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OPINION

The coronavirus puts child care sector in need of a bailout

The closure of child care centers due to COVID-19 has forced a profound reckoning about the state of the American child care system.

Dorothy Williams cares for Amiyah McPherson, 7-weeks, and Channing Nelligan, 15-months, at Dottie's Family Childcare in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, last week. Most child care centers in Massachusetts were shut down Monday due to the coronavirus.
Dorothy Williams cares for Amiyah McPherson, 7-weeks, and Channing Nelligan, 15-months, at Dottie's Family Childcare in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, last week. Most child care centers in Massachusetts were shut down Monday due to the coronavirus.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Parents across the Commonwealth face a painful economic bind: their children are at home, but the child care check is still due. COVID-19 has (rightfully) forced the closure of child care centers across Massachusetts. In doing so, it has forced a profound reckoning about the state of the American child care system.

The child care sector — long overlooked and long deprived of adequate public investment — is foundational to today’s economy. Nearly 80 percent of parents with young children are in the workforce. To borrow a well-loved Massachusetts tagline, our economy runs on child care.

This state of emergency has crystallized that with dramatic effect, as parents in the medical sector are called to the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic; as low-wage parents weigh the devastating choice between their paycheck and their family’s exposure to a dangerous virus, as small business parents burn the midnight oil to stay afloat, and as every working parent fights to balance their family’s physical and economic livelihoods.

One thing is clear: We can no longer afford to approach child care as an economic accessory. We must approach it as the oxygen on which every facet of our recovery will depend.

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Well before COVID-19, the American child care sector was in a fragile state. Collective failure to recognize the critical importance of child care to national economic health and household economic stability has starved the sector of the public funds it needs; the result is a child care market in which all stakeholders, both providers and families, find themselves in precarious positions, operating on margins that just barely keep them afloat.

In Greater Boston, families pay an average of $35,000 in child care costs each year. Access is also a challenge for some families, who face year-long wait lists, regional child care deserts, and operating hours that require them to supplement with additional care (and additional money).

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Providers have it just as bad. Even with tuition fees that exceed the in-state tuition of public universities, child care providers struggle to cover their own operational costs, particularly the cost of educators. For good reason, adult-to-child ratios are high for infant and toddler care. Even when charging families upwards of $20,000 for infant care, providers operate on thin margins and can afford to pay their educators little more than minimum wage.

Now, COVID-19 is pushing this already tenuous market to the brink of collapse.

An infusion of emergency funds into the nation’s child care sector is urgently needed. At a time of uncertain employment and jeopardized household income, families cannot afford to pay for care they are not receiving. Providers, however, cannot afford to waive tuition fees if they want to continue to pay their staff and keep their businesses solvent. Child care centers across the country report that, if they are not made whole from uncollected parent fees, they will be forced to lay off staff or cease to operate completely. And financial insolvency is not months away; centers may be unable to survive more than two to three weeks.

As Congress considers a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill that bails out giant corporations and industries, we must bail out the child care sector. We must act immediately to provide billions in federal funding for local providers, so they and their workers are saved from economic devastation — and so our families and our economy can weather this storm.

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Current safety nets intended to support small businesses are insufficient: in-home family child care providers, who play a central role in child care delivery systems, are considered by the Internal Revenue Service to be self-employed, rendering them ineligible for unemployment insurance. For family child care providers, loss of income can mean loss of housing and, therefore, inability to reopen at all. Child care centers told us that, should they be forced to lay-off or furlough staff members, they expect to lose those educators entirely. Given the low wages paid to early educators, unemployment insurance will be insufficient incentive to stay in the field. Loss of staff will cause those centers that do stay in business to delay reopening; a reality that will have implications for families’ ability to go back to work and hamstring the pace at which state and national economies recover.

Federal emergency funds will ensure providers can waive fees for families but still remain whole. These resources will allow them to continue to employ staff and support business operations during the state of emergency and periods of closure. Funds also will be used to ensure that providers who participate in emergency child care programs designed to meet the child care needs of health care providers, first responders, and essential workers are able to afford and access the material goods needed to operate such a program. Finally, the educators caring for the children enrolled in emergency child care programs deserve hazard pay commensurate with the risk they are taking with respect to their and their families’ health and safety.

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Congress must act immediately. This is a call we make as policy makers, advocates, caregivers and parents. We know the uncertainty that lies ahead for every family is daunting. We see you, and we will fight for your family as hard as we fight for our own. Together, we will pull each other through.

Senator Elizabeth Warren is the senior senator from Massachusetts. Bruce Mann is her husband and a professor at Harvard Law School. Representative Joe Kennedy III represents the 4th Congressional District of Massachusetts. Lauren Birchfield Kennedy is his wife and the co-founder of Neighborhood Villages. Representative Katherine Clark represents Massachusetts’s 5th congressional district. Representative Ayanna Pressley represents the 7th Congressional District of Massachusetts. Conan Harris is her husband and Principal of Conan Harris & Associates LLC Consultant Firm.

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