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Women were pushed out of the workforce by COVID. Is it time for universal child care?
Wicked Local Northwest - 5/4/2021
May 3—This story is being provided for free as part of a series on childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic, powered by the Solutions Journalism Network and dedicated to delivering solution-oriented stories about problems our community is facing.
FRAMINGHAM — With a young daughter in the MetroWest YMCA day program, Framingham mom Katie Brennan just secured a promotion at her job.
"I definitely do not think it would have been something I could do if I was working remotely at home with my kids," said Brennan, whose other child is a seventh-grader. "Without that day care, it wouldn't have been possible."
In a year that bared systemic flaws in the nation's child care infrastructure, many working moms had a very different experience from Brennan. They watched their careers collapse or stall out as the pandemic pushed them out of the workforce to fill child care gaps.
"Child care has been a problem, but COVID put the spotlight right on it," said Jill Ashton, executive director for the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. "And it hit women, and it hit women hardest."
An Associated Press report in September 2020 reported that 1.3 million women nationwide had left the labor force since February 2020, meaning they no longer had a job and weren't looking for one. Women in their "prime-earning" years, the report said — between 25 and 54 years old, which are also considered prime child-rearing ages — were dropping out at a higher rate than other age groups. Women of color and lower-income women have also been affected at higher rates.
"Child care has long been failing families and disproportionately women," said Lauren Kennedy, co-president of Boston-based Neighborhood Villages, a nonprofit advocating for accessible and high-quality early education and care. "The onset of the pandemic upended the incredibly broken child care system we had."
Job numbers for women haven't improved in any meaningful way since the fall, and some experts even invented a name for the phenomenon — the she-cession.
The she-cession isn't just a women's issue. It hurts the larger economy, and deprives employers of a huge chunk of the possible workforce, as well as hurting families, said state Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, and others. Prior to the pandemic, women comprised about half the U.S. labor force, according to The Associated Press, and were the equal, primary, or sole earners in 40% of U.S. families.
Now, experts say the economy cannot be righted until women return to the workforce. Kennedy and others say more accessible, quality child care is how that happens.
"To get them back in most definitely requires not just that we stand our child care system back up on life support, but that we build something better," Kennedy said. "What we had before stunted women's opportunities in the workplace."
The question now is what to build and how. As part of "The American Families Plan" President Joe Biden is proposing universal Pre-K for 3 and 4 years old and supplementing child care costs. The proposal would pay for all child care costs of the neediest families. Those who earn 1.5 times their state median income would pay no more than 7% of their income on child care. The plan is similar to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's for universal child care, which she has described as being similar to Head Start.
Before Biden announced his proposal, states were looking at the issue, too. Vermont, for example, has been funneling more into existing programs in the state to create more spaces for children. Rhode Island has a bill, currently being held for study, to expand the subsidies offered to low-income families, and Right from the Start advocates have been pushing the state to spend relief money on childcare.
In Massachusetts, state lawmakers and a statewide coalition of child care providers are looking at reforms that would make high-quality early education and child care, like the kind Brennan takes advantage of at the MetroWest YMCA or Head Start, accessible to all Massachusetts families. It's a similar plan to what's being considered on that national level.
Dubbed "Common Start," and filed under H.605 in the House and S.362 in the Senate, the new legislation looks to pay childcare workers more across the board, while lowering the cost of childcare to families.
"It's very exciting and ambitious new legislation," said Lewis, who filed the Senate version of the bill. "It's designed to ensure that we have universal access to high quality, affordable early education and childcare for all children and families in Massachusetts."
The nation takes for granted that children should have access to a public education once they reach 5 years old, Lewis pointed out.
"We don't think about early education the same way," he said. "That's really what this legislation is designed to change."
Solving a systemic childcare problem is expensive. Andrew Farnitano, spokesperson for the Common Start Coalition, said the expectation is that full implementation, proposed to be rolled out over five years, would need billions of dollars of state and federal funds.
"It does take significant new public investment," Lewis said. "We believe that that would be a wise investment. That over time .... (it would provide) significant returns to our society and our economy."
Proponents of the bill say now is the time to pitch a solution like this, as attitudes have shifted at all levels of government.
