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How to save child care in the face of a massive funding loss

A daycare class walking in a public park in Boston Common. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A daycare class walking in a public park in Boston Common. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

$24 billion of pandemic-era funding for a specific American need is about to expire. The money was earmarked to support the costs of child care.

“3.2 million children could lose their child care as a result of this money going away,” says Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation.

Almost every child care provider in the country says this is going to hit them, their workers, and families hard. Some will have to shut their doors. Others will take fewer kids. Corrine Hendrickson in Wisconsin says the only way she’ll be able to stay open is by raising her rates.

“In June, I raised my rates 20% … They’ll be going up again another $30 in February when the rest of the funding dries up. So in a year, I will have raised my rates about $60 a week per kid,” Hendrickson says.

Today, On Point: How to save child care, the people who provide it, and the families who rely on it.

Guests

Julie Kashen, senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, a national independent think tank. Coauthor of the report Child Care Cliff: 3.2 Million Children Likely to Lose Spots with End of Federal Funds.

Also Featured

Corrine Hendrickson, Operates Corrine’s Little Explorers Daycare in New Glarus, Wisconsin.

Linda Smith, Director of the Early Childhood Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Joanna, Child care worker in Georgia.

Michelle Meywes, Mother of two in child care in Los Angeles, California.

Transcript

Part I

BROOKE SKIDMORE: In all seriousness, what is wrong with you?

You all sat week after week at your listening sessions across the state, and the number one issue that you heard was child care. It’s the biggest issue, the cost, the lack thereof, and still you do nothing.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Brooke Skidmore is founder and co-owner of The Growing Tree, a child care center in New Glarus, Wisconsin. She and her fellow carers look after 50 children.

Last week, she confronted Wisconsin lawmakers to acknowledge the precipice that she and other child care providers in the state are facing. At the end of this month, $24 billion of pandemic era federal child care assistance will expire. Wisconsin lawmakers have chosen, thus far, to end Child Care Counts, the state’s subsidy program based on that federal funding.

Skidmore burned with frustration at Wisconsin lawmakers, saying that they were ignoring ample evidence that federal and state funding helped children by helping child care centers alleviate an ongoing staffing crisis.

SKIDMORE: And you were given the research that it did work at improving the wages for us. It went from $10.66 an hour to now we’re at $13, and that’s still pathetic. We pay people to care for our dogs more than our children in the state of Wisconsin.

CHAKRABARTI: It leaves child care providers with little choice, Skidmore said.

Corrine Hendrickson, also a childcare provider in New Glarus, and also at the hearing last week, told the assembled politicians that if nothing is done to bridge the gap left by the expired funding, providers will have to drastically increase rates.

CORRINE HENDRICKSON: We can’t pay enough because we can’t charge enough. Younger people are not accepting the fact that things are on their back anymore. We as a field for far too long have accepted that we’re subsidizing the parents’ inability to pay us what we’re worth. We’re done.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.

The end of pandemic-era funding means that more than three million children – almost one third of kids currently in child care — could soon be left without care, according to the progressive think-tank the Century Foundation. Their study claims that 70,000 child care programs could close across the country.

The sector could lose 230,000 jobs. Other providers may be forced to reduce class sizes, or raise tuition. Because, as Corrine Hendrickson tells us, care providers were already making very little pay, especially at family child care centers like hers.

HENDRICKSON: Before the funding came through, I was making $6 an hour. Now it’s around $9 or $10.

CHAKRABARTI: Meaning before the pandemic relief money Hendrickson was paying herself $1.25 less than the federal minimum wage.

She was able to do that because her husband’s income as a firefighter was enough to support the family. Otherwise, to pay herself a fairer wage, she would have had to raise tuition for the parents — something she didn’t want to do.

The pandemic era funding also allowed her to hire a second person to help with the seven to eight kids she cares for full time. And — more importantly — she was able to do all that without charging parents more.

HENDRICKSON: I used that money then so that my parents could do quarantine rates if their kid was sick with anything, they could stay home. And I charged them much less or nothing. I ended up closing for two weeks because I got COVID over Christmas a year and a half ago, and I didn’t charge them for that time. And the parent, you know, every time the child was exposed, they stayed home. So, I was able to, that I didn’t raise my rates since 2018. So that was helpful for them because even with inflation, even with all of the rising food costs and things, I was able to keep my rates lower.

CHAKRABARTI: As mentioned, with the expiration of federal funding, Wisconsin has not yet opted to continue its state subsidy program. Meaning Hendrickson would have to raise rates to cover rising costs.

