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‘I don’t have a choice’: childcare cost preventing US women from returning to work

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The high costs and lack of access to childcare is preventing many thousands of women from returning to the workforce in the United States despite a widespread labor shortage.

Childcare systems in America were already facing significant problems in terms of their expense, the low pay for workers, and lack of accessibility for families before to the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened these issues as childcare centers were forced to shut down, and many closed permanently, have yet to reopen, or have lowered enrollment.

Jessica Rapp of Westminster, Colorado, gave birth to her first child in August 2020. Her job as a pediatric occupational therapist did not provide any paid maternity leave. She took 12 weeks off, unpaid, through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The financial difficulties began after she received high medical bills for the birth, even though she had health insurance. Rapp and her husband are still paying off the medical debt, while she has only been able to return to work part-time due to the high costs of childcare. The couple pays about $1,200 a month for two days of care a week.

“Now my son is 14 months old and I would say the past year has been the most financially stressed we’ve ever been,” said Rapp. “The cost of full-time childcare would have been much higher than our mortgage, higher than my salary would have been able to take in.”

Even with financial support and childcare help from family, Rapp hasn’t been able to return to work full-time.

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“I don’t have a choice right now. I feel like I want to work. That should be a good thing, but it’s just not possible now.”

In September 2021, more than 300,000 women in the US left the workforce. More than 26,000 jobs were lost in September 2021 for women, while men gained 220,000 jobs. The labor participation rate in the US is still 1.7% lower than before the pandemic in February 2020, including nearly 1.6 million mothers with children under the age of 17 who dropped out of the work force and have not returned.

“The care infrastructure was hanging by a thread before the pandemic,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and CEO of MomsRising. “Then that unraveled altogether and it became clear that we absolutely need to invest in childcare so parents can go to work, children can thrive, and childcare workers can earn living wages. Investing in childcare is job-enabling and job-creating, by allowing parents to go to their much needed jobs, and by investing in a career and better wages for care workers.”

President Biden’s Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill includes $400bn in funds to develop free universal preschool for children ages three and four, and to reduce childcare costs to 7% of income for families earning up to 250% of their state’s median income, which is estimated to expand access for 20 million children in the US.

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Currently, the United States government spends just $500 annually per child on early childhood care, significantly lower than the average for wealthy countries, at $14,436 in annual public spending.

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Childcare costs for parents have increased significantly over the past few decades and vary widely across the US, from about $5,000 annually in Mississippi to about $24,000 annually in Washington DC. Even before Covid-19, a majority of Americans lived in childcare deserts.

Reshonna Booker of Seattle, Washington, gave birth to her first child in June 2020, while studying to become a teacher. After her few weeks of paid leave during the pandemic expired, Booker had to leave the workforce to care for her son, as childcare was not only too expensive, but every facility she and her husband could find had waiting lists of at least two years.

“Ninety percent of the kids that come in are white, middle class families, and so all those spots get full, and where does that leave all the other people of color to get a quality education?” said Booker. “I think that should be a priority, to change the education gap, to have spots reserved for children of color in better quality schools, especially for young Black children, because we can never get in and they’re too expensive.”

Childcare workers in the US typically make about $12 an hour.

The low pay is a contributing factor in staffing shortages that the majority of childcare facilities in the US are still experiencing after the pandemic.More than 100,000 jobs in the child daycare industry have been lost since the pandemic began.

Across the US, more than one in three childcare providers reported in a recent survey they are considering leaving or closing their childcare program.

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Lacey Clark started working at Wild Lilac Child Development Community in Portland, Oregon, once the facility reopened after a brief shut-down due to Covid in spring 2020. She had been laid off from a job at another childcare provider due to the pandemic.

“It felt like the dark ages,” said Clark. “The policy landscape was changing, it felt like every week, both our school creating its own policies, the government policies, and then the early childhood policies. It felt like we were really out of control and getting a lot of flack for the policies being made around us.”

Clark and her co-workers recently voted overwhelmingly to unionize after organizing with coworkers through the internet due to Covid safety protocols.

“We need to have more staff and to get paid better,” added Clark. “There’s such a high turnover. Having new people come in with no training for minimum wage and having the highest expectations for them to deliver high quality childcare has caused a massive burnout.”