Should parents stay home with their children during the pandemic and risk losing their jobs and the much-needed income they provide? Or must they send their kids to school and childcare and risk them becoming infected and sharing COVID-19 with the rest of the family?
Instead of just bailing out the patchwork childcare system we currently have, let’s go all-in on creating the comprehensive one we need.
This is the false choice parents are currently being subjected to. There’s no reason we can’t protect ourselves from this dreaded disease and keep families economically stable at the same time. Now is the time to talk about a national childcare policy, a child allowance, paid family leave and universal healthcare that is not tied to employment.
Existing childcare in the United States is woefully inadequate and unaffordable for many. It involves a patchwork of childcare centers, pre-K, family care, nannies and unlicensed care. Despite the massive movement of women into the workforce beginning in the 1950s, we have never had a unitary federal policy to address childcare.
We provide some minimal tax benefits primarily for the middle and upper classes and subsidize some care for the poor. Those in between and those who are poor and technically eligible but unable to find a spot for their child are left to fend for themselves despite the high cost of care, which is predicted to rise as a result of efforts to reduce enrollment to comply with safety requirements to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Thanks to the pandemic, the Center for Law and Social Policy estimates that childcare centers need a $9.6 billion bailout per month as a result of their unexpected closures and the need for lower staff-to-child ratios and new sanitary guidelines. Instead of just bailing out the patchwork childcare system we currently have, let’s go all-in on creating the comprehensive one we need.
We also need free universal healthcare for all, including childcare workers. Between 11–15 percent of workers are currently unemployed in the United States. As COVID-19 continues to spread, it seems likely that this number will increase. Those who get sick will still need healthcare as someone who is sick usually cannot work. As a result, it does not and has never made sense for healthcare to be tied to employment.
All workers need paid family leave as well. Those in high-risk jobs such as childcare providers have a special need for this leave so that they are not encouraged to return to work when they have not fully recovered and put others at risk. When people are ill or need to care for sick relatives, they still need income to pay for food and housing. If they have any contagious illness, they risk sharing it with co-workers (and children in the case of teachers and childcare workers) if they return to work.
This was true before Covid-19.
Research on California’s paid family leave policy by the National Partnership for Women in 2018 demonstrated that it did not hurt businesses but rather reduced their costs as a result of reduced employee turnover the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides two weeks of fully paid sick leave for quarantined employees or employees needing to care for children without childcare as a result of COVID-19. It also provides an additional 10 weeks of 2/3 pay if the employee does not have childcare as a result of COVID-19.
That is a great start but parents will need this benefit extended if schools and childcare centers are not able to fully open safely in the fall. These two weeks of paid leave and the 10-week extension should be made permanent and should apply to all illnesses and not just the coronavirus.
We also need to pay some parents to stay home and care for their children. This is not a radical idea. Many European countries provide government support for children. In 2018, Germany provided paid leave for new parents and subsidized childcare. Paid families received on average 200 Euros ($250) a month per child without harm to the economy.
The $1,200 stimulus check that families received this spring was a good first step but families continue to need assistance. This need will only grow as more people lose work as a result of the impact of the pandemic. Some parents will need to cut back on working hours to care for and educate children.
Capitalism needs families to care for and raise the children who will become its future workers and consumers. But it seeks to displace all the costs onto them.
If we can bail out banks and corporations, why can we not bail out families and children?
Elizabeth Palley is a professor of social work at Adelphi University and co-author of In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Childcare Policy.
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