Better World

The American Child Care Crisis: How Mothers Are Being Forced From the Workplace

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About half of the families in the United States report having trouble finding quality, affordable care, and in many cases it’s prompting one parent—most often moms—to leave the workforce altogether.

While child-care costs have doubled over the past two decades, wages have remained relatively stagnant. As a result, families are being forced to decide whether having both parents work makes financial sense.

Families who live in so-called child-care deserts—which is about half of the families in the U.S.—face even greater barriers with few, if any, child-care resources available. This directly impacts families’ economic security, making it nearly impossible for both parents to work outside the home. Families of color and those who live in rural areas disproportionately live in child-care deserts.

Even when child care is secured, many parents struggle with backup options on days when their children get sick or the weather prompts schools to close—and it’s often moms who stay home. 

“Last week I missed four days of work because of one of my twin daughters caught the flu,” says Courtney Potter in Orlando, Florida. “I tried to work from home but it’s not the same when you’re taking care of a sick kid.”

Childcare concerns make it difficult for mothers to nurture careers.

When regular or backup childcare is nonexistent, mothers are disproportionately affected. One recent survey by the Center for American Progress (CAP) found mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to feel the negative impact of child-care concerns on their careers

So does that mean improving access to quality child care will result in better employment rates—and perhaps higher earnings and even advancement—among mothers? The mothers polled in the CAP survey think so. If they had access to affordable child care, mothers reported they would vie for more promotions, look for higher-paying jobs, and be better able to increase both their earnings and career potential. 

Businesses also feel the impact of the child care crisis.

It’s not just finding quality care that’s a problem, it’s finding affordable quality child care that allows parents to work full-time jobs that’s a problem. Even parents who can afford childcare struggle to balance work schedules with those of most childcare centers, adding to the stress of being a working parent. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve raced out of a meeting to make it to daycare before closing,” says Potter.  “It makes you wonder whether it’s all worth it.” 

Quality childcare and early learning programs not only make it easier for both mothers and fathers to work, they benefit businesses, too. It’s estimated that as a result of their employees’ childcare challenges, business lose almost $13 billion annually. If we want to build a strong workforce and achieve true gender equality, the country’s childcare dilemma will need to be solved.

Solving the problem will require systemic change.

There are ways to alleviate the impact of this crisis, but they require commitment from lawmakers and changes to the system as a whole. Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, suggests a four-step solution. First, implementing six months of paid parental leave would reduce the amount of child care needed and promote bonding. Next, Mr. Polakow-Suransky calls for an increase in caregivers’ wages to drive up the quality of care available. The third and fourth steps would be to provide public funding for both teacher training and for struggling families to help cover child care costs.

A recent increase in federal funding allowed more families to pay for childcare costs, but some states have loopholes that prevent those in job training programs or enrolled in college courses to take advantage of it.

Without a greater public and private investment in quality, affordable childcare and the policies to support it, critics warn the crisis may worsen. The country’s largely female workforce relies on it to advance, and many American families need it not just to thrive, but to survive.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.