by Glenda Mathis, CEO, YWCA of Lubbock
In the last few decades, women have broken barriers in nearly every field and there has been real progress in the opportunities women found to prove that they have every bit of competence, courage, commitment, and contribution necessary to give the nation’s economy a stronger workforce. So what would cause more than two million of these U.S. women to leave their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic? The disarmingly raw moments of families trying to cope captured via zoom have provided many of us a peak into the real story behind this exodus. As two-year-old’s screamed for attention, as infants were just as impatient as any boss might ever have been, as moms took on the role of taskmaster for remote learning the nation began to grapple with the reality that child care is an under-appreciated core component of our nation’s infrastructure.
As the CEO of YWCA of Lubbock—where we provide infant and toddler care, preschool, Head Start and Early Head Start, before and after school care, and summer care for children in Lubbock, Texas—I’ve seen for many years the underlying crisis that women face every day as they juggle child care and putting food on the table. Consider the case of Anna, a single mom of two children ages 3 and 6, who has a full-time job making $11.00 per hour. After taxes, she takes home $1,464 per month. Child care for Anna’s two children runs her $185 per week, which means 52% of Anna’s income is going to child care. This leaves her with $669 to cover food, utilities, rent, transportation, clothing, school supplies, medication, insurance. The situation is untenable and Anna is on the brink of homelessness.
To support Anna and the millions of other women across the U.S. who need the umbrella of strong child care to ensure they can work and their children can be cared for in a safe and nurturing environment, our nation must make a bold commitment to support and enhance the childcare sector itself in order to maximize the potential for thriving children. As a child care provider, I see two vital areas that must be strengthened.
First is the child care workforce itself. Every mother drops her children off at the child care center with an instinctive understanding: children need caring adults who are trained to meet the needs of these critical developmental years. Early childhood should not be an entry-level, minimum-wage responsibility and yet, as a nation, that’s exactly where we are. A quality early childhood workforce must offer caregivers and educators a livable wage commensurate with the importance of what they are doing. We need consistent institutional support and funding to improve, recruit, sustain, and support the childcare workforce. It is time to recognize that we must invest in the early childhood sector and further ensure these caregivers and educators have paid opportunities to participate in professional development and ongoing education.
Second, increasing reimbursement rates for child care providers—especially for infants and toddlers—would ensure they can provide low teacher/child ratios and high-frequency interactions. When a baby is not meeting developmental milestones, a well-funded early childhood program can spot those delays and arrange for early intervention. A staggering percentage of our third-graders are not hitting the milestones for reading, yet a well-funded after-school program can support classroom teachers and take steps to offer tutoring and get those children on track. These are the supports that strengthen our educational outcomes and give our children the best chance for success, to keep children engaged and safely supervised, and to keep women in the workforce.
Through the CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, and the American Rescue Plan, Congress has made a huge investment in child care. These important legislative acts have helped to stabilize the childcare sector following the massive meltdown caused by stay-at-home orders. As important as these financial infusions are, they are merely stopgap measures and more is needed to address the underlying crisis women face every day as they juggle child care and putting food on the table, to support a qualified early childhood workforce, and to ensure that child care providers have the financial resources to continue to provide critically needed child care.
Fortunately, additional action to address these issues can be taken by Congress. An important first step is passing the Child Care for Working Families Act (S. 1360/H.R. 2817), which would invest in the child care workforce, increase reimbursement rates for providers, and increase access to high-quality affordable child care. Second, Congress should appropriate an additional$14.1B in FY2022 for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). Lastly, we all need to work together to make sure that childcare is included in the infrastructure legislation that Congress is expected to take up this summer.
Historically, whether it was the invention of the telephone, industrialization, a trip to Mars, or a pandemic—the solution to the problem started by investing in learning. Learning empowers people and opens the door to confidence, creativity and individual thought. Learning sets us up for opportunity and innovation. Learning is the only path that consistently leads to a sustainable solution.
So as we honor the child care workforce on National Provider Appreciation Day – and as our nation faces the challenges in 2021 of racial equity, restoring and enhancing women’s economic empowerment, and putting our nation back on sound financial footing following the COVID-19 pandemic – we cannot ignore our template for success: early education and learning must be the foundational bricks of our solution. Early childhood education—intentional, comprehensive and targeted—is the most powerful intervention for any problem we have ever faced. Let’s enhance the impact of early childhood and afterschool programming and make the critical investments in our childcare workforce and providers now.