The Pandemic Shows the Importance of Funding Early Childcare and Education Infrastructure (Updated)

Yves here. I don’t see how non-affluent families with two working parents and school aged kids coped with school closures. Some local groups stepped up and provided some childcare, but I have to think it was on a first come, first served basis, and I am not sure it continued once non-essential business closure order went into effect. This article makes a strong-form argument that investment in early and childcare need to be important parts of Covid-19 spending, not just to preserve jobs but more important, as an investment.

Update: I don’t see how I managed to launch this post without the article. I had added it. I must have had a version control problem and had another window open with another draft going. Apologies!!

By Eileen Appelbaum, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) and co-author of Unfinished Business: Paid Family Leave in California and the Future of U.S. Work-Family Policy. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the economy in March has led to sharp declines in employment and output. In December, women made up more than half the workforce; now, for the first time, women have lost jobs at a more rapid rate than men. They need to be able to return to employment in large numbers if the economy is to recover and get onto a strong growth path.

The importance of the childcare ecosystem to the effective functioning of families and the economy has come into sharp focus. Childcare workers are widely recognized as essential to the nation’s post-pandemic economic success. Getting the economy moving again will require a policy response and spending on early care and education (ECE) commensurate with its economic and social importance.

So it’s disappointing that the Democrats’ $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal, the Moving Forward Act that the House will vote on before July 4, includes just $10 billion targeted on rehabilitating childcare facilities. The funds are earmarked for renovations to meet immediate COVID-19 related health and safety needs of children. The remaining 99.3 percent of the funding in the bill provides $400 billion for highways, bridges, and public transportation plus funding to fix other deficiencies in physical infrastructure. There is no funding for social infrastructure to expand quality, affordable childcare. Failing to adequately invest in a robust childcare infrastructure will slow economic growth and further increase inequality.

Alarmingly, the HEROES Act, passed earlier by the House to help those devastated by the pandemic, provides just $7 billion of the $50 billion needed to meet the immediate operating costs of licensed family homes and early care and education centers. The already inadequate current system of care for young children is in danger of collapsing. Half of all childcare facilities are closed, and employment in the industry, which numbered more than one million workers a year ago, had fallen by 300,000 in May 2020. Public financing to restore the pre-pandemic childcare and early education ecosystem is the first step in assuring that all workers—including the nearly two-thirds of mothers with a child at home under the age of 6 who were in the labor force in 2019—can return to work.

To the surprise of many who have been dismissive of the low-paid workers who provide care services, the pandemic has revealed that care work is the backbone that supports all the other sectors of the economy. The low esteem of these jobs has led to massive underpayment of workers and underfunding of the infrastructure necessary to sustain the care economy and support the vital services it provides. This is certainly true of childcare and early education.

Investment in a publicly financed national early care and education system provides the same benefits to the economy as other infrastructure investments. It is simultaneously job creating, job enabling, and provides a solid foundation for the subsequent educational success of children and their contributions, as adults, to the economy.

Expanding access to affordable childcare is job creating. It provides employment to workers who construct and retrofit spaces to house facilities. It increases the number of young children who enroll in ECE and the number of teachers, aides and others to care for them. It provides employment for workers whose jobs are not coming back.

An expanded ECE system is also job enabling. If the share of women with children under the age of 6 in paid employment increased from its pre-pandemic 64 percent to 70 percent, I estimate this would add a million workers. The estimate is reasonable; 74 percent of women with children aged 6 to 17 are employed, higher largely due to access to public K-12 education. Some mothers who work part-time because they can’t arrange care of young children or after-school care for older children can increase their hours to full-time. If half did this, that would have the same effect as adding another 1.2 million women to the labor force. An increase of 2.2 million workers would result in an annual increase of about $274 billion in real GDP, expanding the goods and services available to Americans to enjoy.

Finally, investment in quality ECE for children 0 to 5 years of age yields a significant positive rate of return. This is especially true of high-quality programs that enroll young children from economically disadvantaged families. A rigorous analysis of one such program found that every dollar invested yielded $7 to $12 back to society.

Social infrastructure holds the key to successfully navigating a range of challenges on the horizon. This is nowhere more important than in the care and education of young children. We should not ignore this important lesson of the pandemic when establishing priorities for infrastructure investment.

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    1. John Zelnicker

      @Samuel Conner
      June 27, 2020 at 6:21 am

      It was from the Independent Media Institute web site. They sponsor a number of different programs with mainly left-wing writers. Yves and Lambert have cross-posted many of their articles.

  1. MayM

    In Vermont, the state created an emergency stabilization fund to ensure that centers closed due to COVID were able to reopen when the crisis was over. Essentially, the program gave 50% of operating costs to centers and asked families who were able to continue paying tuition at a 50% rate. There were subsidies for families who could not afford to do so.
    By all accounts the program has been successful and home and center-based child care facilities have been slowly opening up over the past few weeks.

  2. Rod

    Big UhOh on the Horizon for Education–About half — 48% — of all public school teachers have children living at home, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero. This includes young children, who need constant supervision, as well as teenagers, who might not.

    Educators rely on a variety of Child Care Services also–in order to care for the children of others.
    The education System provides a huge Platform of Stability for American children today–feeding both the mind and body.

    We are failing at making a list and checking it twice.

    from the article–About 100 of her 170–lines up with other anecdotes I have heard students logged in.

    1. Rod

      From the article– about 100 of her 170 students logged in — lines up with other anecdotes I have heard.
      58% Attendance.

  3. jcmcdonal

    It’s been brutal. We have good jobs, but it’s impossible to get real work done with a 3 year old in the house. The 8 year old has other issues entirely… There has been a supremely unhealthy amount of TV. I have no idea what to do. Once finished trying to get some work done, we’re entirely exhausted from trying to concentrate on things while simultaneously being screamed at (not always literally, but a small child’s tone of voice isn’t consistent with being able to hold a complex train of thought together).

    Daycares here (Ontario) are open at 50% capacity, but it’s not clear how they can afford to open given their labour costs. I could afford to pay more and willingly would, but I doubt many could come close to affording that, especially now. I don’t really blame our provincial government though, they have a real fiscal constraint on what they can do. The federal government is offering peanuts, but they have the space to fix this. They’re already thinking about future austerity though.

    1. ShamanicFallout

      I’m with Yves on this one- how did/do so many of these families cope with the closures, pay for (or even find!) childcare if they could even afford it all? And then be expected to somehow teach or facilitate the “remote learning” via zoom (or some other interface) if they were at home.

      I am in a very weird situation. My wife passed away two years ago when my daughter was four years old. I am her only care-giver. I also need to work (and really can’t afford not to work)- I’m in the wholesale food industry supplying mainly to grocery thru distribution and via e-commerce. Grandparents can’t participate now of course because they are in the at most risk group for corona. I’m not affluent but I am not struggling and am very lucky in other respects. I live in Seattle and people in my situation (as well as medical, emergency workers) can get a special dispensation at some of the boys and girls clubs for childcare. And the cost is not nothing, but it’s not like the private preschools around here.
      But now I just got an update from Seattle Schools and their plan for elementary schoolers is go “at least two days a week in person” and rest “remote learning”. Wow. I can’t imagine how this is going to turn out for everyone involved- teachers, parent(s), and particularly kids that age. It’s not about sitting around in a zoom meeting. They want to play and express themselves.

      So you will have a situation where for three days a week, a parent or parents must find a way to facilitate “remote learning” where they may not be in any kind of way able to do this, either financially , logistically, whatever. I know that I will not be able to swing this unless something again changes for fall childcare possibilities.

      America is not for the faint of heart.

  4. sam

    This article highlights the fundamental questions of COVID response: how much should the young sacrifice to protect the old and how much should the old sacrifice to preserve education for the young, jobs for workers, necessary social life for young adults, etc. It’s clear that neither the impact of the virus itself nor the impact of the steps that have been taken to contain it are evenly distributed among the population. How to balance those competing interests in a situation where there are no winners but many possible losers is a political decision that cannot be determined from science and data as so often stated.

    Western countries have a tradition of allowing the people to make political decisions about how to organize their society but it seems that when it comes to COVID there is a disdain for popular sovereignty. Instead we are told we must follow the directions of medical experts who may or may not have reliable data and models for forecasting public health outcomes but who certainly lack expertise concerning the social and economic impacts of their recommendations.

    1. rtah100

      We’re in the privileged position to be able to pay for private schooling in the UK (two boys, 5 year old in the “reception” form, the first year of proper school, and 8 year old is three forms above him) and the situation is still a nightmare!

      I work full-time in venture capital, my wife works 2/3 time as a civil servant. We have been working from home but the only routine that works is my wife has cut her hours and spend the morning trying to get the 8 year old to sit still in front of MS Teams lessons. She works in the afternoon and as I am in telecons all day the children are babysat by the television and by Nintendo Switch.

      The school has made superb effort for the 8 year old. Every class went online, after the Easter break, with live video teaching, work sheets, homework marking. His form master has been brilliant and makes sure there is a registration session every day which is light hearted, plenty of fun and games, celebrates all the birthdays and achievements etc. Unfortunately, small boys cannot sit still and it is as much we can cope with to get him to do the Maths and English. :-(

      Bizarrely, their provision for the five year old is terrible, pre-recorded videos of the teacher doing numbers and phonics at too fast a pace. He refuses to watch them!

