While women gained political and economic power over the past generation, working women have experienced significant changes. First, women have reached parity in most occupations, but in certain economic sectors, employment is increasingly fragmented and middle-class women are struggling to provide for themselves and their families, while working to be successful professionals.
Child care is a major source of this stress and hardship. In recent years, the average cost of child care has climbed above $10,000 a year for a center-based preschool or nursery school, while continuing to increase in other states. The cost of pre-kindergarten, in some states, is over $10,000 per year for a non-driver.
Women are also burdened by this poverty-level child care. Even when some mothers leave the workforce to care for their children, others continue to work and then supplement their income with tax-free child care. Women (and men) seeking day care often move around the state with their children, burdening the tax base with commuting and leave expenses.
But, a major factor hindering working women is the state-sponsored child care program. Early education for children (ages newborn to 6 years) is a federal program, but states determine the eligibility requirements. Only mothers earning less than $35,000 a year are eligible, and many states do not provide many options for low-income women.
Much of the impetus for the child care crisis came in the mid-1980s when it became clear that child care was not equipped to handle the numerous changes in a growing economy. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey (ACS) reports that:
All states experienced child care shortages in both 2012 and 2013. Five states (Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey, and Tennessee) have a severe shortage of child care providers, with Vermont and Maryland experiencing the highest ratios and Hawaii and California experiencing the most severe shortages.
Eight states (Iowa, Montana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and Wisconsin) experience shortages that were severe enough to make it difficult for employers to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act, requiring employees working under 35 hours a week to receive extra pay for not being available to work more than 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Illinois has the highest ratio of quality child care professionals per child, with 10,000 percent more per thousand children than the national average.
New York, New Jersey, and Vermont have the largest number of child care providers per ten thousand children (0.8, 0.8, and 0.9 respectively)
Since 1990, Congress has repeatedly worked to respond to this crisis. During the 1990s, Congress provided $3.1 billion in federal funding for temporary child care grants. The 1995 budget deal provided another $5 billion.
Over the past 20 years, Congress has passed legislation to address child care. By 2005, Congress had allocated $19 billion in federal funding for child care in the state budget. The School-Based Child Care Improvement Act passed in 2012 provided $3.3 billion in funding. The Child Care and Development Block Grant has provided $18 billion in federal funding since 1997.
Because of the 2010 Citizens United decision, corporate money, particularly that from the wealthy Koch brothers, has flooded the political arena. Corporations have received so much tax breaks and subsidies that they could be better supporting the stability of affordable child care and affordable child care workers and their ability to keep good jobs. Corporations would also be better supporting investing in preschool for low-income parents by paying for families to send their children to preschool.
Congress has a unique opportunity to act now on child care, to create a fairer and more humane child care system, to support working mothers, and to provide much-needed support for women who are the prime caregivers in our nation.