Sep 23, 2020

The future of the economy hinges on child care

It was a Tuesday in March when Ellen Drolette heard that schools were closing. Later that day, she learned the Burlington, Vermont, child care home where she looked after six kids would also have to shut down due to the spread of Covid-19 across the country.

“I thought this was going to be maybe two weeks,” Drolette said. But if it went on much longer, she didn’t really have a plan to stay afloat financially. Drolette, who relies on parent fees to pay herself and her assistant, didn’t have much of a cushion — especially since her husband, a general contractor, is also self-employed. “I wasn’t really sure what we were going to do,” she added.

As stay-at-home orders were imposed and extended around the country, thousands of day care providers were in the same boat. Many were forced to close, and still others saw their enrollment drop precipitously, with parents keeping kids home out of fear of the virus — or because they’d lost their jobs in the economic crisis that came with it.

Day cares, which operate on razor-thin margins at the best of times, started running out of money. They had to lay off staff, cutting 370,600 jobs in the child care industry between February and April. The federal government took little action, providing only minimal funding for child care in pandemic stimulus packages. Some day cares began going out of business entirely.

But Drolette’s wasn’t one of them. “The state jumped in really quickly,” she said. “They made a commitment to pay us if parents could not pay us.”

While other states let their child care industries languish, Vermont bailed out its child care industry. Providers that closed because of the pandemic got money to keep their staff on the payroll. Those who remained open to care for the children of essential workers received hazard pay and other support. And in the summer, when more centers started to reopen, they got restart grants to help them with the added expenses — such as cleaning supplies and additional staff — of caring for children during Covid-19.

The money allowed Drolette to continue paying her assistant while her center was closed this spring. And in part because they didn’t have to scrounge for other work, she and other providers in the state came together for Zoom support groups and professional development sessions where they talked through the challenges of reopening, from how to safely greet parents to what protective equipment to wear for mandatory temperature checks. The feeling for many was, “I’m getting paid, I’m going to do this work,” Drolette said.

Vermont understood something the US has long ignored but the pandemic has thrown into high relief: Without child care workers, the American economy simply cannot function.

“These jobs enable other people to work and get back to work,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “It’s the thing that makes everything else possible.”

But across America, the workers who care for and educate young children still make an average of just $10.72 an hour, and many lack benefits such as health insurance and paid leave. These factors lead to high turnover, which in turn affects the quality of care kids receive. Yet that care is still so expensive that it’s out of reach for many families.

Amid the pandemic, the urgency of the situation is clearer than ever. Parents are trying to watch kids while working full-time, day cares are closing down, and everyone is beginning to face the reality that if and when normal life ever resumes, child care simply won’t be there to support it unless we act now. The county needs a cultural shift toward valuing child care and early education workers as the professionals — and essential workers — they are. That starts with a bailout, and Vermont may offer the nation lessons on how to do it.

Despite the Norman Rockwell vision of a housewife (nearly always white) caring for her kids at home while her husband goes off to work, parents in America — especially single and working-class parents — have always needed outside child care. And they’ve never had an easy time getting it.

For decades, working parents mostly relied on other family members to care for their kids, Elizabeth Palley, a professor of social work at Adelphi University who has studied the history of child care policy, told Vox. In the late 19th century, settlement houses — early social-service providers in urban areas — began opening nurseries to care for children of factory workers, many of them European immigrants. In Black communities, mutual aid groups also provided child care.

But the US government would not invest in child care until World War II, when the Lanham Act provided federal funding to subsidize care for the children of women who worked while men were away at war. This early subsidy program ended when the war did, running out in 1946.

The federal government again took up child care in the 1960s with the Head Start program, instituted under President Lyndon Johnson to provide preschool education to low-income 3- and 4-year-olds. Head Start has been a big success, with research showing benefits for kids’ vocabulary entering school, as well as their social and emotional development later on.

But it faced pushback as white voters objected to a program aimed primarily at low-income kids in cities, many of whom were children of color. “White people don’t want to pay for Black people’s children to be cared for” in America, Palley said. That same systemic racism has dogged efforts to expand subsidized child care over the years.

And in this country, there’s also a longstanding cultural expectation that mothers should stay home with kids. Even in 2019, 21 percent of US adults said it was best for women with young children to stay home, while 42 percent said it was best for them to work part-time, according to a Pew Research survey. (Only 33 percent said it was best for a mom to work full-time.) That expectation has scuttled proposals for universal child care in the past, including legislation introduced during the Nixon administration. “I think there was a fear that women were leaving the home,” Palley said, and that federally funded child care would help them do so.

