The Child Care Gap: What Do We Know? What Do We Do?

Choosing between what’s best for their children and putting food on the table is a choice no parent should have to make.
child care data

The Ideas & Solutions blog is intended to provide a forum for the discussion of child care and early education issues and ideas. We hope to provoke thoughtful discussions within the field and to help those outside the field gain a better understanding of priorities and concerns.

Originally published in the Spring 2022 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed what any working parent in America already knew to be true – that the early childhood years hold amazing promise for the future. Unfortunately, that promise goes unfulfilled for so many of our children. Not because they lack potential, but because their parents’ circumstances either open doors or slam them shut within the first few days of life. The fact that nearly one-quarter of new mothers in our country go back to work within two weeks of giving birth says it all. Returning to work so soon is not a choice for many mothers, but a matter of survival.

When parents do return to work, they need child care. But we are failing them. There is so little infant care in most communities that new mothers are left to “figure it out” and “make it work.” It doesn’t get much easier as the child grows older. In our country, the best interests of our children are often in conflict with parents’ need to provide the basics of food and shelter.

We no longer debate what neuroscience tells us about the critical development of the human brain in the first five years of life, so why are we still debating the need for child care?

Women in the Workforce

Recent reports from the Department of Labor indicate that labor force participation among women is lagging behind men (70% vs. 58%). Much of this gap is attributed to unstable child care. Between 2020 and 2021, among mothers, the share of women who left the workforce was linked to the age of their youngest child, and the numbers were highest among those with children under age 6. A full 1.3 million fewer mothers were employed in September 2021 compared to before the pandemic began. BPC’s own survey data shows that the workforce dropout rate is highest among women with children under age 2.

Even before the pandemic, child care responsibilities fell primarily on mothers. Despite decades of progress, mothers still spend almost twice as much time caring for children as fathers do. With the national unemployment rate now less than 4% and as low as 2.3% in some states, like Kansas, we as a nation cannot afford to ignore the challenges of women and child care.

A Broken Business Model

Child care has its own issues. With a workforce that is predominately female (95.6%), poorly paid (an average hourly wage of $12), and few benefits, child care programs are struggling to compete for workers in this tight labor market. Some might suggest that the answer is simple: raising wages. But how can programs do this? With what money? Raising wages increases the fees that parents pay, and we know that child care is already unaffordable for many.

Before the pandemic, we had a severe shortage of child care, and the gap is only getting worse. BPC’s analysis of data from 35 states showed that 3.4 million children do not have access to a formal child care slot. That’s over 30% of the children in these states.

It is important to note, that as a percentage of need, the gap is even higher in rural parts of the country. Family child care has been declining for more than a decade — with a loss of 37% between 2008 and 2014. Both family child care providers and centers have suffered life-threatening blows due to COVID. Nationally, our surveys show that we’ve lost about 10% of our child care capacity. Before the pandemic, child care providers were operating under tight margins, and the child care workforce was chronically underpaid as a result. Now, the added health and safety requirements, combined with a tight labor market, have resulted in staff shortages throughout the child care industry — making a bad situation even more desperate.

We are left with a business model that is completely broken: a market-based model that relies on sufficient demand to sustain the supply needed. However, assuming we pay the workforce commensurate with their skill and education levels, it simply costs more to produce a quality child care space than nearly all parents can afford.

Billions of Dollars Lost

In sum, the lack of quality, affordable child care has an impact on our families and our economy. It’s a problem we can no longer ignore. Working with economists, BPC estimated the economic impact of the gap over 10 years in three areas: family income, lost business productivity, and lost tax revenue. Taking just these three areas into account, the loss to our economy was as high as $217 billion.

So have we learned from the pandemic, or are we bound to repeat our mistakes? Here’s what we know:

  • Child care is a prerequisite for parents’ workforce participation, especially mothers.
  • The economy is directly impacted by a parent’s ability to access and afford child care.
  • There is a significant gap in the amount of care available versus what is potentially needed.
  • The lack of care has a substantial impact on businesses’ productivity, family incomes, and our tax base.
  • The lack of child care hurts both businesses and parents, but especially women.
  • The child care business model is broken and unsustainable. Simply put, it costs more to produce quality child care than most parents can afford.
  • The child care workforce is severely underpaid, and this in turn impacts the quality of care and the future for millions of children.
  • Child care operators cannot survive another major disruption — whether a flood, a tornado, a hurricane, or a pandemic. Without sustainable support, more child care programs will shutter.

Where do we go from here? It’s clear that parents, businesses, and child care programs are all suffering. Parents, primarily women, are in a tough spot. Choosing between what’s best for their children and putting food on the table is a choice no parent should have to make. Child care providers are exhausted and operating on fumes. And businesses are desperate for workers. All this tells us that we need a comprehensive and new approach to America’s child care dilemma.

Comprehensive Solutions

What has been tried did not work and will not work to fix child care. Why? Because nearly every attempt has been one-dimensional, while the problem is multi-faceted. The solutions lie in a shared model of responsibility and a shared approach to remedy the problems. We need a top-down/bottom-up approach that enlists the best minds in our communities and states. This must include and start with parents, but also include businesses, child care providers, education leaders, the faith community, and policymakers.

The current focus of federal policymakers is to give parents more purchasing power through the use of certificates. This will help parents, but if there is not enough child care available, they will still be left without choices. On the flip side, without stable funding, providers will still hesitate to raise wages for fear they won’t always have the money to meet payroll. The child care workforce will continue to look elsewhere for jobs — jobs that pay enough for them to live on and jobs with benefits like sick leave and health insurance.

Starting at the local level, communities need to assess their child care needs and potential local solutions. Businesses can play a key role here by looking at infrastructure and supporting efforts to expand care at the local level.

States need to support communities and offer the tools and technical assistance that’s often missing. The federal government needs to step forward with funding similar to what was provided in the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. These two funding streams simultaneously targeted both parents and providers. The funds were flexible enough for states to expand support to parents, for communities to expand the care available, and for providers to pay their teachers more.

Now is the time to learn from our past. Rather than revert back to a one-dimensional approach, we need to continue funding at levels sufficient and flexible enough to support parents, providers, and businesses comprehensively. This will allow states and communities to roll up their sleeves and get to work closing the gap between what parents need and what the child care sector can currently provide.

  • Linda K. Smith
    Director of the Early Childhood Initiative, Bipartisan Policy Center

    Before joining BPC, Linda most recently served as the deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In this role, she provided overall policy coordination for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs and the Child Care and Development Fund. She also served as the department’s liaison to the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies.