Not in the Same Boat

The pandemic is reducing childcare availability for lower-income families

RAPID Survey
RAPID Survey
Published in
6 min readJun 9, 2020


By the RAPID-EC Research Group

Although we face a common threat from the COVID-19 coronavirus, people are experiencing the threat in very different ways. Some parts of the country have suffered high rates of viral infection and overwhelmed healthcare systems, while other regions have had a relatively small number of cases.

The effects of the pandemic have also been different across sectors of the economy; for example, many service industry businesses have been devastated, whereas many companies in the technology sector have been able to shift to remote work and in some cases may even have become stronger and more profitable during the pandemic.

Households with young children are in a similar situation; on one hand, they are all experiencing the pandemic, while, on the other, there are major differences in how the pandemic is affecting them.

We observed a statistically meaningful difference in the ability to return to their prior childcare arrangements between lower-income and other families.

In our post last week, we reported on collective challenges that families with young children are facing. For example, nearly half of the households who responded to last week’s RAPID survey reported losing the childcare they were using before the pandemic.

Last week’s post was based on a largely middle-income national sample, whereas this week we have returned to a nationally representative sample based on geography and income.

In this week’s post, we focus on a major difference, as well some parallels, between childcare in lower- and middle/upper-income households.

We find that there is a large difference in the ability of lower-vs. middle/upper-households to return to their pre-pandemic childcare arrangements as the economy reopens.

These differences suggest that without policy action, several highly concerning trends are likely to emerge in the near future:

  1. A sizable proportion of the lower-wage earning sector of the workforce may be unable to return to work
  2. A large number of childcare providers who serve lower-income households will permanently close their doors.

When it comes to childcare, households with young children are not all in the same boat. In order to build back our economy, we need to ensure that everyone has the supports they need, including childcare, to be able to return to work.

What is the difference in childcare between lower- and middle/upper-income households?

Loss of income, lack of transportation, and other factors are a major barrier for lower-income parents to return to their prior childcare arrangements.

Indeed, we observed a statistically meaningful difference in the ability to return to their prior childcare arrangements between lower-income and other families.

Among lower-income households, 48% said either they do not have the ability to return or they don’t know if they have the ability; in contrast, only 25% of middle/upper-income households said they don’t have the ability or don’t know if they have the ability.

How is the childcare of lower- and middle/upper-income households with young children similar?

We also observed some commonalities. Our survey data from this week show that:

  • Lower- and middle/upper income- parents report similar levels of discomfort with returning to childcare — 61% of lower-income and 67% middle/upper-income are worried or anxious about this.
  • An equal proportion (52% in both groups) of lower-and middle/upper-income parents and other caregivers also reported that either they or their spouse/partner will provide childcare in the next month.
  • An equal number (14% in both groups) reported that their parent or their spouses parent will provide childcare in the next month.

What do these findings mean for households with young children?

Prior to the pandemic, the childcare system in the US was already under pressure.

The average costs of having an infant in childcare full-time in the US was higher than the cost of college tuition in 33 states.

The primary source of public funding for childcare subsidies, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), was providing subsidies for 1.4 million children. However, only a small proportion of eligible households were actually receiving the subsidy. In addition, subsidized payments to providers were unreliable, creating financial instability for childcare operators who serve lower-income children.

In short, the CCDBG was falling far short of funding quality care for all children.

In addition, there were significant shortages of childcare openings, and many parts of the country — especially rural areas — were identified as “childcare deserts.”

The pandemic has amplified the childcare problems that households with young children face.

One source estimated that over half a million childcare placements will be permanently lost due to center and family based childcare closures.

Our data suggest that lower-income households will be disproportionately affected by this situation. Nearly half of lower-income parents and other caregivers said they did not have the ability to return to their pre-pandemic childcare arrangements.

This could set off a cascade of negative events.

  • Some lower-wage earning individuals will likely not be able to return to work because they lack childcare. These workers are a critical part of our economy. We can’t regain pre-pandemic levels of economic activity if they cannot return to work.
  • Income previously being spent on childcare will no longer go to support childcare providers, leading to a decrease in the availability of spaces. This will further exacerbate problems of the availability of childcare in low-income communities.

Together, these factors are likely to slow the economic recovery and place a disproportionate burden on low wage-earning households.

Families where one member cannot return to work because of childcare needs will likely experience higher levels of stress due to economic hardship. We know that these kinds of stressors overload caregivers and impact their ability to provide responsive care for their children. In order to prevent this, a number of actions must be taken.


  1. Adequately finance childcare to stabilize the industry. Advocates and a number of national legislators are currently requesting $50B in federal stimulus funds to ensure programs can re-open and stay open to support the rebuilding of our economy.
  2. Shift childcare subsidy payment policies and mechanisms to create stability for childcare providers. This may include contract funding that provides predictable, stable funding for a group of children. Consider ways to include fixed operating costs as a part of reimbursement rates (minimum number of children served or a fixed grant amount).
  3. Focus stabilization efforts on programs serving lower-income workers (on subsidy and those self-paying) to ensure the availability of child care to these groups so that they can return to or remain in the workforce.
  4. Expand eligibility of working families to childcare subsidies to allow significantly more families to use this program. Expand the program to increase provider reimbursement rates. Extend family eligibility through the anticipated rebuilding phase (2–3 years).
  5. Fund program adjustments to meet the revised health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Create payment mechanisms and incentives to promote adoption and adherence to these protocols.
  6. Require employers to allow flexible work schedules and additional time off for parents facing a lack of adequate childcare.
  7. Maintain real-time data and information at the state and community levels on available childcare options for families, and increase efforts to make it easier for families to find and locate available, high quality childcare.

Suggested additional readings

Our team has curated a selection of important background readings for anyone interested in further exploring equitable access to childcare.

How COVID-19 Has Created a Childcare Catch-22 for Working Families,” Time.

Where Does Your Child Care Dollar Go?” Center for American Progress.

Parents and the High Cost of Child Care,” ChildCare Aware of America.

America’s Child Care Deserts in 2018,” Center for American Progress.

Healthy Child Development Depends on Quality Child Care—and So Does the Economy,” Learning Policy Institute.

About the project

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last winter, there were over 24 million children age five and under living in the United States. This period of early childhood is a critical window that sets the stage for health and well-being across the lifespan. As such, it is essential during the current health and economic crisis to listen to the voices of households with young children.

The weekly survey of households with children age five and under launched on April 6, 2020. Since then, we have been gathering weekly data about child and adult emotional well-being, financial and work circumstances, availability of healthcare, and access to child care/early childhood education.

We will continue to report on these issues as we learn more from each new weekly survey. We will also be producing policy briefs that make concrete recommendations about how to address the challenges we are seeing emerge from the family surveys.

Our goal is to use what we are hearing from families to improve the well-being of all households with young children, during the pandemic and beyond.



RAPID Survey
RAPID Survey

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