The American childcare system is broken. Current policies don’t support low-income mothers of color, the individuals who need access most.
In high school, I worked at a small cafe that sold mediocre coffee and oversized muffins. My coworkers were mainly other students saving for college, but there was also Leanne. Leanne was Black, in her thirties, and loved heavy eyeliner. Her age made her an outlier, but what set her apart most was that she was a single mother.
I spent a lot of time with Leanne over the course of three years. Over cups of watery iced coffee, I learned that she had two sons under the age of seven, one of whom had autism. Leanne would often come to work in tears and exhausted — at home, she did not have support from a partner or parent.
Leanne frustrated many of my coworkers because she frequently didn’t show up. Some attributed this behavior to a character flaw, that she was lazy or unreliable. I knew that Leanne was none of these things. The problem was simple: she didn’t have childcare.
Leanne’s situation is not unique. The Childcare and Development Block Grant (CCDG) is a federal program designed to subsidize childcare costs for families across the United States, but six in seven families eligible for assistance do not receive it. After adjusting for inflation, funding for the program in 2018 was $1 billion less than in 2001.
The childcare system is broken, but the problem is straightforward. It is rooted in two fronts: affordability and accessibility.
High-quality childcare costs are nothing short of absurd. In 28 states, the average annual cost of licensed childcare for one child is as much as one year’s tuition at a four-year public college. For low-income families, childcare costs comprise 35% of income.
Access to care is especially difficult for women who work between 7pm and 6am, during weekends, and on federal holidays. Schedules like these are known as nonstandard hours (NSH). Though 43% of American children under 18 have at least one parent that works NSH, only 8% of U.S childcare centers offer services during these hours.
Problems of cost and access are old news, perhaps from personal experience or grumblings from leftist politicians. The question we’re forgetting to ask, however, is who these shortcomings hurt most.
Ultimately, costly childcare disproportionately affects low-income mothers of color who work NSH. In the United States, 20% of mothers with a child under the age of three work low wage jobs. Within these low-income families, almost 30% have a job with NSH. These workers are often people of color, as black women are 60% more likely to work outside of daytime hours than their white counterparts.
A lack of accessible and affordable childcare hinders female participation in the workforce. For women who are employed, mothers were 40% more likely than fathers to report that childcare issues negatively impacted their career. Mothers unable to find childcare were significantly less likely to be employed than those who did, whereas there was no impact on fathers’ employment.
In Congress, politicians from both sides of the aisle have entertained the idea of bolstering childcare’s affordability and accessibility. President Biden’s original Build Back Better Act proposed drastic additions to existing policy, including expanding childcare subsidies to 93% of working families and enabling access for over 13 million children under age 6. The proposal’s magnitude made bipartisan support unlikely.
Given the partisan divide, lawmakers should narrow their focus to families with parents working NSH. On March 27, 2023, Senator Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the After-Hours Childcare Act. This legislation would establish the Childcare and Development Innovation Fund, providing grants to eligible childcare centers to expand hours of operation and reduce costs for families. Depending on eligibility, grants would provide centers with between $25,000 and $500,000. Policymakers should mobilize bipartisan support to advance this pilot program and address the needs of America’s hardest working parents.
For millions of women like Leanne, our systems are rigged against their success and job security. Her tearful, frustrated rants are indicative of widespread institutional failure. In order to empower women of all identities in the workplace, we need to reform childcare policies. Conversations around this issue need to prioritize mothers of color, low-income individuals, and those with nonstandard hours. Widespread solutions, however, start with Congress.
Bess Pierre is from Marion, Massachusetts and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.