When we talk about childcare in America, we’re usually thinking about education – how to prepare our youngest kids for learning success. But the pandemic has made all-too-clear that childcare is also a critical enabler of work. Especially for American women. And we don’t have nearly enough of it.
“There are still 1.5 million moms who have not been able to get back into work because of the lack of childcare,” says Julie Kashen, the Director of Women’s Economic Justice at the Century Foundation. “It’s the biggest thing holding back the recovery.”
Kashen argues that we need to start thinking of childcare as mission critical to getting the economy going. The good news: we can fix the childcare gap, we just need to be smart about it.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Matt Robison: When did the connection between childcare and enabling the labor force first become important and obvious in America?
Julie Kashen: The first – and last – time the United States ever had a comprehensive childcare system was during World War II. We needed women to go to work in the factories while the men were fighting. So we actually created publicly funded childcare in 1943. But when the war ended, the government wanted women to go back home. Since then, the idea of comprehensive childcare has been demonized. Like: “your kids will go to giant corporate daycare centers where they’re going to learn smoke and unionize.”
I will say, though, that the pandemic ripped the invisibility cloak off of this issue. People are really tuned in to it now.
Matt Robison: What are the barriers to getting the amount of high quality childcare that we need?
Julie Kashen: I have three answers to that. Number one is money, number two is money, and number three is money. Of course, there’s also a need for political will.
Matt Robison: Some people dismiss this as a “women’s issue.” How do you persuade them that this is an economic prosperity issue that affects everyone?
Julie Kashen: Lack of childcare during the pandemic caused women to either leave their jobs or reduce their work hours. That cost our economy more than $64 billion. It’s the equivalent of taking New Hampshire‘s GDP or West Virginia‘s GDP out of the economy. It’s a huge deal.
Matt Robison: Is the federal government going to mostly have to solve this problem?
Julie Kashen: Everybody has a stake in this, and so everybody has a role to play. The federal government definitely needs to treat this as a public good. We benefit from the economic impact of women’s labor force participation and from children being set up to succeed in life.
But the private sector gets it too. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce engaged on this issue over the last year. They did a lot of surveys and research and said that there should be a higher priority on childcare because of the needs of businesses across the country.
Matt Robison: Can we do this? Can we close the gap?
Julie Kashen: Yes. Before the pandemic, 51% of all residents in the United States lived in a childcare desert, where there were just not enough licensed childcare slots for the families who lived there. So there’s certainly a lot to do when it comes to ensuring that families have access to high quality, affordable childcare available when and where they need it. Things like investing in the education and compensation of a diverse childcare workforce and making sure that they are paid for their valuable and complex work. It’s making sure that we have a safe, developmentally appropriate, diverse array of childcare options in centers, in home-based options and family childcare settings. So we need all of these things.
But President Biden‘s plan for childcare and preschool is an amazing start. It would actually ensure that childcare is affordable for most families.
Ultimately, the question is: what are our values as a society? Childcare is a children’s issue. It’s important for education. Broadly available childcare will create greater racial, gender, and economic equity. It is critical for the economy. It is good for employers. So there is something in this policy for everyone, and if we can bring all of these pieces together, we can actually get this done.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.