      The school has since reopened in an arbitrary way, so the younger one could go back to reception class. We did not send him: we do not trust the level of community transmission (private school, every second family are doctors!) and, although they fight, the children also amuse each other so we would have to deal with a lonely 8 year old all day.

      At the moment, we have a full long vac to get through and then we cross our fingers and hope the school reopens fully in September and there is no second wave. There is an article tonight in the Guardian about contact tracing needing to be at 80% success if schools and social life are to reopen, otherwise it is one or the other. Contact tracing current 56% at best, apparently. The school is in a warren of old buildings in a city centre so there is no chance of it reopening with distancing regulations in place…

  5. topcat

    The situation is unusual in so much that the wealthy / better off can’t GET / USE hired child carers due to contact restrictions and maybe won’t ever be seen again in our life times and may never again be an issue. However, it does throw up the question of the necessity of full time employment for both parents / carers due to (1) poor levels of pay , (2)need-to-buy-stuff and live-in-big-house. We have kids, I work, my wife chose not to (I would have been quite happy to stay at home had my wife been been to earn enough to allow it).
    We live in a smaller house, buy less stuff and she can look after the kids in the case of a world wide pandemic. If you fall into category (1) then work is not a matter of choice but if you fall into category (2) it certainly is. Maybe one should consider the possibility that one may have to look after them when CHOOSING to have children?

  6. Chris

    The answer is everyone coped with the virtual learning and school shutdowns as best they could. Most of the upper middle class and middle class households with two income earners had struggles, just not the same struggles as lower income families. But unless you could pay for a live in nanny or you had the means to afford additional learning or opportunities for your kids during the work day, you were screwed even if you were supposed to be working from home.

    Our family was very fortunate, and we had jobs that allowed us to transition to working at home seamlessly. But then we had 3 kids to deal with and teachers who had been thrown into this mess and had no idea what they were doing. We also had to be the on call IT staff for our kids, help them go through things that weren’t clear, and check their work, and make sure they signed in to all their meetings on time and submitted things correctly. So even though we were allowed to work from home we had almost no time to do it during traditional working hours. So I took the morning shift with the kids and responded to emails as I could and my wife took the afternoon shift and we both did reading support and tech checks as needed. I did most of my serious analysis and writing for my job between 5 PM and midnight and was ready for school with the kids again by 7 AM. It was not ideal. And because I knew how much better off we had it compared to other families I knew it wasn’t worth complaining. It still sucked.

    There is going to be huge cry from middle class and upper middle class families later this summer as schools begin to reveal their plans for Fall 2020 and we see that our kids won’t be returning as usual and that schools will need to be ready to shutdown again as needed. The article in links today with the teachers refusing to teach in an unsafe work environment (which is an element that all employers have to meet! Typically on the first or second line of most teacher union CBAs…) is going to be repeated en masse throughout the country. This is going to be like watching an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. We have to re-open. We can’t re-open.

    Most experts discussing this are aware of the real harms being done to kids of all backgrounds and social levels from the shutdowns. But because the school systems are so unequal and so randomly funded there’s going to be little that we can do. A lot of school buildings can’t guarantee the 6 air changes per hour ASHRAE and others recommend for good IAQ let alone 6 ACH combined with MERV 13 filters for minimal infectious disease control. There are plenty of schools that don’t even have proper kids for their toilets too.

    This all sets up another conflict I expect to see this fall. If a school district with marked income disparity has some schools that are new and serve mainly well off citizens and some schools that have older infrastructure and serve mainly poor citizens sees that the newer schools for the wealthy can open because of smaller class sizes and a better physical plant to maintain infectious disease control…are we going to tell the wealthy they can’t have their kids in the school they’re supposed to be attending? Are we going to re-arrange students throughout a district so that the youngest can attend school regardless of location and the wealthy sit and wait? Are the wealthy who are forced to wait going to be patient or are they going to complain and maybe blow up the public school systems in favor of charter schools that will take their kids? Or will they just lean on the local schools and force them to re-open under standards that poor and struggling families can’t meet? The staggered start and end times and no or socially distant busing (with parents ready to pick kids up at a moment’s notice) that are being recommended by the APA and CDC seem custom designed to lock out families with two income earners in lower class jobs. Ditto for the ability for schools to shut down again as needed.

    Sorry for the meandering rant but I’m really not optimistic about any of this. I think the outcome of this pandemic in this context will be many kids with emotional issues, many kids forced to drop out because their parents can’t support them in school, and many communities turn apart by inequalitiesof income and opportunity.

  7. Ian

    I’m still surprised people have children especially in places like the USA. Better read up on some anti natalism

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