HENDRICKSON: In June, I raised my rates 20%. And then now, just this last Monday, I raised my rates again, $15 a week. And then they’ll be going up again, another $30 in February when the rest of the funding dries up. So, in a year, I will have raised my rates about $60 a week per kid.

CHAKRABARTI: Or $240 per month, per kid of an increase.

Hendrickson says her current families are able to pay the tuition hikes but next year six of the children she cares for will move on to kindergarten, meaning she’ll have to fill those spots with other families willing and able to pay higher rates.

HENDRICKSON: I don’t know realistically that I’ll be able to replace all six of those kids at the rates that I’m going to charge. So, I might be done really. Which is very sad.

CHAKRABARTI: Corrine Hendrickson of New Glarus, Wisconsin. She has run Corrine’s Little Explorers Family Childcare since 2007.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has called for a special legislative session to convene this month to address the state’s childcare funding shortage. But providers like Skidmore and Hendrickson aren’t optimistic.

This same issue is happening in all 50 states of this country. So, this hour we want to explore how to save child care, the people who provide it, and the families who rely on it. We also want to look at the overall impact this funding drop will have on a sector that was struggling, even before the pandemic.

Joining us now from Washington, D.C. is Julie Kashen. She is a senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, it’s that national progressive think tank I mentioned before. Julie, welcome to On Point.

JULIE KASHEN: Thanks, Meghna. It’s great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so first of all, take us back to when the pandemic era funding kicked in. What immediate difference did it make to child care providers and families across the country?

KASHEN: We know that before the pandemic even began, child care providers were struggling, that this was an issue that families across the country were struggling with because child care prices were too high, and also child care options were hard to find in every community.

So we had this problem beforehand. The pandemic then drove this Mack truck over the sector that was already struggling. When the pandemic era money came in, it made a huge difference for providers. As you already heard, providers were able to pay higher wages to keep great people working at their programs.

They were able to pay their rent or mortgage or utilities. And keep in mind, this was a time when inflation was rising, so their prices were going up and they didn’t necessarily want to have to pass that along to parents as well. They were able to pay for safety and health equipment, protective equipment for dealing with the pandemic.

As I think it was Corinne said, they were able to be really flexible with their parents so that they weren’t encouraging contagious behavior and parents could feel like they could keep their kids home when they were sick without feeling like their bank accounts were going to be drained.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, to be clear, when we sunsetting, that’s because it was in the American Rescue Plan.

KASHEN: That’s right.

CHAKRABARTI: And Congress has declined to renew lots of portions of the American Rescue Plan, including childcare. So that’s why there’s this September 30th cliff, essentially. Can you tell me a little bit more?

The numbers are quite staggering. The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Let’s describe it as that $24 billion, which were distributed to states. So we want to talk about that in a second, but it served what, almost a quarter million providers and saved the jobs of at least a million early educators.

KASHEN: That’s right. And served almost 10 million children. This money really made such a difference. And it also demonstrated what’s possible when the federal government partners with families and states to support children the way that we should be supporting children. So it showed us that, when the sector has the support they need, they can really support parents without, keep the prices lower, not break the bank for families.

And make sure that they’re able to provide the safe nurturing care they want to for children.

CHAKRABARTI: So look into your looking glass. This is essentially the report that you wrote, Julie, we mentioned some of the things broadly that could happen if nothing is done post September 30th, but what do you think is going to happen in various places if these grants aren’t renewed?

KASHEN: Yeah, if we are not able to bridge this gap and keep funding in the system, we are going to see a combination of child care providers having to close, staffing shortages, meaning classrooms will also close, so a program may be staying open, but not serve as many children and prices will rise, and we’re already seeing prices at $10,000 a year, $20,000 a year, depending on the place and the age of the kids.

So these are already too high prices and it’s because we have a broken market. So the system wasn’t working beforehand. This money was the infusion that was needed. And when that money goes away, as we said, about 3.2 million children could lose out. And the impact doesn’t just affect the children and their parents, but to be clear, their parents will be affected.

They’re going to have to figure this out. Some of them will leave their jobs altogether. We know that’s mostly going to be the moms, right? Some of them will have to reduce their work hours. And we predict about that could impact about $9 billion dollars annually of parental earnings, that they could lose that money.

It also affects states, right? So the state economy is where they’re relying on that income tax, where employers are relying on employees to not be disrupted by childcare disruptions. And so we also see that about $10.6 billion dollars in economic activity around the nation could be lost as a result of this funding going away.

