Connect with us


The child care cliff that wasn’t

We don’t need apocalyptic economic predictions to advocate for better family policy.



The child care cliff that wasn’t
The child care cliff that wasn’t

“The writing is on the wall right now, in big, bold letters: the child care crisis is only going to get worse unless we take action — and soon!” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in November, following the expiration of federal Covid-19 subsidies for child care. Democrats and other child care advocates were pushing for a $16 billion bill they said was essential to save the industry.

“Our nation’s child care system is on the verge of collapse,” stressed AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “Over 3 million kids are in danger of losing their child care slots, over 230,000 child care workers could lose their jobs,” added Senator Bernie Sanders.

Sanders was citing numbers from The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank that warned the US was headed for a disastrous “child care cliff” due to the expiring pandemic aid. Nearly every major national news organization — including the Washington Post, CNN, Bloomberg, NBC, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times — reported on this coming cliff, and its prediction that 70,000 programs “will likely close.”

The warnings echoed another set of doomsday predictions during the pandemic when advocates stressed that without significant new investment in child care and paid family leave, women would be forced to leave the labor market en masse, leading to what some described as a coming “she-cession.”

The “she-cession” failed to materialize beyond the first initial months of Covid-19, with female labor force participation ticking steadily upwards thereafter, especially among moms. So advocates updated their messaging, emphasizing that such workforce gains could crater if major new federal investments were not made soon. The Century Foundation predicted $9 billion annually in lost family earnings, and tax and business revenue loss for states at $10.6 billion per year.

But Congress did not pass big new spending in paid leave or child care. Republicans rebuffed Democrats’ $400 billion child care proposal during the Build Back Better fight, and the $16 billion child care stabilization bill Democrats rallied around last fall.

Still, labor force participation among women ages 25-54 has continued to rise, with larger shares of moms of both preschool and school-age children working now than at any time in history. Most of the labor market gains have been driven by moms with young kids under the age of 5, with roughly 70 percent of them holding down some formal job.

Jobs in the child care sector, too, have continued to expand, with more people working in the sector as of April than in any time on record.

The lesson to take from all of this is not that people should stop advocating for policies that would improve the lives of parents, kids, and those who care for children.

We know that paid leave boosts the health of mothers and babies and that many families struggle to find accessible and affordable child care. We know that child care workers are among the lowest paid, which can result in high turnover, and we also know that some parents wish they could stay home with their children, rather than work a formal job. We know that even among families that do cobble together child care arrangements, there is more we could be doing to lower household stress.

But advocates don’t need to rely on cataclysmic economic predictions to make the case for better and more humane family policy, and continually warning of a disaster that never comes undermines their case and credibility.

The fact is that not everyone agrees on what specific policies are necessary to improve child care and conditions for parents — some people would prefer direct cash support to families over funding for daycare centers, for example — but these are the real debates that the public should be having.

A strong economy does a lot

More women — including child care workers who are disproportionately female — are working today, and for the most part, that’s for positive reasons.

The US economy is strong and growing, and workers’ wages have risen faster than prices for more than a year now. Even in child care there’s been an increase in wages, with the average wage standing at $13.31 per hour in 2021, $14.22 in 2022, and $15.42 in 2023. Average preschool teacher wages also reached $19.91 per hour last year.

“As Nobel Laureate Claudia Goldin taught us, one of the most important drivers of women’s labor force participation is higher wages, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that childcare workforce participation and prime-age female labor force participation are both trending upward,” said Josh McCabe, the director of social policy at the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank.

Tight labor markets can cure a lot of economic ills, added Patrick Brown, a child care policy analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. “The fact that low-wage workers have seen the strongest wage growth post-pandemic means that a lot of moms have seen pay increases, switched to better jobs, or work from home at higher levels — all of which make reliable child care more achievable,” he told Vox.

The expansion of remote work since the pandemic is most certainly a factor in boosting female labor force participation, especially among college-educated moms and married women. Federal labor statistics show that 23 percent of women workers teleworked last month, compared to 19 percent of men. Nearly a quarter of teleworkers had children under 18.

“The current tight labor market leads many employers to offer benefits like paid leave or flexible work hours and location,” said Adrienne Schweer, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank. “These are the kinds of benefits that women consistently rate as important factors in their employment decisions.”

