In early April 2020, just as wave after wave of coronavirus cases were hitting the United States and hospitals in hot spots were worried about being overrun with sick and dying people, I set up a conference call with a big group of Massachusetts nurses. They were working long hours, there were no known COVID-19 treatments, and they were watching their patients die alone. I’d also heard terrible stories about the shortage of face masks and other protective gear. Let’s be clear: If nurses can’t do their jobs, then the whole health care system breaks down and all of America is at risk.
I thanked the nurses and said I agreed with everyone in our country who had been calling them “heroes.” There were some polite responses, and then I asked the obvious question: What do you need so you can do your jobs? The first answer: child care. Another chimed in, saying, Yeah, we need child care. And then the dam broke, with the nurses talking over each other. The always-tricky and always-stressful task of arranging child care had become so much harder exactly at the moment when the need for these parents to be in the workforce was at its most desperate.
Their employers saw the problem as well. And the same was true for other employers who were trying to keep their people on the front lines so that, say, grocery stores could stay open or bus lines would run. One in five of those who couldn’t work cited child care as the reason. Without adequate child care, an economy that was already under great strain faced the very real possibility of breaking down entirely.
Meanwhile, the working mothers who were trying to manage from home weren’t doing great, either. On top of all they were doing before the pandemic, working parents found that the increased demands of staying at home with children meant that, on average, they saw their total workloads increase by 27 hours a week — nearly the equivalent of a second job.
And who did most of this child care and schooling burden fall on? Mothers. Of course it was mothers; it’s always mothers.
Research showed that before COVID-19, even among dual-earning couples, mothers were spending twice as much time on parenting responsibilities as dads. Once COVID-19 hit and the burden of supervising schooling shot up, mothers’ share of the work actually increased. And for single moms, the story was even worse — in many cases, they took on 100 percent of the care. Experts speculate that without sufficient child care infrastructure, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on working moms could last a lifetime, cutting into their earnings and their eventual retirement savings.
With child care, as with so much else, the coronavirus yanked back the curtain that has for generations covered up a national disgrace. From 1970 through 2019, adjusted for inflation, wages for middle-class workers have barely budged. Yet between the time I was a new mother and the time I was a new senator, the cost of child care went up over 900 percent. Nine hundred percent. In nearly half of all states, child care costs are higher than the cost of in-state public college tuition.
Producing high-quality, readily available child care is really expensive — and that was true before the COVID-19 crisis drove up costs for every one of these centers. If parents found it difficult to find a child care center before the coronavirus, by the time the pandemic was in full swing, it became close to impossible. One study estimated that in early 2020, four young children were vying for every child care slot.
There is a pretty obvious way out of this box: Put more taxpayer money into child care. That’s what Iceland does. And Sweden. And Denmark. And Austria, Bulgaria, Mexico, Estonia, and dozens of other countries. All of them put a bigger share of their budgets into child care than the United States does.
Before someone strikes up the band to play several verses of “why-should-I-pay-for-that-if-I-don’t-have-kids?” it might be good to remember that every American taxpayer is helping pay for the new robots that GM just bought to improve efficiency on the factory line. Every American taxpayer is helping pay for the new fully automated 5G cellphone radio plant that a Swedish company is building in the United States. Every American taxpayer is helping pay for every piece of equipment that is boosting corporate profits. It’s all happening through the tax code.
The tax code is a truly staggering document, but it all boils down to the same thing: If a business decides to buy computers, farm equipment, rental property, furniture, oil drilling equipment, SUVs, or just about anything else, that business can get a tax break. Companies’ depreciation write-offs totaled $659 billion in 2014.
These tax deductions for depreciation may be good investments that help boost productivity, but $659 billion is a lot of money. Just to put that in context, I recently put together a plan to provide child care and preschool for every one of our country’s children. It covered all the expenses for about 70 percent of families and capped the expenses at 7 percent of income for the rest. The total annual cost? Seventy billion dollars. That’s a plan that would boost productivity, too.
For that same $70 billion, the plan also included a pay raise for every child care worker and preschool teacher in America. Currently, child care workers earn about $10.70 an hour, and six out of seven get neither health insurance nor retirement benefits. More than 90 percent of these workers cannot meet their own financial needs, much less support someone else in their household.
But it’s not only about money — it’s also about respect and fairness. Almost all child care workers are women who work for barely above poverty-level wages so that other women can go to their jobs. More than 93 percent of child care workers are female, disproportionately Latina and Black women. Paying these caregivers more would make it possible for them to build some security in their own lives.
Increased federal spending would dramatically change the economics of child care, which would encourage more caregiving centers of all kinds to spring up. We should also remember that early learning is one of the best long-term investments our nation can make. A tax deduction to replace a janitor with a robot may boost profits for the company’s owners and investors, but it’s hard to estimate the long-term public benefit. By contrast, the benefits of high-quality early childhood education can be measured for years in better performance in school and higher graduation rates. More than one child care expert has argued that for every nickel invested in early childhood, we save dollars down the line in problems that never happen and opportunities that open up.
It’s all about choices. And it’s about time we made the smart choice — and the right one.
This essay was adapted from the new book “PERSIST” by Elizabeth Warren. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Warren. All rights reserved. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.