Our Current Childcare System Has Failed
Today, universal childcare seems like a distant dream to most working-class mothers. Those who are able to afford the exorbitant rates, costing as much as $30,000 a year in some places, usually have few options and wait on long lists to get into the centers that exist — sometimes from before conception.
Worse yet, the quality of childcare has been so low that children are often in dangerous conditions, sometimes with fatal consequences. Megan Erickson wrote in 2018 that in fact, “a recent report on childcare quality and oversight of regulated centers compiled by the advocacy organization Child Care Aware of America, not one state earned an ‘A.’ The only program to earn a ‘B’ was the Department of Defense’s, which is run by the federal government. Ten, including New York, earned a ‘C,’ twenty-one states earned a ‘D,’ and nineteen failed.”
The miserable working conditions of the teachers caring for infants and toddlers, which are some of the worst-paid jobs in the country, have a lot to do with the quality of care as well. Anyone who has ever spent an hour with a single infant or toddler would gape in horror at the thought of spending a whole day with a dozen of them, often with no breaks. It is almost impossible to offer consistent, good quality, and safe childcare to children in those conditions, despite the many instances of teachers rising above their circumstances.
The failure of the private system is obvious to anyone in it today, parent or teacher. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and even the Wall Street Journal all agree that the economic fallout of the pandemic has left the industry in a serious crisis, and this crisis in turn feeds the economic one by preventing many parents from returning to work. Some have even argued for government intervention. This consensus from mainstream media (not to mention its pop-star-level popularity) could make the struggle for universal childcare more winnable.
Biden’s childcare plan actually calls for universal prekindergarten for three- and four-year-olds, in addition to a tax credit of up to $8,000 for families with a child under five years old (or $16,000 for two or more children) to help cover childcare expenses. The plan details: “Access to high-quality, affordable child care and offer universal preschool to three-and four-year-olds through greater investment, expanded tax credits, and sliding-scale subsidies.” Building “safe, energy-efficient, developmentally appropriate child care facilities, including in workplaces, so that parents and guardians never again have to search in vain for a suitable child care option.” And finally, “treat caregivers and early childhood educators with respect and dignity, and give them the pay and benefits they deserve, training and career ladders to higher-paying jobs, the choice to join a union and bargain collectively, and other fundamental work-related rights and protections.”
All this would be a great step forward, but there are a few holes here to watch for. Expanded tax credits and sliding-scale subsidies are not a recipe for universal care; it smacks of the same patchwork of public and private entities that exists for example in New York. A universal system would, like the existing public school system, be actually universal. In other words, it would not be means-tested and would be basically free for all.
And tax credits for the cost to care for children under three leaves day care inaccessible to many, since the cost varies significantly depending on location, and even a 50 percent subsidy doesn’t guarantee affordability. And it doesn’t guarantee the quality of the childcare.
In part, the problem is that much of the argument for high-quality education for three- and four-year-olds rests on helping children do better in school over the long term. Thus Cecilia Rouse, tapped to chair the Council of Economic Advisers and senior editor of Princeton University’s Future of Children journal, has written, “estimates based on some older pre-K programs suggest that every dollar invested in prekindergarten pays off $3 to $17 in terms of benefits, both to the adult individual and to society.”
But the same has not been proven true for infants and toddlers. And since it does not immediately translate to excelling in school, and later at work, it is deemed less important. Sending your child to care that you trust and your child loves while you work is treated as a luxury service.