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During the pandemic, the federal government spent more than $50 billion to shore up the child care industry. But advocates say cost and access are still big hurdles. Over the past several months, special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Kate McMahon traveled across the country for our series “Raising the Future: America’s child care dilemma.” They begin with how we got here and what’s at stake.
Tonight we begin a special week-long series examining a problem that's taken on renewed importance for America's working families, child care.
During the pandemic, the federal government spent more than $50 billion to shore up the child care industry, but advocates say cost and access are still major issues.
Over the past several months, special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Kate McMahon traveled across the country for our series Raising the Future: America's Child Care Dilemma.
They begin with how we got here and what's at stake.
America's fragile child care system was thrust into the national spotlight last year.
: Day cares across the state are closing its doors because of the coronavirus.
Forcing parents to scramble and driving millions of women out of the work force.
Today, as the country emerges from the pandemic, with businesses and the economy roaring back to life, the same can't be said for the child care industry.
Now many parents who want to go back to work are faced with a new problem: child care shortage.
Child care has been one of the biggest struggles for working families for decades.
We were blown away by the cost of child care.
Heidi Lohman and her wife, Marenda Chamberlain, live in Portland, Oregon, with their 2-year-old daughter, Autumn. Heidi is a high school counselor and Marenda is an electrician. When they began their child care search, they were shocked by what they learned.
She was born in 2018. And some of the places I toured were touring for the 2021 school year. So, it was even like a year-plus down the road. So it was a scramble.
Eventually, they found a program that cost nearly as much as their mortgage, and then COVID hit.
Marenda Chamberlain, Mother:
I had to lay myself off for about four months.
As essential workers, they later found an opening at a center, but it wasn't a great fit.
It was for four days a week, and we were paying $1, 650 a month, which was — that did exceed our mortgage. It's absolutely not sustainable. I don't think that working families should have to this juggle. And I don't know how some families do it.
Before the pandemic, nearly 70 percent of children in the U.S. under the age of 6 lived in households where all parents worked.
During those earliest years, when research shows that children need high-quality care and education, America's working families have had to cobble together child care solutions in a private market that is costly, often lacks quality, and fails to pay caregivers a living wage.
It literally took a pandemic in order for child care to be a part of everyday conversation.
Lynette Fraga advocates for affordable, quality child care. She says it's a critical window of time for development. The science shows that, during the first few years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed each second.
Why then should we leave that kind of importance not only for the current work force, but for the future work force, to the market? How about we think about this as a public good?
Studies have shown investments in child care can pay off, including one that found a dollar invested in quality child care for economically disadvantaged kids returns more than $7 in savings. But not everyone wants more government funding for child care.
The focus on non-parental group care for young children is detracting from our focus on supporting parenting and enabling parents to spend more time with their children, if they want to.
Katharine Stevens is an early childhood researcher and author. She says more research is needed to understand the impacts of child care on all children, and she thinks the federal government should stay focused on helping lower-income families.
Budgets are reflections of values. If we are directing large sums of money to subsidize parents parenting less, that's a very significant statement to be making about the importance of parenting in our society.
But in today's world, many parents do need child care, and demand exceeds supply.
Child care programs are really struggling in finding staff.
Nationwide, the child care industry has suffered a loss of 20 percent of its work force since the pandemic. One of the hardest-hit states? Oregon; 24-year-old Olivia Pace of Portland lost her job at a child care center in March of 2020.
Most of us got laid off. Most people didn't go back or have gone back and then left since then.
She has a degree in child and family studies, and planned on being in the field a long time, but now she's not sure she will ever go back.
Even though I love working with children, the structure of the field is such that, if that's what you want to do, you're going to be worked to the bone and you're going to be really burnt out. And I don't want to do that anymore.
About 97 percent of early educators are women. About 40 percent are women of color. And the majority of women are Black, brown and immigrant women who are doing this work.
Lea Austin is director of the center for the study of child care employment at U.C. Berkeley. She tracks work force issues nationally.
The median wage right now for early educators in this country is $12.12 an hour. And we know from research that we have done at the center that about half of this work force utilizes some form of public safety net program. And…
That's a huge number.
It's a huge number.
We have subsidized the system on the back of the workers.
Austin blames the fragility of the system on the failure of the private market.
It is a critical part of our infrastructure. But the way it is designed now is, it's a market-based system. And it is based on what parents can pay. That's how you access child care, where we're saying go out and see what you can afford.
But there was a time when child care wasn't so hard to find.
When married women with small children have to take jobs. Everything possible will be done to provide day care for the children.
That time was during World War II.
I am standing on a Navy ship here in Portland that was built largely by women during that era. The federal government recognized that women were essential to the war effort, that, in order to build ships like this, they needed child care.
About 75 years ago, just across the water for me, there was a federally funded child care center that provided high-quality care for about 400 children, while their parents were hard at work.
But when the war ended, the government shuttered the Oregon center and 3, 100 others like it across the country. The last time the U.S. government seriously considered child care policy was in 1971, but President Nixon vetoed it, saying that a national child care system would weaken American families.
Child care is — would have been not only an administrative monstrosity.
That kicked child care back to the bottom of the policy public policy mountain. And it hasn't recovered since.
Elliot Haspel wrote a book recently on child care reform.
You can't understand early childhood in America without understanding a deep history of sexism.
There's a sense that it is the duty and obligation of the mother to take care of the young child. The problem, of course, is that, especially since the 1960s, women have entered the work force in very large numbers. But there's been no adjustment on the policy side to that reality.
Until now. The pandemic has pushed child care back to the top of the political agenda.
President Joseph Biden:
This legislation includes the biggest investment in child care since World War II.
President Biden has proposed $225 billion in new child care spending over 10 years. But there is still stiff opposition.
We can't have everything. We cannot advance women's careers and boost the economy and optimize early childhood development all at the same time. This is just — this is just a tough reality.
We need a system that's going to support parents, whatever they want to do. The American child care dilemma can be summed up in the fact that we don't have an American child care system.
While the politics play out, America's child care dilemma continues for families like Heidi Lohman and Marenda Chamberlin.
Next week, I'm asking for a reduction in hours because our day care is changing their hours.
Their long-term plan? Moving away from Portland to raise Autumn near extended family.
For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Cat Wise in Oregon.
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Senior Producer, Field Segments
Kate McMahon is an award-winning producer, writer and director of documentary films, news, podcasts, print and digital stories who has received several awards and nominations for her work. Kate has contributed to more than 50 hours of national documentary and long-format news programming, primarily for PBS, since she began her career in 1998 as an Associate Producer for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Kate's recent work includes the ITVS short film The D.A's Dilemma (PBS, February 2021), a 4-part documentary series about behavioral science, Hacking Your Mind (PBS, September 2020); FRONTLINE: Coronavirus Pandemic (PBS, April, 2020) and three PBS NewsHour segments on the Oregon wildfires. She directs and co-produces documentaries for the PBS series FRONTLINE; independent films, digital channels and PBS stations. Outside of producing documentaries, Kate has produced and reported public radio programs for REVEAL, and written articles in Salem Reporter and Metro Parent Magazine.
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