As a result, there’s never been a sustained effort in this country to treat caring for children like a “community responsibility, as opposed to the individual responsibility of parents,” Palley said. Instead, there’s a “patchwork of programs” that leave out millions of American families.

For example, low-income families can get subsidies for child care through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, but the program only has enough funding to serve about 15 percent of eligible families. Meanwhile, in addition to Head Start, a number of cities, including New York and Washington, DC, have recently introduced free or subsidized universal preschool. But there’s no nationwide preschool program, and those that exist don’t help parents with care for infants and toddlers, which is even more expensive.

Many parents are left shouldering child care costs that top $1,000 a month in many states, often more than the average rent.

But even that barely covers the cost of caring for young children, which requires low student-to-teacher ratios and adherence to many safety requirements, as well as fixed costs such as rent, supplies, and food for kids. Many child care programs struggle to get by in the best of times.

In other words, while many individual caregivers and programs work incredibly hard with limited resources, the system as a whole is a mess — barely a system at all.

In fact, America’s entire caregiving infrastructure, such as it is, “was a house of cards before the pandemic,” Poo said. “And then the pandemic just basically collapsed it.”

When day cares around the country closed due to the coronavirus, some asked parents to keep paying fees anyway. But with rising unemployment, many couldn’t afford it, and others chose to withdraw their children indefinitely out of fear of Covid-19 transmission. With little to no cash on hand, programs had to lay off staff: More than a third of the child care workforce lost jobs between February and April, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Many programs reopened in the summer, but that doesn’t mean things are better. In many cases, families haven’t sent their children back, meaning centers are making less money than before. Many also face new enrollment limits due to social distancing restrictions. And costs are higher than ever, thanks to the need for cleaning products, personal protective equipment, and other modifications to keep staff and children safer during the pandemic.

As a result, many laid-off workers haven’t been hired back. Only 42 percent of the child care jobs lost returned between April and July, according to the NWLC, and the industry is at just 79 percent of its pre-pandemic size.

Nancy Harvey, for example, had to lay off two staff members at her in-home child care program in Oakland, California, when enrollment dropped from 16 children to seven. She’s kept her business open and has been working to organize with the Child Care Providers United union, but “to hear the stories of providers that have had to close, it’s really heart-wrenching,” she said.

Indeed, in a June survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, just 18 percent of child care programs expect to stay open longer than a year without public support.

That has obvious consequences for child care workers, many of whom lack savings and relied on public assistance programs even before the pandemic hit. And it has implications for the entire economy — especially for women, who still carry the majority of caregiving responsibilities in families. As Michelle Holder, an economics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Vox earlier this year, “It’s not good for economic growth if you have primarily women having to reduce or eliminate working altogether” because of a lack of child care.

Vermont recognized that. “We were the only state to date that said we aren’t going to let this industry go bankrupt,” Aly Richards, CEO of the Vermont-based nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, told Vox. “So many states literally just were silent on child care.”

Starting in March, Vermont spent $21 million to keep its child care programs from going under. When they were closed in the spring, they received half their usual tuition directly from the state. Parents were responsible for the other half, but if they couldn’t pay, the state would make up the difference so that providers didn’t have to lay off staff.

Programs that stayed open to care for the children of essential workers received bonuses of $125 per week per child.

With their pay covered, Drolette and other educators were able to spend time checking in on kids remotely. “We were setting up Zoom calls to talk to the families and the children at home and reading books to them so that there was still that connection,” she said.

When Drolette and other Vermont providers began reopening in June, they were eligible for restart stipends to help them pay for supplies or hire additional staff to comply with social distancing restrictions. In August, the state announced an additional $12 million in grants to help replace income lost between March 1 and October 31.

In Drolette’s case, two families decided not to send their kids back to day care in June. But the restart money she got from the state — about $2,000 — helped offset some of her losses until new children enrolled.

And state officials say their programs to support child care have made an impact. The state hasn’t seen a spike in program closures this year, Sarah Truckle, financial director of Vermont’s Department of Children and Families, said. And the restart grants have been well-received, with a large portion of providers in the state choosing to participate, she said. Of a total of 1,016 programs serving children under age 5, 613 applied for restart grants, according to data provided by Let’s Grow Kids. The grants were not competitive, so most if not all programs likely received money.

