I've worked in childcare for 15 years. Here's how to solve the US childcare crisis once and for all

  • The pandemic has amplified our country's already-existing childcare crisis.
  • With parents making up 41% of the workforce, a lack of childcare is affecting the labor market and decreasing economic output.
  • Public companies and policymakers must come together to build a universal, well-oiled plan that includes public-private cost-sharing, compensation for unpaid caregiving labor, and higher pay for qualified care providers.
  • Kasey Edwards is founder and CEO of back-up childcare platform Helpr.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

To any parent with a child climbing into their lap during a Zoom call, it doesn't come as a shock to hear that in major metropolitan areas like Washington, DC, two-thirds of the childcare centers have shuttered in the fallout of COVID-19 lockdowns. The latest estimates are that 4.5 million childcare centers in the country could be permanently lost in the wake of the pandemic. 

As childcare options dwindle, people are leaving the workforce to fill their own caregiving gaps. This is creating a vacuum in the labor market which impacts corporations' ability to recruit and create economic output. 

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, nearly half of manufacturers in the region said childcare constraints made it challenging to bring back furloughed workers or hire new ones. One chicken processor reported being constrained by lack of workers, with people no longer coming in so they could watch their children, siblings or neighbors' children during the day.

The pandemic has laid bare the brokenness of our nation's childcare formula, revealing that it is not working for anyone involved: not for women (of the 1.1 million people who left the workforce in September, over 800,000 were women); not for employers, who face a diminishing labor force; and not for professional caregivers, whose wages have stagnated at an average of $10.72 per hour, even in the midst of the highest demand. The patchwork solutions that our villages, private sector, and companies have created are no longer enough — we need a larger, universal, more comprehensive answer to the childcare crisis that meets families needs as they stand right now.

People who don't have children should care about the childcare crisis. 

How can we build a universal, comprehensive, and well-oiled public and private sector childcare plan that will work for us all? Why should the many of us who are not parents even care?

It may seem tempting to think of childcare as a problem for parents to solve. But when childcare infrastructure is not in place, or childcare costs go beyond income, it becomes a problem for all of us. When people can't afford kids, they have less kids. Low birth rates can cause labor shortages that will shrink our economic output. If you own a company, less people in the labor pool means less ability to grow. 

Private employers know this, which is why many companies have already started providing childcare subsidies to their workforce, including primary care, back-up care, in-home care, and assistance with distance learning.  

Policymakers know our economy needs children, and therefore childcare, too. Children grow up to be taxpayers that fund the services like Medicare and Social Security that many will rely on when they retire. Today's children will one day perform the jobs that support the rest of us. Fewer workers also means the tax-base shrinks, and so do the wages available to tax. 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed a $775 billion investment in childcare that would raise caregiver salaries and provide increased federal funding to state and local programs. In July, the House passed the Child Care Is Essential Act, which would set aside $50 billion to stabilize America's childcare system during the pandemic — but the proposal has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

With little to no movement forward at the federal level, states should take matters into their own hands. 

Vermont passed emergency funding to bail out the childcare industry during the pandemic, which helped childcare providers keep their workers on staff. As a result, the state hasn't seen a spike in childcare program closures, and parents are beginning to send their children back to centers. 

Other states must follow Vermont's lead and act to preserve their parent workforce. Childcare needs to be treated as the infrastructure it is. Just as roads and subways get people to work (in normal times), so does childcare. If it was made affordable to the degree proposed by the Child Care for Working Families Act, the Center for American Progress estimates 1.6 million parents would be able to enter the workforce. In the pandemic, the numbers would surely go beyond that estimate.

We've found childcare solutions before, we can do it again. 

This shift might be difficult — for some of us it sounds anti-Capitalist. But we've done it before. During World War II, when women were mobilized to run American factories, it was quickly recognized that someone had to look after the children. The political will was there, and the Lanham Act led to a program that was up and running within weeks, not years. Yes, here in America, the government took charge of a hugely successful national, high-quality childcare program. It will cost money. But if it was essential to keeping our economy afloat then, it is essential now.

As American families wait for their government to act, most parents are still going to work. They are calling in grandparents, neighbors, friends, and siblings to help. This unpaid work adds to the bottom line of our economy and the companies we work for, an estimated billions of dollars worth of shadow labor. We must change this. There are a few models for this. My childcare tech company Helpr created a digital product that enables parents with employer-sponsored back-up childcare benefits to "upload," schedule, and pay a grandparent, neighbor, friend, or sibling as a backup caregiver. CalWORKS, a public assistance program in California, has a parent choice program targeted toward low-income families that allows a relative, friend, neighbor, licensed family daycare, or childcare center of a parent's choice to receive a subsidy to take care of their child. We should broaden this trend across our economy, putting money in the pockets of people who sorely need it to survive.

Companies can do more, too, and some of them have been. My company works with a number of businesses that subsidize 60-80 hours of employee childcare per year. Since the pandemic, some large employers like accounting firm KPMG have quadrupled the number of back-up care hours they offer parents. 

An HR director in Greensboro, North Carolina created a one-room schoolhouse in the office for employee's kids, using office Wi-Fi, socially-distanced computers, and a teacher, giving 16 children of employees on-location remote learning. 

The work-from-home trend also leads to so much more opportunity for in-home care. Childcare centers have worked for many parents, but with rigid start and finish times, it didn't always align with work schedules, especially for shift workers. At-home care gives parents more flexibility, which becomes affordable when subsidized by the companies they work for, health insurers, or the government.  

Our villages are mobilizing in innovative ways, as well. When classes were cancelled at the University of Minnesota, medical students came together to provide free childcare to hospital staff. In France, two friends launched a website that uses an algorithm to match parents in need to volunteer caregivers in their area, detailing credentials and information about families to find suitable matches — like a dating app for childcare. I don't advocate unpaid childcare, but with remuneration for the caregivers, it's a novel idea.

These patchwork solutions showcase the remarkable creativity and resilience that underpins our nation's workforce. But creativity and resilience alone won't get us through this time. Our economy is suffering greatly right now — and 41% of our workforce is made up of parents. We can't afford to lose them. We can, and must, work toward a comprehensive care system that works for our economy and the families that power it.

Kasey Edwards grew back-up childcare platform Helpr from a boutique babysitting agency into a nationwide network of care providers servicing top media, finance, and technology companies. As a former foster parent, Kasey is driven by Helpr's mission of achieving universal parent inclusion in the workplace.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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