CHAKRABARTI: So we’re talking about potential job losses amongst providers. We’re going to come back to that in a little bit later, but also then, as you said, to the parents of these children who won’t have any other options. So I hear you trying to underscore that this is more than just about, Can parents pay for child care? But that you’re suggesting that the broader economic implications will touch us all whether or not we have Children in our families.

KASHEN: That’s exactly right. And one of the things, the pandemic really pulled off the invisibility cloak of all of the care work that’s been going on for years, undervalued and underappreciated. We had kids popping up on zoom calls. Everyone was working from home, and you could actually physically, tangibly see that parents have a really tough job to do, to figure out how to care for their kids while also doing their jobs.

And so I think that this is something that people are more aware of than ever before, but the ripple effects may not be totally appreciated yet.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. For a couple of years, 2020, 2021, we did a lot of shows where the theme was the pandemic is a mirror on our society, on American society.

And if we don’t like what we see, we need to do something about it. It seems like we’ve dropped the mirror now and aren’t caring to look at the reality that was revealed to us anymore, but maybe all hope isn’t lost yet. So we’re going to talk more about this child care funding cliff that Americans are facing, come September 30, when we come back.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are looking right at the funding cliff faced by American child care. Because on September 30th, $24 billion in federal funding for child care in this country will come to an end with the sunsetting of pandemic era assistance. So we’re looking at why, what the implications are, and if we can do anything about it.

Let’s hear the perspective some from at least one parent. Michelle Meywes is in Los Angeles. She has two daughters. One is three. The other is 17 months. And here’s how Michelle describes her family’s child care expenses this past year.

MICHELLE MEYWES: Huge. It was more than our rent, especially since we have two and one of them was still considered infant.

It was about $4,000 a month.

CHAKRABARTI: And then in July, She got an email saying rates were going up.

MEYWES: My instant reaction was, “Oh my God we can’t do this.” We expected an increase, maybe a small increase, but we’re talking twice as much as inflation, I didn’t even get a raise to compete with inflation, like my raise this year was 2%.

So we’re not even hitting inflation. And then I’ve got this high of an increase to compete with.

CHAKRABARTI: In September. Rates went up 15% for infants and 10% for preschool age kids, meaning now Michelle and her husband pay about $4,700 a month for child care.

MEYWES: We decided we couldn’t. We couldn’t do it, like we just, we were already pushing ourselves.

Budget wise, but we were like, “It’s just one more year until the older, our older daughter is eligible for TK, the transitional kindergarten.” And we were like, “We can do it for one more year.” But we were like, “We can’t do this. It’s just too much.”

CHAKRABARTI: So they decided to take their youngest child to a separate daycare than her sister, saving them a total of about $400 a month, but they are still paying more than their rent.

MEYWES: Oh my gosh. Like nothing extra. We don’t take vacations. That’s definitely not something. I’d say mostly it’s just staying where we are. Luckily, I have a car that’s paid off, so hopefully nothing happens to that. We just, we try to not buy anything extra. I feel like we still spend a lot on food and essentials and things, but we just try not to get anything outside of that.

CHAKRABARTI: Michelle says the only solace she gets right now as a parent is that this immense burden of the cost of child care is temporary. In a few years, both of her girls will be in school, and then the family can start saving again. But these past few years, Michelle says, have really been a struggle.

MEYWES: We’ve created a society where it’s like we need to earn our households and I feel like the rest of the society hasn’t caught up to that.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Michelle Meywes. She lives in Los Angeles and at $4,000 a month, it means her family costs for child care are $48,000 plus a year. Now, Julie Kashen, I’m going to ask you in a minute about why it’s so expensive. But let me go back to the decision that Congress made to not renew this federal funding for the subsidies.

Perhaps the logic is that, okay, it was justified to do this in the middle of the pandemic crisis. That to keep child care centers open, they needed extra help. Many parents suddenly had basically, drastically reduced, if not zero income because of job loss. So it was a necessary giant bandage to hold things together.

But now that we are no longer in an emergent state of emergency regarding the pandemic, we, it’s okay to go back to the situation we were in before, meaning the withdrawal of federal subsidies are okay.

KASHEN: Yeah, Meghna, here’s the thing. In November of 2021, Congress passed, the House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act, and that had a significant funding in there to lower child care costs for families and essentially build the comprehensive child care and early learning program that the United States has long needed.

