Is the question of childcare getting enough attention given all the other stresses created by the pandemic? Finding good, affordable childcare presented a major challenge even in pre-virus days for those working outside the home. Both the cost and quality of available childcare have been major obstacles to overcome. But how does childcare rate now as an essential service requiring support?

Despite lip service paid to childcare as essential to the contemporary workforce, daycare and child care providers do not seem to get the attention given to the neighborhood gym or barber shop. Although for many years, discussion has centered on the desirability of government sponsored, universal child care either in the form of actual child care centers, or financial support to parents to cover the cost of privately arranged childcare, child care providers receive no meaningful public investment.

The United States has the lowest level of spending on childcare among industrialized countries. This is also true of policies that provide support to working parents in other ways, such as paid maternity/paternity leaves and similar measures. The justification for such government expenditure, has been presented in financial terms, with research showing the economic payoff not just for families but for society as a whole. Studies have demonstrated that calculating the cost to society of unemployment, crime and poor health resulting from inadequate early care, justifies the government investment in good childcare.

Nevertheless, while nearly every other developed nation supports child care as a public good, this country treats child care providers as private enterprises. The child care sector survives mainly by private dollars, namely fees and program enrollment. When the pandemic forced centers and family child care providers to close, day care fees were cut off and the business of child care has likely collapsed.

The objection to publicly supported childcare is based on factors other than the financial issue. Economics are at times used to cloud underlying cultural/social attitudes and biases. At root is the belief that mothers should stay at home to care for their children. The controversy over federally funded day care is very much tied to resistance to the changed role of women and older family structure in which men were the breadwinners and women the homemakers.

Nothing has been more of a handicap to women in their struggle for both economic and social equality than the problem of finding good, even adequate care for their children. Many women have been forced out of the workplace because the cost of care equals or surpasses what they are earning. Others, working out of financial need must resort to makeshift or less desirable kinds of care.

Now child care providers are forced to operate as small businesses are close to insolvency and early educators have been laid off in large numbers without wages or health care benefits. When public schools reopen teachers will be on the job because their jobs are publicly financed. But the same is not true for child care and preschool programs.

Women make up a majority of the child care workforce, and many child care programs are women-owned businesses. Within the home it is women who largely will bear the professional consequences of the breakdown in child care availability. More than 70% of mothers with children under the age of six work full time. If and when they are called back to work will the child care they relied on still be available?

It is clear that future economic recovery will depend on the availability of child care. The time is now for our elected representatives to take note and act.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.