Raising Young Kids in America Has Become Hell, and the Government Should Finally Acknowledge That

Raising Young Kids in America Has Become Hell, and the Government Should Finally Acknowledge That

Five months pregnant, Diana Apresa and her husband Michael Romo were
in a difficult spot, forced to make a decision that would reduce their annual
income by more than a third. Diana needed to quit working for the small
handyman business they owned in Phoenix, Arizona to lessen her physical stress.
“Being a pregnant woman fixing stuff and moving ladders is not ideal,” she
said. 

Instead, Apresa searched for a remote part-time job, and day care
for their newborn. But the price of day care—even just part-time—was as high as
$1,2srcsrc a month, equaling about the same amount the couple estimated Apresa would
earn to fill their income gap. At the same time, landing a job while pregnant
quickly evolved into another hurdle, despite a decades-old law that technically
prohibits pregnancy discrimination in employment. “Nobody wants to hire you,”
said Apresa, 35, who decided to put her job search on hold. “It wasn’t worth
going through it all.”

The couple cut their household expenses to sustain their family,
and Apresa gave birth to their son, Isaac, in September. Nearly 1src months
later, she finally landed a part-time gig. “We need the money.… It definitely
has been challenging, [but] we’ve made it work,” she said. 

Apresa and Romo are among the more than 12 million
working parents with kids younger than six—a segment of the
population that contends with a unique, economic double bind: without an option
for paid leave, parents must find childcare in order to work and provide for
their families (right after covering the exorbitant
health costs for giving birth). But skyrocketing childcare costs often mean
there’s nothing left over anyway. And the government—both at the state and
federal level—has often left these families behind without any comprehensive
solution for this unique stage of life.

The downstream consequences of this policy failure to support
families are impossible to overstate. Early childhood is a critical time—
children’s
brains are forming more than a million neural connections per second as they
approach three years old. Research has shown how poverty and low incomes
can have a significant, negative long-term impact on a child’s wellbeing, while
a recent
study
for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
found that monthly cash payments to mothers during the first year of their
children’s lives led to faster brain activity, “a pattern [positively]
associated with learning and development at later ages.” 
The impacts also matter for society at large. The
earliest years of a child’s life are hugely consequential.
Care and family income are critical drivers here. Yet these earliest years from
zero to five—the years that arguably ought to draw the most robust policy
response—are also the most vulnerable, and served by piecemeal policy
interventions that are not fully funded.

It’s time for a new approach to support families.

Today, U.S. spending
on early childhood education and childcare as a percent of GDP is
among the lowest in OECD countries. It is one of only two that does not cover
health care costs, and we are the only high-wealth country without any type of
guaranteed paid leave.

During the early and middle part of the twentieth century,
the United States realized that seniors were a group of people uniquely
vulnerable to economic dislocation, who needed specialized support programs to
ensure their economic security. Beginning on a
small scale with the Civil War
Pension program, and then starting in earnest with the creation of Social
Security during the Great Depression, and expanded later through other programs
such as Medicare, the federal government has built a full apparatus focused on
helping this cohort. Today, the elderly
have the lowest poverty
rate
thanks to comprehensive health care and cash assistance.

It’s time to bring the same focused, and far more robust, approach
to families with young children. A paradigm shift towards a comprehensive
policy agenda that sees families with young children as a distinct group with
unique needs grounded in access to care supports—one that we as a society share
a collective responsibility to meet—is necessary to ensure the health of
families and the economy.   

Such policies would be an investment in the stability of families
at a critical time. They would also be preventive investments, recouped many
times over by supporting trajectories of health and wellbeing for children and
reducing public costs and institutional involvement over their lifetimes.

The High Cost of the First Five Years 

The unique vulnerability of the lowest income families with the
youngest children stems from the confluence of reduced income at precisely the
moment when expenses rise for most families and a lack of care infrastructure
that could support families in this time.

In 2src19, nearly one
in six
children younger than age six lived in families below the poverty
line ($27,75src for a family of four), and almost 71 percent of all children
living in poverty were children of color. Children are three times more likely
to live in poverty than seniors.

For many families, the costs associated with having and raising
young children can lead to economic precarity. For example, the average
two-parent household sees an income drop of $14,85src when they have
children, accounting for 14 percent of total earnings, according to
an analysis by Demos
. It’s even tougher for a single adult,
especially for women, who may see a 36 percent drop in earnings. It should
hardly come as a surprise that, in
recent years, parents have been having fewer children than they say they want,
and that many have cited the cost of childcare as a major reason why.
In the absence of federal policies supporting paid leave or subsidized
childcare options, this income gap can become a chasm; it can thrust families
into poverty.

Not only do families lose income during the first five years of
their children’s lives, but they also incur additional expenses. After spending
thousands
out of pocket to pay for delivery of a child, the average nationwide price for
a center-based childcare provider and preschool is about
$1,23src per month for an infant,
according to analysis
from World Population Review, with center-based childcare for toddlers clocking
in at $9src4 per
month
. Annually, that cost for an infant adds up to be more expensive
than public college tuition in 28 states and the District of Columbia in
2src19.

But that’s just the extra expenses of having someone watch your
child while you’re at work. There’s also a myriad of other new purchases when
an infant enters the home: baby food, formula, and diapers, which in total can
cost a family nearly
$2,5srcsrc a year
(or $5src a week). This was before the country
faced a massive formula shortage earlier this year, one which has improved but
is still adding extra burdens.
The costs of having young children are hardly sustainable for minimum wage
workers, who, if they don’t live in a state that sets a higher rate than the
federal government, earn only $1,256 per month when working 4src hours per week. 

And then there is the time off parents need to recover from birth.
Only 23
percent
of workers have access to paid leave. Meanwhile, less than
5src percent
of workers have access to two months of
expenses. This means families simply cannot afford to take time. Access to a
federal paid leave program would have given Apresa and Romo a chance to breathe
during Apresa’s 1src months out of work, particularly during the beginning, by
helping them stay ahead of monthly bills like rent and food. “In the end, I
would’ve still had to get a part-time job,” she said. But “it would’ve helped.”

Karla Torres, a 34-year-old single mother of three living in
Phoenix, knew paid leave would have lessened the stress of having to return to
work six weeks after giving birth to her youngest, who just turned five years
old. At the time she was pregnant, Torres worked as a shift-manager at a local
fast food restaurant, where she had been for 12 years. Her shift was during the
evenings. “I remember that I really rushed myself to get better and to go back
to work, because it became such a hard time to just maintain our house and our
bills,” said Torres, adding that her mother had come to help her through the
transition. “Paid leave would’ve made a huge difference,” she added.

Faced with these impossible choices, parents do what they can. Torres
pays $8srcsrc a month out of pocket to a neighbor for day care, because she didn’t
qualify for childcare assistance due to her income. “That’s a lot of money for
us but I have no options,” she said.

Out of concern for the cost and potential long wait, Clarissa Villebrun,
a single mother of two from White Earth Nation in Ogema, Minnesota, submitted
an application to local day care centers upon learning she was pregnant with her
youngest son. That included applying for childcare assistance since Minnesota ranks as the fourth
most expensive state for such care
. There was cause for
that concern, considering all of the nearby childcare centers on the
reservation had a waitlist. (Her oldest daughter, who is now 1src years old,
turned three before a spot became available.)

Being proactive worked in Villebrun’s favor, but it was a
challenge to navigate through the system itself, she said, adding that she
needs to maintain that subsidy, which covers a monthly $4srcsrc co-payment, in
order to stay afloat. “If I didn’t have day care—and childcare assistance—for
[my son], I don’t think I’d have a job,” said Villebrun, 29.

Of the 12.8 million children who were eligible for childcare
subsidies in an average month in 2src18, only 15
percent
actually received assistance. Childcare subsidy programs are
woefully underfunded and do not have the resources to assist everyone who is
eligible. Finding an available spot in a childcare center also has become a
real struggle. The lack
of funding for childcare over the decades
has created deserts of
high-quality
, affordable day care and preschool options for
parents in virtually every state. The strain was only exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Day cares closed or lost workers; those that remained open have
waiting lists that are up to a year, while costs
continue to increase.

“Working my way up as a single parent, I feel that’s been the most
challenging part,” Villebrun added.

A Temporary Lifeline

It is no accident that the United States lacks a host of essential
policies that would support low-income families with young children. America
has a

deep antipathy
to polices perceived to benefit non-white
families, particularly non-white women, and racist narratives of deservingness
have been used to limit access to benefits and support since the earliest days
of the country.
Systemic
racism
, built into our policies, hurts all Americans. There is a clear
through line from the exclusion of care workers from the New Deal to the lack
of investment today: Neither care nor those providing it is valued.

As Darrick Hamilton, a professor at the New School explains, “From
childcare to paid leave to meaningful cash assistance, the system of care and
care workers has been degraded. We have a long history of relegating Black and
Brown people in particular to ‘essential’ jobs that are devalued in pay and
work conditions, which goes a long way in explaining why we don’t have policies
that value care, and as a result we all suffer.”

