Child care providers across the country are planning protests and shutdowns on Monday in the hopes of reminding federal and state lawmakers they desperately need government assistance.
Officials from Community Change, the progressive grassroots group leading the effort, told HuffPost that nearly 300 providers from 25 states have already signed up to be part of what they are calling “A Day Without Child Care: National Day of Action.”
In a conference call on Thursday, several of the participating providers talked about their plights as they try to stay in business at a time when they can’t pay enough to attract and keep workers ― and when they can’t ask families to pay more because so many parents already struggle with child care’s high costs.
“We can no longer afford to wait,” said BriTanya Bays, a provider from West Texas who will be closing her doors on Monday and helping to lead a march at the Texas state capitol in Austin. “Our families are out of options. It feels like we all know that child care is essential, but it’s time for the world to feel what it’s like to go a day without child care right now, to prevent it from becoming our permanent reality.”
The demonstrations will come at a time when prospects of enacting a major new federal initiative on child care seem slim.
President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress had hoped to enact one, as part of their “Build Back Better” legislation. But the legislation depended on near-unanimous support among Democrats in Congress because Republicans would not support it, and a lone Democratic senator ― Joe Manchin of West Virginia ― effectively killed the legislation in December when he objected to its overall size and structure.
“It’s time for the world to feel what it’s like to go a day without child care right now, to prevent it from becoming our permanent reality.”
Manchin, whose West Virginia constituents are dealing with the same child care problems as other Americans, has said he remains interested in passing a narrower piece of legislation. But that effort has also stalled. In recent public statements, he has not mentioned early childhood programs as a provision he imagines as part of a final bill.
Frustration with this situation ― and the lack of federal action more generally ― was a big theme on Thursday’s conference call.
“Congress had so many opportunities to address this, but they continue to let us down time and time again,” Bays said.
A new crisis and an old problem
Unlike most of its peer nations, the U.S. does not treat child care as a public good or guarantee access to families who need it. Instead, the expectation is that working parents will find a way to pay for child care largely on their own, with limited federal, state or local government assistance available only in some instances ― and only for some people.
The resulting system can be tough on everybody who is part of it.
“The scale of the child care problem isn't one that localities can solve on their own.”
Families that aren’t wealthy have a hard time finding and then paying for providers they trust will take good care of their kids. Providers, unable to raise fees, have a hard time hiring and then holding onto well-qualified workers.
As for the workers ― who are mostly women and disproportionately, women of color ― have a hard time surviving on their meager paychecks. As of 2018, more than half were on some form of public assistance, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California-Berkeley.
These problems got worse during the pandemic. During its earlier stages, public health protocols and COVID-19 related absences reduced both staff availability and revenue for providers. More recently, as caseloads have fallen and activity has picked up, providers haven’t been able to raise wages enough to keep up with retail and hospitality businesses that draw from the same labor pool.
“I’ve experienced first-hand not being able to compete with retail stores like Walmart, who’s starting pay at $11 an hour,” said Kelly Dawn Jones, a child care provider from Indianapolis.
Overall, at least 15,000 providers shuttered during the pandemic, while one in three working families have reported having a hard time finding child care, according to a series of estimates from early childhood advocacy organizations and independent researchers.
A push for federal action
Things would have been much worse if not for temporary COVID-19 relief measures, which may have prevented an additional 75,000 providers from closing, according to a report from the Century Foundation.
The idea of the Democratic initiative in Build Back Better was to provide even more government support for child care for a much longer period of time by making subsidies available to nearly all working families ― which, in turn, would enable providers to charge higher prices that could support a better-paid workforce.
It’s possible talks over some version of that initiative will resume ― or that Congress will find some other way to support child care, perhaps through a bipartisan, less ambitious effort.
States and local authorities could also act on their own, as some are already doing.
In July, for example, San Francisco will start spending $60 million annually to raise child care worker salaries, carrying out a plan that voters approved in 2018. The program will set a wage floor of $28 an hour, which is closer to what the city’s public school teachers make, in the hopes of addressing drastic labor shortages that have left families scrambling to find care.
But these isolated efforts will, by definition, have isolated effects ― a point providers hope their demonstrations will emphasize.
“The scale of the child care problem isn’t one that localities can solve on their own,” said Janna Rodriguez, a provider from Freeport, New York. “We are one of the richest countries in the world and have the funds we need for our families.”