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The pandemic is set to shutter 30% of US childcare centers — and it could prove catastrophic for the careers of American women

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  • In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many childcare centers and schools have closed their doors, forcing parents to teach and care for their kids while also juggling work.
  • Because of government-mandated closures and declining enrollment as parents fear disease exposure, some 60% of licensed childcare providers have closed, a survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center last month found, and many may have to close permanently.
  • One in three daycare providers could permanently close if much more government aid is not allocated to the industry, multiple experts told Business Insider.
  • If childcare centers close, millions of women are likely to take up more unpaid labor in parenting or may even drop out of the labor force to raise their children, labor economists said.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Tiffany and Tyler Woods are fortunate enough to be able to continue to work full time from their house while under self-quarantine in Chesterfield, Virginia. Tiffany, 30, is a literacy coach for the nearby Henrico County public-school system. Tyler, also 30, is a software engineer for Capital One. They have a 4-month-old son, Jax, who has recently discovered that he can scream.

"It's been very tough — especially, I'd say, in the last three weeks," Tiffany told Business Insider. "The baby is just figuring out that his voice can get louder. He screams and squeals just because he can, which isn't exactly helpful while we're both on calls."

Before the pandemic, Jax went to a nearby daycare center while both parents went to work. But as the novel coronavirus spread, Tiffany became increasingly scared that her son might contract the virus. So on March 20, she pulled him out of his "good but expensive" daycare, which costs more than $300 per week. If she wants to reenroll her son, she has to hope that there's still a spot for him — and that the center itself is still in business.

One out of every three childcare centers in the US could close its doors for good.

But trends indicate that might not be the case.

Many child daycare centers have been forced to close because of government-mandated closures and declining enrollment as parents keep their kids home over fears that they'll contract COVID-19. And experts who talked to Business Insider said that the future of the entire industry is in jeopardy, with reopening unlikely for many providers.

A survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center last month found that 60% of licensed childcare providers had already closed their doors in the wake of the pandemic. Similarly, credit-card-processing data analyzed by CardFlight indicated that transactions at child daycare centers were down 75% in that time frame.

Of the 11,500 childcare providers surveyed in by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in March, nearly half said their facilities wouldn't survive a closure of more than two weeks without "significant public investment and support."

When asked what she would do if her center were to close permanently, Tiffany Woods replied: "I honestly don't know. I don't even want to think about that."

Closures of daycare centers and smaller, home-based childcare centers mean more demand at the centers that do reopen, and fewer spots for children. The result could mean parents and guardians — but disproportionately women — are forced to shoulder the burden.

Like the Woodses, many families depend on daycare centers so they can go about their work. But the future of many daycare centers across the US, according to multiple sources, hangs by a thread.

Precariousness and the pandemic

"Childcare was such a fragile industry before the pandemic," said Cindy Lehnhoff, the director of the National Child Care Association, who's been in the childcare industry herself for decades.

Many will stay shuttered for good.

Her estimate? "It's going to be at least 30% of all childcare centers in the US," she said.

Ami Gadhia, the chief of policy, research, and programs at Child Care Aware, agreed with that statistic, saying it sounded "reasonable" to her, unfortunately.

In the coronavirus relief bill enacted on March 27, Congress allocated $3.5 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant to help states provide crucial temporary aid to providers and support the cost of providing care for children of essential workers. However, advocates say it is not enough to keep centers afloat.

If we're going to bail out cruise lines and airlines, why aren't we bailing out the childcare industry?

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tina Smith have called on Senate leaders to include their plan for a $50 billion childcare bailout in the next coronavirus relief package. It's uncertain whether the Republican-led Senate would pass the measure.

"If we're going to bail out cruise lines and airlines, why aren't we bailing out the childcare industry?" Gadhia said. "No one can go back to work in other industries if their children aren't in safe, healthy settings."

A 2019 report from the Committee for Economic Development said that about 11.8 million (58.7%) of children under age 5 participated in regular, weekly care arrangements with a non-parental provider.

Home-based childcare centers may also not survive

daycare

In addition to larger daycare centers, home-based childcare centers — or smaller centers run out of a person's home — are on edge.

As parents become unemployed or work remotely, they are withdrawing their children from these centers to save money. And most home-based programs rely on daily attendance to keep the lights on, said Gladys Jones, the owner of Ga Ga Group Family Day Care in Staten Island and the founder of Early Childhood Educators On the Move, a network of about 600 New York City home-based providers.

Unlike some larger daycare centers, which usually charge a reduced fee when a child is absent, most home-based programs don't charge families when their child isn't at the center, Jones said.

