No Country for Young Children

The defining feature of the United States child care “system” is that it is not a system at all.

Unlike K-12 education, our society essentially tells parents that you are completely on your own to figure out how to pay for care from birth to age five. Child care costs compare with the costs of college tuition, and yet the workers — nearly all women, and large numbers of people of color — labor for extremely low wages.

The federal government funds child care subsidy programs through a block grant system, and programs are managed by the states (which can add state funds into the mix) to help some low-income families pay for child care. But many state systems are plagued by waitlists, have overly-complicated and occasionally punitive eligibility rules, and worst of all, leave most families out.

Sometimes families lose child care assistance because they earn just a few dollars over the income eligibility limit — making a raise or extra hours at work a perilous proposition in which they could stand to lose money. There is also a large strata of working-class families who don’t qualify for child care help but can’t afford to pay out of pocket, making them susceptible to (often racist) messages that direct their frustrations downward toward other working-class people who do.

Parents often experience enrolling their children in kindergarten as a pay raise that saves them hundreds of dollars per month, or allows them to begin climbing out of the debt they have accumulated by stretching their budgets and/or credit cards to afford child care and other expenses. A survey of over 4,000 of its website users in 2019 illustrates this pinch: compared with prior year surveys, a record number of parents — 84% — said they were forced to budget for child care:

By that, it turns out, they mean they’re spending less on everything else. 31% said they’d put themselves further into debt. 37% stopped saving money. 37% stopped paying off debt. 44% made major budget cuts.

Given that the race and income demographics of the survey are unavailable (and having my suspicions about the user cohort), I would venture to say that the problem is even worse than that. So I was very happy to see this article in Jacobin the other day about the need to fight for a free, universal child care system in the United States. Here’s a taste:

The private childcare industry is itself a legacy of the undue burden placed on women to stay home and do “women’s work.” Affordable childcare and dignified salaries for educators that a public system would offer is critical to a feminist future. …

Women of color have also historically filled the ranks of low-income caregiving industries. Early childhood educators are educated and must have an aptitude for compassionate care in difficult situations. Yet average wages for early childhood workers are less than $11 an hour. And though arguably an even more challenging job, teachers of infants and toddlers earn on average $2 less than teachers of children aged three to five. Teachers of younger children also, unsurprisingly, skew African American.

The authors choose to focus their attention on the public school system and larger child care centers, and unfortunately they only mention “at-home” providers once, in thinking about a potential care model during the pandemic. Perhaps their use of the term “teacher” is meant to be broadly inclusive, but it isn’t necessarily a word in which home-based caregivers (especially family members who provide child care) see themselves reflected despite the fact that they are engaged in early education.

It’s a bit of an oversight in an otherwise strong article — particularly given that the week before the article was published, 45,000 subsidized home-based child care providers in California voted 97% to form a union, the largest union election in the United States in decades. (Full disclosure: I worked for many years on an effort to organize these providers in Rhode Island).

Before COVID-19, licensed home-based family child care providers and informal caregivers (who are often called Family, Friend, and Neighbor (FFN), license-exempt, or kith & kin caregivers) accounted for a large portion of many states’ subsidized care arrangements. The numbers of such providers themselves are significant: ChildTrends reported in 2018 that “97 percent of child care settings are homes, not centers” and of these “72.5 percent are unpaid and care for a relative or a child already known to them” — a fact that surely complicates the BLS child care employment estimates.

It’s almost a given that their role and ranks have increased during the pandemic, as parents grow less comfortable bringing their children to larger care settings. Though data is hard to come by, I suspect many parents are now arranging child care with a trusted (and/or newly-unemployed) family member, neighbor, or friend who is available to take on the role of caregiver. This doesn’t necessarily mean these caregivers are being paid, and they are different from the “nannies” that the article’s authors indicate wealthy families are hiring for care. Instead, these are care arrangements that are arising out of the organic networks within working-class communities and family relationships.

They are an important constituency — along with the parents of young children, and the rest of the child care workforce — that a campaign for universal public child care should seek to engage. Organizers interested in winning universal child care should be thinking about outreach strategies to find them, and developing intermediate demands to engage and mobilize them (for example, for the state to pay them for their work, provide them with PPE and cleaning supplies, etc.) as they build a base to win an idea that was nearly achieved in 1971, but for a Nixon veto.

One final nit to pick: the Jacobin article occasionally uses the term “day care” (though thankfully it mostly does not). This phrase has wide usage and understanding, but it does not convey who is being cared for and how, or even necessarily when they are being cared for (for example, health care and other essential workers might need evening or overnight care). Using the term “day care” diminishes the nature of a vital category of socially reproductive labor — as if caregivers were just minding the time, rather than shaping young human beings.