Rethinking the Accessibility of High-Quality Child Care

Someone said there are no silver linings in this COVID-19 pandemic, but there are some silver threads. One such thread may be an opportunity to rethink and rebuild a child care system that works better than the one we had before.

Our child care system was broken even before the pandemic. Unlike K-12 education, which is viewed – and funded – as a public good, parent fees are the main funding source for the birth-to-five early care and education system. And despite high fees that often cost as much per month as rent or a mortgage payment and are therefore out of reach for many working- and middle-class families, it’s not enough to cover the cost of delivering high-quality care. In fact, In NC, the average yearly cost for infant care is $9,255 per child, exceeding the average annual cost of tuition for an in-state public college, at about $8,000.

One of the biggest cost drivers in the system is educators’ salaries – and yet NC early educators make on average less than $11/hour (compared to a basic starting wage for public school teachers of $18/hour) and many do not have benefits like health insurance. Absent significant public funding, the child care business model doesn’t add up.

As a result, North Carolina did not have sufficient high-quality, affordable, accessible child care even pre-pandemic. For example, the state was an infant and toddler child care desert, meaning there was only one space available in a high-quality facility for every three infants and toddlers. 

Now the COVID-19 pandemic is straining the system still further and highlighting what parents already knew – that dependable child care is essential to the NC economy. Parents can’t go back to work until their children can safely go back to child care. And reopening and rebuilding our child care system is going to take public investment.

It’s an investment that makes good fiscal sense. Research has shown that breakdowns in child care damage state economies. States that have looked into the economic impact of child care problems have come up with price tags in the $1 billion range.

All the attention – both nationally and in NC – on the essential role child care will play in the economic recovery from the pandemic made it big news this week when Joe Biden released a $775 billion plan to expand access for and lower the cost of caregiving, including child care and preschool. This is new. Child care isn’t usually what you hear candidates for national office leading with. It highlights the new reality we are all living in.

Parents have long been asked to figure it out alone, juggling work and parenting responsibilities often without the benefit of dependable, high quality child care to support their success. American voters may increasingly call on all candidates – for local, state and federal office – to share their plans for making high-quality child care accessible for every family who needs it. There are more women in the workforce than men – US Labor Statistics Jobs Report December 2019 – 50.04%. And with women now the majority in the US workforce, child care won’t be off the agenda anytime soon.