So the idea was, with support from President Biden and Democrats in Congress, this bill was going to pass and ideally become law and we were going to have this bridge of pandemic funding and get to the other side where we would have the comprehensive program that demonstrated that child care is a public good, that we all benefit when we invest in our children and families.

And the Senate did not pass it. And so all of that money, that $400 billion for child care and early learning was left on the cutting room floor. So here we are, we had other sectors, right? Airlines got a bailout and restaurants got a bailout at the height of the pandemic, but those are sectors that have more leeway.

They have profits to work with, right? Our sector, child care that we’re talking about, does not have that, right? It’s what Janet Yellen, Secretary Treasury Janet Yellen has said. It’s a broken market. The math does not add up. And so this funding got us through this really tough time, but the need for it doesn’t go away just because the crisis is over.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, I want to fully disclose my own personal experience here because I am a parent. And I happen to live in quite an expensive state. Full disclosure, being in Massachusetts, when my Kids were in child care before kindergarten. We sent them to a very high-quality child care center. Fortunately, my kids were far enough apart in years that they were staggered.

So they were not going at the same time. But nevertheless, it meant for a period of several years, we were paying close to $25,000 a year for child care because of the one kid in each. Again, it was very high quality. So we were happy and fortunate to be able to do it. So full disclosure there, I know personally the financial pain that parents go through.

But what I’d like you to explore with me a little bit, Julie, is explain to those who aren’t having to face this right now. Why is child care so expensive? What are the things that drive the costs of, again, I’m going to underscore, high quality care?

KASHEN: It’s exactly to your point, right? That families, regardless of their income level, want the best foundation for their children.

That means we need to invest in the people who are providing that foundation. Those are the early educators who, as you heard, are currently making less than minimum wage in some places, right? And so if we want to invest in our children, we need to make sure we’re paying higher wages to the early educators caring for them.

We need to create a situation where children are safe, nurtured, and able to learn. And that means that every parent should have access to what you had access to. High quality care where they’re able to keep the best people working in this sector. Right now, with wages so low, we can’t keep great people working in child care.

They’re leaving to go pour coffee or sell appliances because they can make more money in other sectors, even if they’ve trained and they want to be doing this work with kids.

CHAKRABARTI: But this is some so I’m going to ask you again to answer the question. Because this isn’t something that kind of computes in people’s minds.

If we’re already paying child care providers so little money, oftentimes at minimum or below minimum wage. Again, there’s that question. Why is it so expensive? Where is that money going? What’s driving the cost? What’s driving the fact that the cost of child care in this country is rising higher than inflation and has been doing so for many years.

KASHEN: Yeah, the fundamental issue is that this is a broken market. That we should be treating child care like clean water, and safe food and good public schools and libraries, where we have a partnership. Where the public sector has a role to play to invest in those underlying needs, to invest in the buildings or the homes to invest in the people providing the education.

It is a labor intensive business. If we want to do this well, if we want to invest in our kids in those early years where their brains are developing, we need a lot of teachers there. We need a lot of early educators there working with them. We need the resources to make sure that the places where they’re being educated or where they’re being cared for are safe and have great learning materials.

And so basically if you think of other sectors that are like this, that are providing that much benefit, there is a federal component, there’s a public component to them. And child care doesn’t have that. So what we end up doing is we ask parents to pay, when often when they can least afford it early in their careers, And the math just does not add up to invest in what’s all the things that are needed to provide high quality child care.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I’m still a little hazy here, Julie, and you’ve got to forgive me for pushing on this, but I think getting a detailed understanding of why it’s so expensive, also it will compare the United States to other countries in a little bit, is really important. Because people who aren’t part of this system are constantly wondering why should I subsidize it, right?

The cost of people is one of the things you’re pointing out, that the carers themselves, they are qualified and accredited, oftentimes accredited human beings that need to get paid, plus benefits, which are also a cost for any employer. I’m presuming real estate, is an issue here. I’m also, as you said, supplies, curriculum, places to play perhaps is there a cost of trying to meet the requirements of local and state regulation around child care as well?

KASHEN: Often that’s exactly what we’re already talking about, right? Those are the staffing ratios where we’re making sure that kids have enough adults around them to keep them safe and well nurtured, right?

So meeting the cost of the regulations is essential, is often the same as meeting the needs of high quality care. But it’s exactly what you said, right? That we know that inflation went up on everything. And so child care providers who provide food, had to figure out how to pay for more expensive food, their own rent or mortgage prices may, or I guess rent or utility prices went up, right?

And so they had to cover that cost as well. Those, all of those things add up and it’s a lot of money for providers who often are just doing this because they love kids and they want to make it work. They also don’t have a lot of support in the back end, right? This is running a business.

