that does not provide a legal right to early childhood education for children from birth to 5 years of age.

The true demand for childcare does not translate into market pressure because childcare is not a private good, despite the fact that the United States currently treats it as one. The repercussions of this market failure harm American families, and thus, harm us all.

By the numbers

  • 83% of parents with a child under 5 years of age report that finding quality, affordable childcare is a serious problem in their area.

  • American companies lose an estimated ​$12.7 billion each year due to childcare challenges faced by their workforce.

  • Maternal labor force participation is 3% lower in childcare deserts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated the timeline of the childcare crisis we have been facing for decades. By April 2020, one third of childcare providers had lost their jobs, and rehiring in the industry has since plateaued with only about half of those jobs returned. Roughly half of the already inadequate number of childcare slots in the United States are at risk of permanent loss. 

This follows what we already knew about childcare supply before the pandemic. Fifty one percent of all families live in childcare deserts, but that rate is 60% for Hispanic families. Despite being less likely to have access to childcare themselves, over 40% of childcare workers are women of color, and half of childcare businesses are minority owned. Because childcare centers run on razor thin margins, childcare works wages are so low, and parents are already stretched thin to pay for childcare at existing prices, the market disincentivizes infant and toddler care, particularly in areas where family income is lower and subsidies are not accessible. Childcare is low-wage work and still costs more than low-wage jobs pay.

Over the past year, nearly 1.5 million mothers have left the workforce. This exacerbates existing inequalities — mothers are leaving the workforce at higher rates than fathers, and declines in labor force participation among Black and Hispanic women are more than double that of white women. 

Lack of access to childcare is a major barrier to class mobility.
When childcare providers are pushed out of the workforce, parents are forced to do the same.

This is particularly true in the context of federal benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which are only available to parents who work.  Further, even though more than 1 in 5 college students are parents and more than half are parents of children under 5 years old, the majority do not have access to on-campus childcare or even information about the resources available to them as student parents. These parents are disproportionately women and people of color, and due in part to lack of access to childcare, their graduation rates are 30% lower than students who are not parents.

Because when our legislature does not reflect our population, kitchen table issues stay in the kitchen.

Navigating the childcare market is complex for families even in ideal circumstances. Parents must consider location, schedule, finances, and perhaps most importantly, quality and fit for their child. It is no simpler at the macro level. Ensuring an adequate supply of childcare combines consideration of gender and racial equality, labor rights, business administration, and child welfare. Children, parents, teachers, communities, and schools are more than just numbers in an analysis. They are whole, unique beings with their own needs, desires, and ambitions. As stakeholders, not only do they deserve a seat at the table, we need them in seats in the legislature. Multifaceted problems like this require many perspectives to see in their entirety, and mothers’ perspectives are critical.

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