The coronavirus pandemic has lain bare some of the worst inequities in the US, not least the shortcomings in the US childcare system. Thousands of childcare facilities are at risk of permanently closing and Americans already struggling to afford childcare before the pandemic are now facing a more precarious economy.
For Tanesha Borgman, a speech pathologist outside of Denver, Colorado, the pandemic has exacerbated an already difficult situation. Borgman has a three year old son with special needs who attended pre-school and had a childcare provider come to their home.
“Once Covid-19 happened, we couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Borgman, who lost one-third of her client caseload once the pandemic hit, as she and her husband transitioned to working from home while taking turns caring for their son. She is planning to start returning to in-home client visits to restore the income she’s lost during the pandemic. “We’re hoping we can afford childcare when I have a full paycheck again.”
The rising cost of childcare is an increasing problem in the US made worse by the fact that childcare availability has decreased and more than half of the country lives in neighborhoods where childcare is unavailable.
Childcare costs in the US increased by 40% between 1990 to 2011, according to the US Census Bureau. The average cost of childcare in the US from an individual infant to age four is between $9,100 to $9,600 per year, but these costs vary widely from $5,436 a year in Mississippi to as much as $24,243 for annual childcare costs in Washington DC.
Some 51% of Americans live in childcare deserts, defined as areas with no childcare providers or where the ratio of children under the age of 5 to cumulative childcare capacity is greater than 3 to 1.
The pandemic is expected to worsen these issues, as a survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in March 2020 found only 11% of childcare providers could survive an indefinite closure without government support, placing 4.5 million childcare slots in the US at risk of disappearing.
“People were struggling before the pandemic and now it’s hitting a breaking point,” said Nina Perez, the Early Childhood National Campaign Director at MomsRising. “If we don’t bailout childcare providers, there is no economic recovery, because what is going to happen when people can’t work or work at full capacity if we don’t figure out the childcare piece? It should have always been a public good and if we’ve given it the robust investment it should have had, we wouldn’t have this crisis within a crisis.”
Childcare providers have already started to permanently close, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
Diana Limongi, a mother of two in New York City, recently received notice that her daughter’s childcare provider would not be reopening.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Limongi who works as a freelance contractor. “Once my son is going back to school, whatever that looks like, I’m just going to lower my workload, or find a babysitter for my daughter. I’m at a point where I don’t see myself going through the entire process of finding a childcare provider, and I don’t know how safe it’s going to be.”
Higher childcare costs disproportionately impact women in the workforce, and as childcare providers become more scarce due to the coronavirus pandemic, women will likely be forced to leave their jobs or reduce work hours.
“There may be some women who would like to work outside the home, but as childcare gets more expensive, they are deterred from doing that. We have considerable research evidence of the negative effect of childcare cost on female labor force participation,” said Francine Blau, a professor of economics and labor relations at Cornell University. “Among people who are employed, it leaves them with less income to cover other expenses they face such as rent and food, so it squeezes them.”
The expense of having children in the US has contributed to record low birthrates, while median wages for US male and female workers lag behind the cost of basic living necessities. An estimated 24% of American households with children are headed by single women, and the US is one of only three countries in the world, along with Papua New Guinea and the Marshall Islands, that doesn’t offer women workers mandated paid maternity leave.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Elizabeth Gaona of Merced, California left the workforce in November 2019 to become a stay-at-home mother because her family couldn’t afford the costs of childcare.
“My youngest child was born November 5, 2019, and at that point we decided that it wouldn’t matter if I worked, because my whole check would be going to daycare,” Gaona told the Guardian.
The mother of four has previously worked as a house cleaner and in grocery retail, making around $24,000 per year, most of which went toward childcare. Now her family, of Merced, California, relies solely on the income of her husband, who makes around $50,000 a year in warehousing.
“The loss of my income has made it difficult for us to keep up on our bills. I worked well into my third trimester to try to mitigate the damage but it didn’t do much except make me tired,” said Gaona. “Every month it seems like a mad dash just to keep the lights on. My husband and I often skip meals to make sure our kids are getting enough food.”
As parents are struggling to afford childcare and find providers, those who work in childcare face low pay throughout the industry. A June 2018 report by the University of California-Berkeley found 58% of childcare workers in California rely on one or more public assistance programs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for childcare workers in the US is $11.17 per hour, just over $23,000 per year.
“I’ve been working in childcare for over ten years now, and only until two years ago I started getting paid $15 an hour, and that was after working full-time while going to school at night just to earn my associate’s degree in early childhood education,” said 29 year old Emily Best, who works in childcare outside of Boston, Massachusetts. “Somehow myself and so many others like me are looked at as glorified babysitters and our pay reflects that. At this rate, I can’t afford to have a child of my own since it would take two-thirds of my income just to send them to my own classroom.”
During the pandemic, Best has continued working at an emergency day care center, though with a reduced work schedule.
“We’re all worried about what happens when we ‘go back’. Will all of the families still want to send their kids? Will we all still have jobs?” Best said.