One afternoon when I went to pick up my baby from daycare in Portland, my favorite worker there told me she was quitting. She had decided to become a house cleaner instead because working in a daycare center could not pay her bills.
This happened 40 years ago. Her story highlighted the lack of a reliable, affordable system of child care available to all who needed it and one that paid providers a living wage. As a journalist, I used her story for a column about the need to fix the system and efforts at that time in Congress to do so.
Fast forward four decades and not much has changed. Young families still struggle to find dependable quality affordable daycare. Child care workers can’t make ends meet. Demand continues to outpace supply. Lawmakers still haven’t found the will to get this problem solved despite some incremental steps.
I am now a grandparent and so this issue is on my radar again. With a weird sense of déjà vu, I read an article in The New York Times last fall about the shortage of childcare workers that described how some are quitting day care centers to work in better paid jobs cleaning offices and stocking shelves.
As I discovered when reporting on this issue 40 years ago, lots of concerned organizations and lawmakers are trying to do something about the child care problem. But is there the civic will to finally get something meaningful done?
The Washington Legislature has taken some incremental steps with the Fair Start for Kids Act and there are ongoing efforts to expand subsidies for families and find ways to assure that child care workers make a living wage.
Any help makes a difference, but so far it simply is not enough. We need to recognize that early education requires the same kind of investment we make in K-12 education.
“It is extremely difficult to find the revenue we need to finance this system,” acknowledges Ryan Pricco of Child Care Aware Washington. “We need to share with the public why this is worthy of a tax increase.”
I remain skeptical that lawmakers and their constituents will find the will to get the needed financing. Child care tends to often be viewed as women’s work and remains undervalued. There are still those people, men and women, who believe a mother’s place is at home taking care of her own children. I can’t even bring myself to argue with them because they are so out of step with reality. There are some households where one parent can afford to stay home but that is not the case for most families. According to the U.S. Census, two-thirds of mothers with children under six are in the workforce. They need child care.
Taking care of young children is hard work. If I’d forgotten, stepping in occasionally to help with my grandson reminded me what shear exhaustion really feels like. It also, as I know from those days with him, can be the most joyful and rewarding of work. But it is not work that produces a marketable product like designing a new app or building widgets or whatever. It is work that invests in the future.
To me, this is the heart of the child care debate. If we want the youngest members of our society to grow up with large hearts and engaged brains, if we want them to live lives informed by diversity, equity and inclusion, if we want them to help make our world better, those first months and years are crucial. They need to be cared for by individuals trained in child development and paid commensurately with the importance of their work — that they are valued for their critical role in how the next generations learn and grow.
There are child care workers who earn a good living. They are the nannies hired by parents with the means to pay a good wage and benefits, and also those that work in the child care centers where the fees are steep enough to cover better wages. The demand for these workers still outstrips availability. This high quality costly child care also means perpetuating from the very start the inequities that plague our society.
A report from the Washington Child Care Collaborative Task Force noted that: “Child care is not financed as a public good like elementary education and secondary education. In Washington, and across the country, individual families and child care providers carry the responsibility for financing child care, except for our state’s child care subsidy program for families with qualifying incomes. Yet the child care industry is unable to operate like other markets, where costs are set by supply and demand.”
To get a better handle on the state of child care today, I spoke with Pricco of Child Care Aware of Washington. The nonprofit was created by state statute in 1986 and incorporated in 1989. That’s the same time frame when I started writing about the issue after the child care worker in Portland I so admired quit to clean homes instead. I asked for his perspective on where we stand now versus four decades ago.
“Things haven’t gotten better and if anything they are worse,” said Pricco, Child Care Aware director of Policy and Advocacy. “The need for child care is greater now than 40 years ago, and families have a way more difficult time finding child care.”
Research shows that families are paying over a third of their income for child care (if they can find a spot) while those providing the care remain among the most poorly paid workers in Washington, at the third percentile.
Yet multiple studies over the years continue to emphasize why child care should matter to all of us. Those first few years of learning for a baby and toddler are key to that child’s later success in school and life. Some would say they are the most important years of anyone’s education. “We know that the first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out,” Bill Gates Senior once said when advocating for early childhood education.
As Pricco explains: “Ninety percent of a person’s brain develops before they set foot in kindergarten. Early child education lays the foundation for everything that comes after that. This is when kids learn the core skills they need to go through their lives no matter what they do.”
Skills like teamwork, listening, sharing, persevering.
Advocates stress the economic arguments in support of better funded child care. They point to how those early skills help children grow into productive members of society – more likely to succeed in school, fewer teen pregnancies, fewer ending up in the corrections system.
That’s one economic argument. The other is that our economy depends on working parents. We saw what happened early in the pandemic when parents tried working from home while taking care of their babies and young children at the same time. Women, in particular, ended up cutting back on their work hours or quitting, as documented by the Pew Research Center.
The pandemic “shined a bright light” on the importance of child care, says Pricco. “We found out who the essential workers were. It was child care providers and health care providers and grocery stores. The child care industry supports all other industries. It is essential for everyone in the workforce that has a child.”
Over the years, child care advocates like Pricco and Sen. Patty Murray have cited multiple studies showing how much the economy suffers due to the lack of child care and how much the economy would benefit if all children had access to quality child care provided by adequately compensated workers. According to the state Department of Commerce, pre-pandemic, employee turnover and missed work due to child care access issues cost Washington employers an estimated $2.08 billion annually.
The number crunching, however, has yet to persuade lawmakers and the constituents they represent to raise the taxes needed to pay for this kind of investment in the future of children, their parents, and all of us.
Pricco and other advocates are pushing forward and see some glimmers of hope. “We are set up for success. People in positions of power understand the importance of child care more than ever before.We are preparing to launch a multi year advocacy campaign. We are committed. It’s a big hill in front of us to climb, and we need to be realistic and make plans for the long haul, but we are in a better position than ever before.”