Childcare Is Key to Our Economic Recovery

The building blocks of a robust economy include literal building blocks.

January 28, 2022

By Elizabeth Pauley, Associate Vice President, Education to Career and Health and Wellness

Our unremitting public health crisis, worsened by this winter’s Omicron variant of COVID-19, imperils our economic recovery efforts. Parents without childcare cannot return to work. And yet, the childcare system in Massachusetts is teetering on the brink of collapse not because of COVID. The pandemic, while straining systems on all fronts, simply revealed that fragmentation and prolonged underinvestment in childcare has brought us to this point: The system that provides an essential service to working families is dangerously fragile.

Too many parents in the Commonwealth know that high-quality and affordable childcare has long been out of reach. Massachusetts has one of the most expensive childcare markets in the United States: According to the Center for American Progress, infant care in Massachusetts can cost $2,000 a month, more than the cost of many mortgages, and roughly equivalent to three-quarters of the annual cost of tuition, room and board at the University of Massachusetts. In a state that prides itself on its commitment to education, the financial investment has been largely focused on the K–12 system, and not childcare, even though the return on investment there is well-documented and powerful. The result? Families shoulder the cost of childcare. In a time of vast income inequality, this means there are fewer options for quality care available to low-income families, forcing parents to make difficult choices. Is it worth it to stay in a job if the bulk of pay is eaten up by childcare? Do they dare leave a child with a neighbor, family member or unvetted childcare provider? Are pre-teen siblings left to care for babies?

And that all was before the arrival of COVID-19.

Despite high costs and low availability for families, the situation is not better on the supply side. Childcare providers, many of whom operate as small businesses, work within razor thin margins, earning little by way of income, and struggling at times even to maintain operations. Childcare workers are among the lowest paid: The younger the child, typically, the lower the salary. According to the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment at UC Berkeley, this wage gap disproportionately affects Black women who are, on average in all fields, paid $0.78 less per hour than their White peers. This doubles for Black educators who work with pre-school aged children: They typically earn $1.17 less per hour than their White colleagues in the same field. While this reflects context-setting national data, the same center at UC Berkeley reported that the median wage in Massachusetts for childcare workers was $14.11 per hour. 

In December, the Boston Foundation released a new paper, When the Bough Breaks, that documented this crisis, reporting that the number of available “seats,” for young children has fallen by as much as 20 percent in Massachusetts since the pandemic began and it’s not clear whether those seats will return, further limiting the access to childcare for young families. 

What happens when there is no childcare? A parent must stay home, and usually that parent is the mother. More than 2 million women have dropped out of the American workforce since the arrival of COVID-19.

The effects of Omicron are not exclusively felt by early childcare, of course. School districts around the Commonwealth—and the country—are struggling to ensure classroom coverage. In Boston Public Schools, like many other districts, it’s been “all hands on deck” with even the superintendent substitute teaching. Even so, school districts are better positioned to respond: There is an infrastructure in place to provide some mitigation for this crisis. Childcare operators are left on their own.

That’s a topic we’ll explore in the February 4 session of When the Bough Breaks, a monthly conversation series hosted by the Boston Foundation that features perspectives of those closest to the childcare crisis. Tune in to hear about the challenges and temporary solutions facing the workforce during the ongoing pandemic. Guest speakers Laura Perille, President and CEO of Nurtury Early Education, and Binal Patel, Chief Program Officer at Neighborhood Villages, will share how centers are managing to survive and retain their valuable staff members. A moderated conversation will follow, about the near- and long-term challenges and solutions facing childcare.

We cannot let this issue slip to the back burner. A full-scale collapse of our childcare system would be calamitous and could permanently shrink our state’s economy. A recent survey conducted by the Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education reported that 91 percent of Massachusetts employers have significant concerns about childcare and school issues affecting their employees’ ability to show up to work and to be productive once they get there. 

The state must act. Fortunately, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do so. Federal recovery funds and a state budget surplus offer the opportunity to simultaneously respond to the immediate crisis and begin to lay the foundation for a different system. There are three clear steps the state should take. 

  • First, the state should ensure that childcare providers have personal protective equipment and access to testing so that they can safely continue operations. 
  • Second, the state should map out a trajectory toward the future that increases the supply of quality childcare and reduces costs for families. This may include investments in recruitment and preparation of childcare workers and using public funds to invest in these small businesses so that they can operate more quality programs, pay teachers a living wage, and ensure that parents across income levels can find a quality program that keeps their child safe and healthy, while learning and growing.  
  • Finally, this process should involve those closest to the challenge in planning and systems building so that the new system we create will meet the needs of provider and parent. 

While 2022 is still fresh: Let’s resolve to build a more equitable system for the Commonwealth’s families.

A version of this article was originally drafted in response to ‘Really demoralizing and operationally very, very hard’: Child-care providers try to stay open in COVID surge, a Boston Globe story by Naomi Martin and Tiana Woodward, updated January 3, 2022. A portion of it appeared in the Globe on January 11.