Today, millions of families must navigate not only the most
current and universal challenges, such as the unprecedented onset of Covid,
but also the compounding impact of hundreds of years of systematic efforts to
deny them the resources to thrive. “These families need a lifeline,” said Lori
Gunnink, Head Start director at the Southwestern Minnesota Opportunity Council
(SMOC) in Worthington, Minnesota. In SMOC’s early childhood education program,
Gunnink closely works with various communities of color, who are most
vulnerable when it comes to the many hurdles parents have to overcome when
caring for small children. “It takes a village to raise a child—that always has
been true, but even more so, we need to recognize how stressed and stretched
these families are.”

As part of the American Rescue Plan signed into law last year,
Congress provided a lifeline to these families with young children by providing
$39 billion
dollars in emergency childcare assistance
and dramatically
expanding the existing child tax credit and disbursing it in monthly payments,
a move that reduced
child poverty by a third
—keeping 3.7 million
children out of poverty
. But the child tax credit expansion expired at
the beginning of the year and the childcare measures were largely temporary
infusions to states and providers.

At a time when the press is full of stories describing a shortage
of workers, labor force data show that mothers with
young children
such as Villebrun are less likely to be in the
workforce than mothers of older children. A recent survey
of families with kids under five found that almost 4src percent of female caregivers
left the workforce or reduced their work hours since the pandemic began,
largely because of childcare related challenges. They might want to return, but
they have little support to do so.  A recent study
issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research
found that an expansion in childcare subsidies would boost employment among
moms of kids ages 3 to 5 up to 78 percent—a full 1src percentage points above the
current level. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, labor
market participation among women would potentially add more than $21src
billion
annually to the economy if there was meaningful investment made
in affordable childcare. Not only is the lack of investment in care harming
families, but it is hampering our economy. 

Time for a New Paradigm 

Over the weekend, the Senate passed
a long-delayed reconciliation bill that tackles a host of domestic policy
issues, from fixing the tax code to transformational investments in green
energy. The bill came about after Senators Joe Manchin and Charles Schumer
announced that they’d reached a compromise for a scaled back version of
President Joe Biden’s original Build Back Better plan. While climate and
health care made the revised package, now dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act,”
which is expected to be voted on by the House later this week, millions of
dollars to support families with young children did not make the final cut.
Paid family and medical leave, childcare, universal Pre-K, and an extension of
long-term care dollars that states used to augment care worker wages during the
Covid care crisis all lost their spots in the final bill.

“Every policy aimed at women and family and care
infrastructure disappeared,’ said Ai-jen Poo, who heads the National Domestic
Workers Alliance. “Every single one.”

Schumer explained the omissions as a necessary concession in order
to get
any of the original Build Back Better priorities over the line,
and that may be so. Yet, by leaving investments in every care policy out of the
proposal, the Inflation Reduction Act has ignored the brutal and fundamental
relationship between the spiraling costs of care and the overall cost of living
for families with young children.

Where, then, can policy makers go from here?

One near-term pathway may be for relevant states to create or improve
their paid leave policies by expanding payouts, as 11
states
 and the District of Columbia have done
in recent years, or by improving access and user experience for eligible
families, as New Jersey did by trying to smooth
the experience of those accessing maternity leave. Still, the number of
Americans covered by state paid leave programs is small. At the federal level,
in June, a group of Republicans led by Senator Mitt Romney rolled out a
limited, insufficient proposal
to provide child-based income support for families, demonstrating at least some
bipartisan recognition that families need help.

However, while states can help on the margins, and some limited
federal laws could get passed, what is actually needed is a new paradigm, one that
centers these families as a distinct class of people the same way the federal
government treats seniors. Even if states choose to act, or if something like
the Romney plan was to become law, the fundamental reality of family economic
policy in the United States—namely that it is thin, incidental, and
piecemeal—will not change.

Smoothing the path to stability for the lowest-income families in
America, and safeguarding a thriving future for their children, requires a
comprehensive approach that both values care and treats families with young
children as a unique segment with interlocking economic needs. It also requires
us to truly value care: both the labor of caring for children, and the people
providing that care, while broadening the idea to normalize paternal leave and
compensate for unpaid care in the home. Investing comprehensively in our
national care infrastructure would allow families to access childcare, paid
leave, emergency cash, and other proven, pro-family supports when their
children are young, helping families today while ensuring the long-term health
of their children and our economy as a whole.

“If there was a lesson to be learned during the pandemic,” said Poo,
“it’s that the lives of working parents with young children, especially
mothers, and care workers, and the fate of the economy rise or fall together.”

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