The Child Care Crisis Needs A Lot More Attention Than It's Getting

Working parents and their kids are in trouble, but prospects for major legislation have dimmed.

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This past week has been full of news, including the Jan. 6 hearings and bipartisan agreement on a gun violence bill. The Supreme Court handed down a major decision on church and state, with landmark rulings on guns and abortion coming soon ― maybe even this week.

HuffPost has been all over these stories if you need to catch up. I’d especially recommend last week’s series imagining a post-Roe America ― including Alanna Vagianos on how conservatives are trying to cut off access to abortion pills, Travis Waldron on the connections between anti-abortion and anti-democracy movements, and Nathalie Baptiste on the disproportionate impact abortion bans have on Black women.

But for today’s newsletter, I’d like to write about something else that really should be getting more coverage: the crisis in American child care, which is causing tangible, serious hardship for millions of parents and their kids.

About one in three families with young children encountered “serious problems” finding child care last year, according to a survey that came out in October. And there’s plenty of other data out there just like it.

I’m familiar with child care because I’ve covered the issue for a decade, plus I’ve been the working parent of young children. But a story I saw on Tuesday got my attention in a way few have recently.

It involved a scene from a chain café, a passage from Jane Addams’ memoir and a stateside episode from World War II.

A New Problem That’s Actually Pretty Old

The story was in a Medium post by John Duong, who leads the venture capital arm of a higher education foundation. While working at a neighborhood café, he spotted a young girl asleep in a booth. She looked 2, maybe 3 years old, Duong wrote. He figured her mom or dad was in the restroom. Later he realized that her father worked there and had brought her to work, checking on her every now and then ― presumably, because he didn’t have or couldn’t afford child care.

I say “presumably” because Duong didn’t get the backstory, so there’s no way to be sure. But the scene made me think immediately of two periods in U.S. history when this kind of thing was common.

One was the early 20th century, when families in the big cities for factory work would leave their kids alone, frequently at home and unsupervised ― in other words, they didn’t even have a parent checking on them regularly the way the dad in the café was.

Jane Addams, writing in her memoir “Twenty Years at Hull-House,” recounted what happened to three children she met in Chicago: “One had fallen out of a third-story window, another had been burned, and the third had a curved spine due to the fact that for three years he had been tied all day long to the leg of the kitchen table, only released at noon by his older brother who hastily ran in from a neighboring factory to share his lunch with him.”

The other historical antecedent was during World War II, when women were working in factories while men were fighting overseas. “Stories of children locked in cars adjacent to factories, chained to temporary trailer homes, and left in movie theaters quickly filled newspapers and eventually became the subject of congressional hearings,” Chris Herbst, a professor of public affairs at Arizona State University, explained in a 2017 paper about the Lanham Act, which set up a network of government-run child care centers.

The Lanham program might have become the basis for a permanent national system, if only the federal government had kept it going. But it didn’t. The next and really only serious attempt to create a national plan took place in 1971, when Congress passed a bipartisan bill that President Richard Nixon vetoed following opposition from conservatives.

That has left U.S parents struggling, in a way that their counterparts in peer countries don’t. But politicians barely noticed ― until relatively recently.

A Political Window That Looked Wide Open

Child care got serious attention in the 2016 presidential campaign (from Hillary Clinton) and again in 2020 (from all the top Democratic presidential candidates). It also was the focus of a sweeping proposal that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Md.) developed and then promoted with the help of outside advocacy groups.

Then the pandemic hit. At first, working parents couldn’t find child care because providers had to shut down. Later, as child care providers started opening up again, they couldn’t hire enough workers. The root of the problem is that child care salaries are notoriously low, making the jobs less attractive; at the same time, providers don’t have the money to raise salaries, because they’re already charging as much if not more than many parents can afford.

It felt like exactly the sort of political conditions it would take to pass significant legislation ― and, for much of 2021, it seemed like that would happen. President Joe Biden made child care (and caregiving more generally) a chief focus of his “Build Back Better” agenda. Democratic leaders included a version of the Murray-Scott proposal in the legislation.

We all know what happened to that bill: It died in December when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said it was too big, depriving Democrats of the 50th vote they needed. Democrats have been quietly (and, lately, not so quietly) working to save some portion of that legislation, but so far there’s not a lot of public talk about including child care in the bill.

The Obstacles To Change, Then And Now

It’s difficult to separate out the failure of the original child care proposal from the failure of the original Build Back Better ― which, depending on your perspective, is the fault of Manchin, Democratic leaders, broader political constraints including unanimous Republican opposition, or some combination of those factors.

But two other factors were obviously important too.

One is that enacting any kind of notable welfare state expansion in the U.S. is extraordinarily difficult, both because the structural design of the U.S. legislative process deters it and because public faith in government is at historic lows.

The other is that child care is still seen by many as a “women’s problem” ― which in a sense is accurate, because women typically shoulder responsibility for child care disproportionately ― and men still hold disproportionate power in Washington.

That seems to be changing, slowly, as women gain more influence. It’s no coincidence that this latest effort happened at a time when the House speaker, chair of the relevant Senate committee and vice president were all women ― and that the president happened to be a man who, unusually for men of his generation, has lots of experience as a caregiver for his children.

Some kind of child care legislation could still happen. Murray recently partnered with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on a more modest initiative that could squeeze into whatever legislation Biden and Democratic leaders get through this year ― or maybe even be the basis of a future bipartisan bill. A new study out this week by Herbst and a group of colleagues showed it could significantly lower child care costs for most families.

But nothing is going to happen if child care remains a second- or third-tier issue. It’s going to take more attention from politicians and, ultimately, more attention from the public. Maybe stories like the one about the little girl in the café can help make that happen.

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