Pandemic recession: Invest in child care to help women return to the workforce

This article was originally published in USA Today on March 10, 2021.

Of all the statistics about the American economy reported during the COVID-19 pandemic, the most shocking is that the United States lost 140,000 jobs in December, and all were by women.

That number starkly illustrates how women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic-related recession. Caring for children or aiding their virtual schooling while trying to hold down a job is difficult for most, and impossible for some.

Women are especially vulnerable when job losses occur in fields with a high percentage of female employees, such as travel, hospitality and child care. The Center for American Progress reported that four times more women than men dropped out of the workforce in September.

We don’t yet know what long-term effect this “shecession” will have, but we do know that the vitality and stability of the child care sector is critical to pulling us out of it.

High quality child care not only supports the development and learning of young children when their brain is growing the fastest, it also keeps kids safe while their parents work. The pandemic has exposed how much families — and our economy — rely on the sector, even if it has never been properly funded or prioritized.

As the pandemic begins to ease — through vaccinations, warmer weather and more adherence to pandemic precautions — we should kickstart our economic recovery by prioritizing child care.

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which includes $40 billion to help low- and middle-income families afford child care, is a great start.  

The need is great. Surveys by the National Association for the Education of Young Children repeatedly have shown that child care providers are in dire straits. In November, 56% of survey respondents said they lost money every day they were open, and 42% had purchased supplies or other items on personal credit cards to stay afloat.

Thousands of providers have shut their doors — many for good. As the pandemic subsides and the economy rebounds, many women will be shut out from jobs if they cannot find high quality child care options for their children.

Even without the pandemic as backdrop, the sector needs federal investment to support the educators who care for our children. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment reports that the early care and education workforce is predominantly female, and about 40% are women of color. 

Sadly, the low pay means that much of the workforce participates in public income support programs, with about 86% of the center-based staff who work with infants and toddlers earning less than $15 an hour.

This underfunded field must stop being balanced on the backs of women who are paid so little for full-time work that they must rely on public assistance. The federal government must think even bigger.

In addition to COVID-related relief, we need to address the fact that higher education is largely out of reach for the childcare workforce. We need Congress to fund a higher education package to provide substantial tuition assistance and loan relief for early childhood educators at the associate and bachelor degree levels.

Congress also must pass a budget that moves us toward paying the full cost of child care, including professional salaries, health insurance and retirement benefits for early childhood educators.

And the government should initiate innovative partnerships with the private sector to expand employer-sponsored child care, particularly for manufacturing, supply chain and teaching positions. 

These economic policies would do more than boost the economy. They would address racial inequities, boost the learning outcomes of our youngest learners, and give the women who work in this field — many of whom are women of color — a long overdue pay raise.

If sustained, such investments will pay off for the country in the long-term. For years, economists like Nobel Prize winner James Heckman have made the case that the most strategic investment a country can make is in early childhood education, a mostly overlooked component of our economic infrastructure.  

The squeeze of women leaving the workforce and child care centers closing and putting more women out of work is the “shecession’s” double whammy. 

By increasing investments in child care, we invest in women and in our economic recovery. Our economy works — and women go back to work — when child care works.

Rhian Evans Allvin is CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Sara Slaughter is executive director of the W. Clement & Jessie V Stone Foundation.