Policy Point--Counterpoint: Could a Universal Childcare Policy Be Implemented to Help Working Families in the U.S.?

Author:Miller, Carol D.

American families struggle to balance work and childcare. Sixty-three percent of married couple households with children have both parents in the labor force. (1) More single fathers heading households are employed (84.2 percent) than single mothers (74.1 percent), but that difference simply demonstrates the difficulty women face as they juggle labor force demands while caring for children. (2) Not surprisingly, mothers of young children are not as likely to be in the labor force compared to those with older children. (3) The high price and lack of quality childcare available to families is one reason for mothers' lower labor force participation rates. (4) The struggle to find good and affordable childcare has dire consequences for the economy, affecting everyone, whether one is a parent or not.

Time cannot be turned back to the middle of the twentieth century, when mostly white, middle-class families had a stay-at-home mom to care for young children as fathers earned a family wage, one that could cover all of the expenses of a family household and even allow for savings for retirement. That economic arrangement existed for only a brief period of U.S. history. Once organized labor was put in check, global labor markets were used as leverage and the threat of automation became more apparent, real wages stagnated, and most families had no other choice but to become dual income households. (5) Women's labor force participation has increased throughout the twentieth century. However, by the second half of the century higher divorce rates and stagnating male wages resulted in more women--even those with small children--being either pulled or pushed into the labor force in numbers previously unseen. (6)

Meanwhile, the U.S. developed a hodgepodge of childcare arrangements available to working families. Public funds for childcare were available to a limited number of parents receiving other government assistance like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) or food stamps, but most U.S. working parents searched for affordable, reliable and high-quality childcare paid for out of their private funds, (7) and if they were eligible, partially subsidized through tax breaks. (8)

As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, childcare in the U.S. remains unreliable, unavailable, and often unaffordable for many working families. Childcare is most unreliable for parents who work irregular hours (outside of a 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., weekday schedule), and too often working parents must take time off from their jobs or find alternative arrangements to care for sick children who are required to stay home from daycare. (9) That is true for parents who are lucky to have childcare facilities in their area. Over half of the American population lives in what could be labeled a "childcare desert," a census tract with over fifty children under the age of five where there are no childcare facilities. (10) Childcare availability is not trending in the right direction either. While licensed capacity (number of slots for children) increased by 7 percent between 2005 and 2017, the number of facilities decreased, with small Family Child Care (FCC) homes decreasing in number by 48 percent. (11) Such a decline in facilities hits rural areas especially hard.

Furthermore, available childcare does not mean it is affordable for many families. Affordable childcare, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, should not exceed 7 percent of a family's income, however depending on where a family lives, and if they are a married couple or single parent, the cost of childcare can exceed 70 percent or more of their income. (12) One report claims that childcare costs more than college tuition in twenty-eight states. (13)

As a result, a lack of comprehensive childcare policy in the U.S. translates into diminished economic productivity. Workers who cannot find affordable, reliable childcare struggle to enter or are forced to exit the labor force. (14) In comparison to other countries where family-friendly policies like universal childcare and paid family leave are available, women in the U.S. have a lower labor force participation rate, especially amongst the less career-oriented population. (15) A portion of U.S. human capital will continue to be wasted without better childcare policies, and that has the potential to affect all citizens, parents or not.

Point: A Universal Childcare Policy Would Help Working Families in the U.S.

Affordability and availability of quality childcare are major problems across the U.S. While there are currently programs in place to help low-income families offset the cost, they are not doing enough. In addition, the programs, which are usually distributed through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families...

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