"We're very optimistic about the prospect of federal funding for provider care," Farnitano said, adding that President Joe Biden "sees child care as an essential infrastructure tool. .... This is an issue legislative leaders have been clear, this is a priority for them."
Additionally, the pandemic has brought many voters face-to-face with the demands and nuances of child care, Kennedy said, which could translate into support for reform.
"The electorate .... hasn't been this proximate to the issue of child care in 50 years. We are so viscerally connected to what the upending of child care has been like," she said. "Perhaps now (we're) understanding how child care has always stood in the way of women's advancement. Our eyes are open now to what's holding some of us back holds all of us back."
Farnitano compared the cost and rollout to Massachusetts' Student Opportunity Act, a $1.5 billion funding reform bill passed in 2019, and aimed at closing educational disparities between districts that can afford to spend more and those that cannot. That bill has a seven-year rollout.
"I think here in Massachusetts we're standing at the edge of something even bigger," Kennedy said. "Where we could pass first-in-the-nation legislation that not only brings affordable, high-quality care to everyone in the Commonwealth but could be a blueprint for federal policy."
Most of the research around Head Start focuses on the positive benefits it has on children — improving behavior, improving health, improving high school graduation rates, the list goes on. Largely left out of the research are the mothers, but a 2002 study did find that "parents of Early Head Start children became more self-sufficient, as they were more likely to participate in job training and educational programs."
And if you ask a working mother what it's like working without child care, they'll tell you why it's needed.
"You can't focus 100%," Brennan said, of working without child care. "You miss deadlines. You miss meetings, phone calls, just because you're so wound up in the child's needs."
A child care provider, such as MetroWest YMCA's Director of Education Heidi Kaufman, will tell you the same thing.
"There's so much benefit and so much need for early education and care. It goes way beyond just having a safe place for a kid to go," Kaufman said. "You could get a high school kid to watch your kid. You know your kids are safe, but they're not getting the experience you'd like them to.
"To know that they're not only safe, but their children are learning and thriving .... to know there are additional people who are working in partnership with those moms. To do that (parenting) on their own, especially in the pandemic, it's just mind boggling."
One of the main obstacles to making the program universal is funding.
Paying workers their worth — and drawing in skilled and dedicated teachers — means higher costs. Depending on the provider, that cost is currently either passed onto the families, meaning only those with means can access quality care, or the cost is swallowed by the provider.
Programs such as the YMCA and Head Start see donations and some government funding, which can be used to subsidize care for families like Brennan's, but not everyone can take advantage.
"On the provider side ... the money just doesn't add up," Farnitano said. "They're stuck in this situation where their families can't really afford them, but they're still not able to pay the worker a livable wage. The providers are sort of stuck in the middle with this unsustainable system."
Kaufman and others said trying to keep that balance has translated into a struggle with hiring, exacerbated by the pandemic.
"It's been difficult, I think, for many (Head Start) programs, with staffing," said Medway Head Start Education Director Candy Hogan. "The pay for an early educator is a lot different than a public school teacher. It's very low."
The Common Start bill would use public funds to take the pressure off organizations and families.
"An equitable start for children begins at birth. It should not be pay-to-play for your child to go to an early learning center, for your child to go to a preschool," Kennedy said. "The longer we kick the can down the field, it's generations and generations of kids who aren't able to access the early education that should be their right."
It's not just low-income families who suffer under systemic child care issues. Middle-class families may be able to afford it, but at the cost of other family goals.
"This would substantially increase affordability for middle and even upper-middle families," Farnitano said. "The cost of child care is often preventing them from actualizing other goals, like owning a home, or starting a business, or advancing in their career."
A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that more than 34,000 parents throughout Massachusetts would have the option to work if child care costs were driven significantly down to no more than 7% of a family's income. Numerous people interviewed for this story said better access to quality child care would result in more women in the workforce.
"It's a big nut to crack, so there's not going to be .... (one thing) that's going to fix this," said Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women's Audrey Hall, of women's issues in the state. "It's a multidimensional issue that has to be dealt with (many) resources, and a lot of different approaches."
Information from The Associated Press and the State House News Service was used in this report.
Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or email@example.com. Find her on Twitter at @AlisonBosma.
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