Parents, too, are grateful that the state stepped in. “I was really panicked about it,” Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician whose 3- and 4-year-old sons attend an early childhood education center in Chittenden County. When Vermont first announced stay-at-home orders, she was worried the center would have to shut down permanently. And when she found out the state would be supporting providers, “It was very reassuring,” she said. “It really underscored value in an area that I think is really undervalued.”

Her kids were finally able to go back to their center in June. “The day that they went back was the most glorious day of the pandemic,” Bell said with a laugh. “If there’s any light in this, it was really just the true absolute gift of being able to send our children to a safe and nurturing place, knowing that they were well cared for and loved while all this other stuff is going on.”

Now, advocates say, it’s time for the rest of the US to learn from Vermont so that kids around the country have the same opportunity. “We’ve seen Vermont lead by example before,” Richards said, noting that the state was one of the first to legalize same-sex marriage. “If we continue to keep our heads down and do the work here, we will show you can do this, and it’s great for your people when you do it.”

A number of proposals would do for providers around the country what Vermont has with its programs. In July, for example, the House passed the Child Care Is Essential Act, which would set aside $50 billion to stabilize America’s child care system during the pandemic and strengthen it for the future. But the proposal has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s plan for economic recovery from Covid-19 offers one version of what such reform might look like. The plan would provide funding to state, tribal, and local governments to do what Vermont did — support child care providers and keep workers employed during the public health crisis. “This pandemic has shone a bright light on the challenges Americans are facing with balancing work responsibilities with caring for their families,” Mariel Sáez, women’s media director for the Biden campaign, wrote in a statement.

But providers and their advocates say that even in Vermont, there are larger systemic problems that need to be fixed for workers, kids, and parents to thrive.

“The money allowed us to continue,” said Kim Freeman, a longtime early educator in Brattleboro, Vermont, who recently transitioned to teaching future educators. But “it just brings me back to how underfunded we were to start with.”

The stabilization program and restart grants didn’t change the fact that workers earn low wages — an average of $13.27 an hour in Vermont — and often lack benefits. And that, in turn, can affect the care children receive.

For example, kids benefit when their caregivers have training in child development. “To me, child care is keeping that child safe and meeting their basic needs,” Freeman said. “Early childhood education is that and so much more.” Research has shown that young children “need to be in environments that support their development and they need to be in relationships with people who support their development,” she added.

But workers in the field have little incentive or resources to get additional training when they’re not making a living wage.

And many say what’s needed now is reform to make child care and early education a well-paid, rewarding career that people can afford to stay in for the long term.

Freeman, who is preparing to train high school students in early education, said, “I’m not even going to get into stuff about the kids until I talk about their own personal well-being and building their resilience.” And for her, rebuilding the country’s child care infrastructure should start there. “Do these people have their basic needs met? Are they making a wage where they’re not worried about the survival of themselves, of their families?” she added.

Drolette, along with members of one of her Zoom groups from earlier in the pandemic, have been meeting with policymakers to discuss ideas for better funding the child care system. Elected officials in Vermont — all the way up to Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican — have been receptive, she said, in part because they already think of early education as a priority. Scott “understands that in order to have a strong economy, we need to have a strong early ed system,” Drolette added.

That message hasn’t necessarily been heard around the country yet. But leaders — and candidates — have been making child care part of their platforms in an unprecedented way. In many ways, former presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren led the charge early last year, making child care a core part of her campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Biden’s plan borrows many aspects of Warren’s thinking, going beyond the pandemic to strengthen America’s child care and early education system for the future. The plan would provide free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as create a system of tax credits and subsidies to make child care more affordable for parents of infants and toddlers. Crucially, Biden’s plan would boost the pay of child care workers to the level of elementary school teachers and provide them with health insurance, paid sick leave, and other benefits, as well as training and education programs to help them build new skills.

“We are the bloodline to America,” Harvey said. “Instead of treating us like second-class citizens, treat us like kings and queens. We deserve it.”

Anna North covers gender issues, including reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, and more for Vox.

This story is part of The Great Rebuild, a project made possible thanks to support from Omidyar Network, a social impact venture that works to reimagine critical systems and the ideas that govern them, and to build more inclusive and equitable societies. All Great Rebuild coverage is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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