"We can't survive. Many are going to be closed," Jones said. "We're seeing a big decrease [in attendance] because most parents who are nonessential workers are working from home and can watch their kids themselves."

Right now, Jones said, home-based childcare centers in New York City are receiving government stipends that are helping. But she's unsure how long they'll keep receiving them.

There may be a reckoning when governors try to restart their economies.

"It's going to be a big deal when the world opens up again and you find out there's no childcare," Jones said. "How are you going to bring the economy back up?"

Schools — another major source of childcare in the US — are closed in most states for the rest of the year

childcare

School, of course, is another source of childcare.

But many schools are closed, and they could stay that way for a while.

According to a CNN tally of school closures, at least 45 states as well as Washington, DC, have ordered schools to close or recommended that they don't reopen this academic year because of concerns about COVID-19.

And many parents aren't in a rush to reopen schools either. In a recent poll of about 800 Michigan parents, 70% said they supported the closure of schools for the remainder of the school year.

Woods, a school employee, is one of the parents who doesn't want schools to reopen prematurely.

"I work with around 900 kids each day," she said. "I don't want to bring the virus back to my baby."

This summer may not provide any reprieve for parents. There are over 14,000 day and overnight camps in the US that serve 14 million children and adults each year, according to the American Camp Association, a community of camp professionals. Several have already canceled this season's plans, meaning parents are faced with additional months of trying to figure out how to care for their children while also working.

So what's the country to do?

"Opening up the economy requires opening the schools, transportation — it requires all different pieces, but there's no question that for a large group of workers, having daycare is essential," said Matthias Doepke, a Northwestern economist who recently published an analysis of the gendered effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The childcare crisis is likely to fall on the backs of women, unless policy and business culture changes

mom and daughter

As about half of all US states begin to ease restrictions on business, millions of workers will have to face the issue of childcare.

One thing's clear: Single mothers will be the worst affected when the country reopens with fewer childcare providers and schools still closed.

The US has about 73 million children. Of those, 19 million live with single parents, and about 70% of single parents are single mothers. Without access to paid leave from their employers, many single parents will be forced to quit their jobs to care for their children, Doepke said.

And couples may have to make tough decisions. If school is remote in the fall but businesses are open again, who will stay home and care for the kids? If the virus is still around — or if there is a second wave, as many researchers expect — can Grandma and Grandpa, who are more at risk because they're elderly, really take care of the kids?

Women will likely be forced to shoulder the burden, according to multiple economists Business Insider spoke with. After all, that's how it currently works. In most households with children, both parents work, Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2018 and 2019 show. Even so, mothers still take on the majority of childcare responsibilities. Research has indicated that mothers perform about 60% of childcare: 7.2 hours per week for fathers versus 13.7 hours for mothers.

And women will be more likely to ask for a permanent remote position or quit their jobs altogether, Doepke said.

Businesses also have an important role to play.

"It's quite clear there's still an earnings gap between men and women," Doepke said. "If you want to make the economic, rational decision, it makes sense that the person with the larger earnings goes back to work, so that would, most often, be the husband."

In 2018, a woman working full time earned 81.6 cents for every dollar a man working full time earned on average. And women's median annual earnings are $9,766 less than men's, according to the most recent available data from the US Census Bureau.

Then there's the social norm that women "should" do childcare, which could also affect a couple's decision about who sacrifices their career, he said.

Research has also indicated that among heterosexual American couples, men do more "father care" when their wives are employed and earn more.

Maria Floro, a professor of economics at American University, agreed that women would face the direst consequences.

"Women are going to drop out of the labor sector, which could result in labor shortages in certain sectors of the economy," Floro said. "There is a solution to this. If childcare and eldercare are crucial to the functioning of the economy, which they are, it should receive the same support as other businesses."

In addition to government intervention, social norms could also help usher in change within businesses.

"It doesn't have to be this way," Doepke said. "The need for childcare has become glaringly obvious, where executives are doing Zoom calls from the basement and doing childcare part time. We're used to seeing children in meetings of all kinds, so this issue is becoming more salient."

Both said that corporate leaders should take note and adjust company policy.

"Businesses also have an important role to play. I hope that from this pandemic, businesses encourage change in the way that jobs are organized, that you have flexible hours, parental leave — not just maternity leave — for both men and women in the workforce," Floro added. "There has to be a change in office culture."

SEE ALSO: A Stanford economist says we're headed for a crisis worse than the Great Depression. Here's his plan for getting people back to work and spending on businesses.

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