More women working also leads to more demand for child care, especially as the number of children in the US continues to grow. This all helps explain growth in child care employment, said Sydney Petersen, a spokesperson with the National Women’s Law Center, a liberal advocacy group.

Still, that more women are joining or staying in the labor market with young kids isn’t necessarily something to cheer about in all circumstances. Katharine Stevens, the president of the Center on Child and Family Policy, a conservative think tank, said some women are working likely because they couldn’t make ends meet on what they were earning before recent rises in inflation.

“Unfortunately, that probably means that women who would have preferred to stay home full- or part-time to raise their own young children have been forced to spend more time working outside the home instead,” she said. “We should be making it easier, not harder for them to do so.”

Paid leave and child care subsidies could boost labor participation more

That rising wages and a strong economy have boosted employment among women doesn’t mean supportive care policy couldn’t drive those gains further. Suzanne Kahn, vice president of the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank, said they’ve been focused on how to make these labor gains “sticky” even if the nation’s economic conditions decline.

Advocates for public investment say there’s already evidence that states that increased their child care spending have seen better results. A new brief from the National Women’s Law Center analyzing Census Household Pulse Survey data found that the share of respondents with children under 12 who lacked child care increased by more than 5 percentage points since the fall in states that didn’t make major new investments in their child care sectors.

By contrast, in the 11 states that did make significant new investments, the share of women respondents with children under 12 who wanted to work but reported not being able to because they were caring for a child decreased from 45.3 percent to 31.9 percent.

Schweer, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, pointed to a poll her think tank conducted last year that found that among prime-age adults not working due to issues related to caring for children, 39 percent said they would have likely continued to work in their last job if they had paid parental leave, and 45 percent would be more likely to start or return to work if a future employer offered that benefit.

“At the moment, macro policy is pushing up employment in general but that does not mean there is not still an increment of women out there who would also be employed (or at least job seeking) if there were more child care subsidies,” said Matt Bruenig, founder of People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank.

McCabe of the Niskanen Center said policies like subsidies for child care and paid leave are probably important to boosting women’s labor force participation to similar levels in other countries because rising wages alone “aren’t enough to get us there.”

Child care access could be much better

Just because more women are working doesn’t mean their lives aren’t being affected by child care issues, and even remote work can be a double-edged sword for moms, as my colleague Anna North has written.

“As a mom of a small child, I have to say just because it’s now possible to work from home with a kid doesn’t mean it’s not extremely challenging,” said Kahn, of the Roosevelt Institute.

“They are making it work, but paying with the cost of their own health and well-being,” argued Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation. “Increasing labor force participation is only good for the individuals working more if they are also being paid enough to pay their bills and save for emergencies and the future, and if providing for their families isn’t at the expense of caring for them and spending time with them.”

Diane Swonk, the chief economist at KPMG, a US audit and tax services firm, noted that child care access issues are making it harder for women who are working to stay at work.

Absences from work due to family or personal obligations hit a record high in March, she said, and stayed elevated in April. Full-time workers who cut down on hours and worked part-time due to other family or personal obligations in April was the highest month since May 2008.

We don’t need doomerism to advocate for families, workers, and kids

Despite the ubiquity of the “child care crisis” phrase, people have different and sometimes competing ideas about what policies are needed to make balancing work and family rearing easier in America.

That conversation may get hard and messy at times, but will push us closer to the truth than making sweeping-yet-thin projections about economic and societal collapse.

“Boosting employment was never the best justification for supporting working parents in the first place,” said Chris Griswold, the policy director at American Compass, a conservative think tank. “Helping families afford to raise children isn’t good because it maximizes economic activity — it’s good because families matter and economic pressures hurt kids and parents alike.”

“There are clearly steps we could take to improve the functioning of the child care market, but the idea that we need a massive federal overhaul to fix a ‘broken’ or ‘failed’ market has been largely disproven,” argued Brown, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Markets are more resilient than many on the left give them credit for. The ‘sky is falling’ crowd is, yet again, overhyping the evidence to push an agenda that doesn’t fit what parents want.”

There are smart people on the left and in the center who disagree with Brown, including US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who argues child care in America is a “textbook example of a broken market.” These are critical questions shaping the well-being of millions, and we should continue investigating them. But the child care cliff should make everyone cautious the next time there’s a political crisis advocates don’t want to waste.