And if somebody is really great at being at working with kids and caring for kids, they’re not necessarily also great at running their books and doing their finances. And so that’s another expense that’s part of the challenge that providers face.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we spoke with Joanna.

She’s an On Point listener in Georgia and a child care worker. Now she did not want to use her last name because she is not authorized to speak by her and her employer. And she’s concerned about the possibility of a little bit of blowback, but she’s been in the industry for more than 10 years.

Joanna has two college degrees and also a child development associate credential. Yet she only makes $14 an hour.

JOANNA: The most important years of a child’s life is zero to five, and that is what we get paid, is $14 an hour. And that’s not enough to even live off of. So it’s pretty sad. People assume that we sit around and hold babies all day, and yet we make lesson plans.

We’re interacting all day. And it’s countless. We’re not sitting down ever. If we’re sitting down, we’re holding a baby, we’re giving it a bottle, we’re singing songs, we’re teaching them things. And so it’s a very strenuous job. It’s not easy by any means. And the people that want to sit around tend to not make it in my line of work. And I love it though.

I treat the children as if they’re my own. And what scares me is I could go get a higher paying job, but if I’m not doing this job, I don’t know who will, who will come in there and take the low pay and do a good job. And, you have to love the job to accept it as it is.

CHAKRABARTI: Joanna readily identifies the problems, but she also told us she’s got a few solutions of her own.

JOANNA: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say, okay, daycare providers are the same as teachers, because we are teaching these babies from zero to five. So why can’t they make as much as a teacher makes?

I’ve got the education. I think somebody’s making money. It’s capitalism. Yeah, it costs money to rent a building, but not that much. Not that much. Somebody’s making money and it’s not the workers. It’s not the people that do the work.

CHAKRABARTI: Joanna is in Georgia. Julie, put the United States in context here. How does the U.S. compare to other industrialized nations in terms of subsidizing child care, treating it as a market, availability, that kind of thing?

KASHEN: The United States is so behind, especially as compared to other wealthy nations. We spend such a tiny percentage of our GDP on child care and early learning.

Other nations have really invested in child care, put their dollars where their values are, right? They put their dollars into making sure that their children are well cared for. The reality is, the majority of kids, all of their parents in the workforce, whether that’s a solo parent or two parent family.

And that’s our experience here in the United States. And we are just not matching up to that, especially as compared to other nations.

CHAKRABARTI: Why do you think that is?

KASHEN: I think that there’s been a conscious effort to have kind of that DIY mentality, that we’re all on our own. It’s a quote-unquote personal responsibility issue.

We’ve been sold this bill of goods that, this is on moms, this is on the Black and immigrant women who are undervalued and underpaid for this work. That we should be able to figure it out all on our own. That’s where that mom guilt comes from, right? “That it’s my fault that I can’t do it.”

But in fact, our systems have not been built for there to be every parent working. And the assumption is still that, “Moms will take care of it.” That women can deal with this and with these low paid jobs and that’s just not acceptable. And it’s not what’s going to be best for our economic growth as a nation either.

CHAKRABARTI: What evidence is there that children who do get high quality child care, prior to Kindergarten, if their parents both have to work, the impact it has on their lives long term?

KASHEN: Yeah. Children who experience high quality care are able to thrive, right? That they are able to build relationships with trusted adults, that they’re able to we see better health outcomes over the long-term, and I think the thing to be really clear about is this isn’t that these early educators are raising our children instead of us, right? That we’re still a part of their lives. Like once your kid goes to kindergarten, you’re not like saying, “Oh, you guys, you’re in charge now,” Right? We’re all in this together. This is something where parents are still, this integral caregiver in their child’s life.

This integral early educator in their child’s life. And they’re partnering with early educators to support their child’s healthy growth and development. And especially those early years, right? Brain synapses are growing and growing, as Joanna and Georgia said, in those early years.

And so this makes such a difference if we’re able to give them all the nurturing and care and learning that we can in those early years.

CHAKRABARTI: When we come back, we’re going to talk about how there is actually one program in the United States that does subsidize childcare effectively and what we can learn from that.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Julie, as I hinted before the break, there is one long standing system program in this country of federally subsidized child care that has been wildly successful, okay? So before we talk about what that is, I want to give folks some more context about the comparison, regarding federal subsidies between the United States and other countries.

For example, on average, the U. S. federal government spends about 500 per child annually on early care child care, that’s through the programs that assist low-income families. Norway, though, spends almost 60 times more, that’s the country of Norway, than the United States.

