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What the U.S. labor shortage means for child care in the U.S.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Parents of young children, you already know this painful fact. Child care can be one of the biggest monthly expenses for families with children under 5. On the other hand, child care workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the country. And since the beginning of the pandemic, they've been leaving the profession in record numbers, which has led to staffing shortages across the industry.

In his first State of the Union speech, President Biden called on Congress to pass the Build Back Better Act that would cut child care costs for millions of families and provide universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, but the act itself is currently stalled in Congress.

We wanted to take a look at how this ongoing child care challenge is affecting the economy and what might make a difference, so we called Elliot Haspel for this. He is an authority on child and family policy and the author of the book "Crawling Behind: America's Child Care Crisis And How To Fix It." Elliot Haspel, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ELLIOT HASPEL: Yeah, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what is it about the pandemic that kind of threw all this into sharp relief?

HASPEL: Well, in the beginning parts of the pandemic, you know, child care programs were experiencing closures sort of alongside the school closures in many cases. What's going on now is this huge staffing shortage that actually isn't simply related to the pandemic. So remember; you know, child care workers are making $12 an hour. Well, what did other low-wage industries do over the past, you know, 12, 18 months? They've raised their compensation. You know, Amazon and Target are at a $15 starting wage - and McDonald's Chipotle, right? Like, all across the board, these industries in retail and fast food are raising their wages.

Well, child care programs can't do that. They can't keep pace because they don't have anywhere else to turn, and there's very little public money in the system. And so we're seeing this exodus of child care workers. So while overall in the economy, you know, we've recovered to within 2 or 3% of our pre-pandemic employment levels, the child care industry is still 11 or 12% below its pre-pandemic employment levels. And when you don't have enough workers in child care programs, what happens, because of those legally mandated adult-to-child ratios, which are really important for safety and quality, is programs have to shut entire classrooms. In some cases, they have to shut entire programs. And so you're seeing the capacity be reduced even more.

MARTIN: This is one of those things that just makes people crazy. On the one hand, the cost of child care can be absolutely crushing. And yet you're saying that in the current environment, child care workers can literally walk across the street to a fast food restaurant and make more money. How is this possible?

HASPEL: Yeah. So the child care industry is in what the U.S. Treasury Department calls a market failure. And what that means is basically we're treating what should be a social good - right? - akin to a library or a public school or a fire department - we've turned it into this private market good where families are basically on their own. For middle-class families, there's no help basically available.

So the problem is, again, the true cost of what - of care in child care program, if what you wanted, you know, a program needs to make to be able to keep the lights on and pay its teachers well, is more than what parents can bear. And so the way that we solve this in most other parts of our society is we say, OK, public funding is going to come in, right? We're going to pay for our public schools. We're going pay for our libraries, for our fire departments. U.S. puts in the third-lowest percentage of our GDP to early care and education of any developed nation. We put in almost nothing to fill that gap. And so as a result, we're in this - again, this untenable situation which hurts parents, which hurts the economy, which hurts child care providers and ultimately hurts children.

MARTIN: So President Biden's Build Back Better Act proposed free universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds and a program that would allow states to expand subsidized care. The president has said that he'd be open to breaking it in pieces, smaller pieces, so that - if that's more palatable to people. What piece would you recommend that he break off first?

HASPEL: So child care and pre-K largely move together. You can't do one really without the other. But in terms of breaking it apart - right? - when you talk about all of the other things that are in there, I'm personally a huge supporter of the child - expanded child tax credit. I'm personally a huge supporter of paid family leave, but if those things do not have a political path forward, child care has been shown to have bipartisan support.

MARTIN: You've called businesses freeloaders for not paying into the child care system, and you're in support of efforts by some in Congress to tax business to pay for child care. What's your rationale for that and how would that work?

HASPEL: I feel strongly about this. Businesses benefit from child care in the same way that they benefit from there being public schools. They benefit from it because the current generation of their workers need to be able to have that care component. They need somewhere for their kids to go so that they can be productive. And that matters for the future generation because those kids are eventually going to become the next generation of workers.

And we let businesses get away with not paying into the child care system. So they pay into the public schools via primarily business property taxes. They pay $0 in any dedicated funding for early care and education. And so we do; we let them be freeloaders. They all benefit from it. There isn't a business in America that doesn't have a workforce today or in the future that is going to rely on some level on child care, but they're not paying into it. So they are freeloaders. And so yes, I do think we need to talk very seriously about things like levying a payroll tax on the employer side of things to help pay for a child care system, thinking about other ways to get businesses to step up because this is a social good.

We don't want childcare to be a job-linked benefit like the way that health insurance is, because that means when you lose your job, you lose your child care, and that's terrible for you. It's also terrible for child development. But when we don't have a functional child care system, what we're really doing is limiting the choices and limiting the freedoms of many, many, many families who are constrained for no other reason than we have decided that providing care for children is a completely individual responsibility and that society doesn't need to step up. And I just fundamentally think that's a misreading of what families need and who America is.

MARTIN: That was Elliot Haspel. He's an authority on child and family policy. He's a former teacher. He's the author of "Crawling Behind: America's Child Care Crisis And How To Fix It." Elliot Haspel, thanks so much for talking with us today.

HASPEL: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.