Finding good child care challenged many Americans even before COVID-19.
Things got tougher during the pandemic, when many day care centers closed, leaving parents to juggle working from home with seeing to their children’s needs.
But any sense of relief that might come from more schools reopening and parents returning full-time to work is being offset by a new dilemma: the growing prevalence of child care deserts.
Just over half of Americans lived in such areas with insufficient child care before the coronavirus, according to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based public policy research organization. A survey by the group warned the number could soon be higher; nearly two-thirds of child care providers said in March 2020 they could not survive a closure that extended longer than a month.
“Millions of American workers, hoping to get back to their jobs once the public health risk has sufficiently decreased, will not be able to do so until they have safe, reliable, and affordable child care,” the Center for American Progress concluded.
Maya Suzuki Daniels, an educator in Los Angeles where the school district announced plans in March to resume hybrid learning that would require teachers to return to the classroom, is finding those predictions to be true.
“I don’t necessarily believe in the idea of a child care desert, just because I have yet to meet someone who is in a child care oasis,” she told USA TODAY. “A desert suggests that, you know, these are unique places where there is not child care, and that this is an anomaly rather than the norm. [But] this is the landscape.”
Her son, now almost 2, used to be in child care until the pandemic hit.
“I would want him in day care — but I also want him alive,” she said, adding that now she can’t find any open child care spots for her son.
Her school district has now agreed to allow employees to continue working from home if they have no students signed up for in-person instruction. But she’s yet to meet a parent or child care worker who knows of any open, safe, and affordable spots in the Los Angeles area.
Overall, 3 in 5 Californians live in a child care desert, according to the Child Care Resource Center in California. Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties are among the worst, with 77,550 child care slots available and 366,461 children under age 6.
The issue of child care is gaining more attention under President Joe Biden. The White House allotted nearly $40 billion of its $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package to address what Biden called an “acute, immediate child care crisis.” Those funds will partly go towards making child care more affordable due to skyrocketing pandemic prices.
And the American Families Plan the president proposed April 28 calls for providing $225 billion toward covering child care costs for low income and middle class parents with children 5 or younger.
While the additional funding seems particularly timely after the coronavirus pandemic when more women left the workforce to care for young children, “the economics of child care were broken long before COVID,” said Rhian Allvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The paradox of child care that was too expensive for many parents even as it failed to pay a living wage to workers predates the pandemic, agreed Lea Austin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.
Because of that, she said, the child care system drove “inequities for families and racial pay gaps within the workforce.”
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Most often in a child care desert, parents must pay more to secure one of a few spots at a day care center, where the care is typically higher quality because facilities often try to follow developmental standards and must participate in audits.
If parents can’t afford a day care spot, they must look for either home-based day care or try to find a babysitter to watch their kids.
Mindy Teplitskiy, an independent consultant who lives in Orange County, knows the challenges that having few spots can bring. Even before COVID-19, getting a spot in child care for her now 3-year-old daughter was difficult.
Teplitskiy was able to get child care despite long waiting lists. But once the pandemic hit, “there was so much uncertainty about the safety of our child” that she and her husband pulled their daughter out of day care until they could find a school that had classes outside.
The school is too expensive for five days a week, she said, so her daughter is there two days a week. But Teplitskiy knows parents who pulled their children out of day care last year who will have to go on waiting lists to re-enroll or pay more to make sure their children are safe.
Tomia Mitchell-Haas, a single parent teacher in Los Angeles, is experiencing the same difficulties.
“I’ve been connecting with parents (and) it seems like many centers are still limited,” she said, adding that she and many other parents are on wait lists to re-enroll in child care.
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January’s American Rescue Plan provides money that will help to stabilize many programs, Austin said, but “we are now a year into the pandemic and many programs have already closed, fallen behind on mortgages and are struggling to find staff.”
National estimates suggest about 40% of child care programs will be permanently closed because they have not been able to sustain themselves through the pandemic.
Many have already closed. In San Bernardino County, 45% of centers shut their doors in 2020, as well as one-third in northern Los Angeles County, according to data from the Child Care Resource Center in Chatsworth, California.
Kim’s Family Daycare in Los Angeles closed down temporarily at the outset of pandemic only because parents pulled their kids, owner Kim Martin said.
“I didn’t lose the kids because I closed. I closed because I lost the kids,” she said.
Martin’s center reopened in October, but she said many other child care centers in the area haven’t been so lucky. “Everything is a desert in Los Angeles.”
In part, that’s because child care is underfunded, Allvin said. She attributed that to a sentiment that caring for children is a parent’s responsibility, that it’s a female workforce, and “because we haven’t prioritized it from a policy and political spectrum perspective as other countries have.”
Yet years of child psychology and neuroscience indicate that the most important time in a child’s development is from ages 1 to 3. It’s when they learn to read, speak, and empathize with the world around them.
While the COVID-relief funding will help stabilize the child care sector, Austin said that unless the U.S. fully strengthens the link between what parents can afford and the wages paid to early educators, the system will remain inequitable.
“In other words,” she added, “to realize an early care and education system that is accessible, effective, and equitable for all children and their families, as well as the workers providing services, requires a publicly funded system.”
Biden’s new proposal would set a $15 minimum wage for child care staff, 9 out of 10 of whom are women with 4 in 10 being women of color. Coupled with subsidies for families, it, if passed, would potentially start to build the link.
But as Suzuki Daniels points out, issues surrounding access to child care must be an issue tackled systemically.
“I think we need to be really intentionally intersectional around this fight, and understand that this is racial justice, this is gender justice, this is economics.” she said. And “within [those issues] lies the answer to why these problems aren’t being solved.”
Courtney Subramanian and Joey Garrison contributed to this report.
Early childhood education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.