Here, it’s obviously the parents that bear almost the entire cost of care.

Now, for about 50 years, some lawmakers have been trying to change that, though they’ve obviously had little success. But here’s the exception. It’s the United States military. As of 1989, child care for members of the military has been government supported. In fact, the Defense Department spends about a billion dollars every year on child care.

Linda Smith is one of the architects of this military child care model. And at the time, again in the late 80s, she oversaw child care and youth programs within the Defense Department.

LINDA SMITH: As the military moved from a conscription, basically draft to an all-volunteer force, obviously they needed to recruit and retain people. And the military, I think, got it very early on that they needed to do something about child care to keep young people in the military.

CHAKRABARTI: So not only was the military suffering from that recruitment problem, but in the 1980s, it was also suffering from increased health and safety violations and allegations of sexual abuse at their daycare centers. So Congress was pressured to take action. However, improving care was not going to be cheap.

SMITH: We understood in the military, from the beginning, the cost to produce quality child care just costs more than most parents can afford to pay. It’s that simple.

CHAKRABARTI: The other problem? Demand, of course, was much higher than the supply of child care. So Smith says to make it all work required federal funds, but only if some important stipulations were attached to it.

SMITH: In order to keep the cost down to parents, we had to put more money into the programs. In other words, to underwrite the costs of care. And so what we started doing was obviously putting money into the programs and in return for what we asked them to do, when we would give them funding, public funding, federal dollars, we would say, “Okay, you are going to do this in terms of the training of the workforce and the pay of the workforce. However, you’re not going to raise fees to parents.” So keep fees down and invest in the workforce and the quality at the same time.

CHAKRABARTI: The Military Child Care Act passed in 1989 with widespread support. In its first year, the Defense Department invested about $89 million into the system both on program fees and workforce training.

Smith calls the military model a public-private partnership because the government and families both contribute. Parents pay 50% of the cost, which is on a sliding scale based on their income. And the government picks up what’s generally the other half.

Today, on average, military families pay about 2, 500 to 8,300 a year per child for child care.

So compare that to civilian families who pay on average, again, national average, $9,400 to $17,000 a year. Again, that’s on average. So the cost of care in some places is significantly higher. And military child care workers make about $45,000 per year, nearly double the average salary for civilian child care workers.

SMITH: It didn’t happen with one huge dump of money. It happened gradually over time. And I think that again, was one of the key pieces of it. Was, in not just dumping a lot of money into a system when it’s not yet prepared to handle it, it took until ’95, ’96 until we had all the staff trained, we had all of the pay scales in place that people were now making higher wages.

We had a graduated fee scale in, we had all programs in the military were nationally accredited. But it took time. And I think sometimes nationally, we’re a little impatient. And these big dumps of money don’t buy permanency.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Linda Smith, former Deputy Director of the Office of Family Policy within the Defense Department, talking about the military child care program.

Julie Kashen, first of all, I’m not sure if you know this number or even if we could estimate it, but we said a little earlier that the DOD spends about a billion dollars each year now on child care for its program. Let’s say we waved a magic wand and scaled that up across the country to civilian families, as well.

Do we even know how much that might, what that cost is that we’re looking at?

KASHEN: I don’t know the exact number, but I do know that President Biden put in his budget for fiscal year 2024, $600 billion over 10 years to invest in child care and pre-K. And so I think that’s a good starting point to think about what it might take.

So that’s about $60 billion a year as a model of what it could take to build a comprehensive child care and early learning system.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, again, I just want to reiterate some of the things in the program for members of the military. It’s not 100% subsidized, right? We talked about the sliding scale, essentially, for families.

The reason why I want to break that down into pieces is, are any of these smaller pieces then, potentially viable as a national program.

KASHEN: Yeah, absolutely. I just want to note one other thing, which is that the United States has actually had universal child care before, not only for the military. That during World War II, when men were off fighting the war, there was an incentive to bring women into the factories to make the weapons.

And the United States invested in the Lanham Act and actually created a child care program. And so we actually have a history of going even beyond the military to serve more families. But when the war ended, they actually wanted women back at home so the men could take their jobs back. And so they canceled that program in the 1940s.

So you know, we had that program as a precursor, we do have the military program and Linda Smith’s work on that is incredible. And now we are trying to build from that. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do to create a program where there’s a partnership between the federal government and families to provide the high-quality care that’s needed and have parents not have to break the bank to pay for it.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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