How Much America’s Lack of Child Care Infrastructure Is Costing Women

The pandemic has taken a toll on working moms, especially when it comes to child care. America was on the verge of a child care crisis before the pandemic, but the past year tipped us over the edge. When schools and child care centers closed last spring, almost 5.1 million women left the workforce, largely due to the economic burden of child care. One in 6 child care jobs have been lost since the start of the pandemic.

Now that offices are beginning to reopen, working moms who were able to retain their jobs during the pandemic are faced with yet another dilemma ― there’s less child care available than ever before. Federal funds meant to rescue day-care centers are not guaranteed into the future, and many leave and daycare options provided by some companies to parents on payroll are only temporary.

President Joe Biden has proposed the American Families Plan, an ambitious package that would relieve some of the burden of the cost of child care for many of our neediest families. But while the plan is a step in the right direction, it stops short of the bold reimagining that we desperately need.

American parents already spend nearly twice as much of their income on child care as the average of parents in other industrialized countries. Even before the pandemic, the lack of child care in America cost us $57 billion each year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. On top of that, nearly half of child care workers, who are 94 percent female and disproportionately women of color and immigrants, rely on public assistance for their financial survival ― while unable to afford safe child care for their own children.

The fatal flaw of Biden’s plan is that it grossly underestimates the cost of living in most states and the reality of what constitutes a living wage. Under the current plan, a single mother in Georgia will not qualify to have her child care costs capped at 7 percent of her income if she makes $89,000 a year. She will instead likely spend $14,000 a year for each child. If she has two children in child care, she would be spending $28,000, which is more than 30 percent of her income. That doesn’t take into consideration taxes, and the cost of rent, food, health care, transportation, and other basic necessities. Additionally, the minimum wage for child care workers will be raised to only $15 per hour, a nominal increase for those who are entrusted with the safety and development of our children.

In the wake of the pandemic, America’s moms need truly universal child care. Under a universal child care plan, similar to what Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed during her presidential campaign, all families, regardless of income, would have their child care costs capped at 7 percent. That means that the same single woman’s child care costs in Georgia would be about $6,000 a year, a significant decrease compared to what it would be under Biden’s plan. Child care workers would rightfully earn a similar living wage as elementary school teachers.

The American Families Plan is a good first step, but it’s just that ― the beginning. We keep tiptoeing around the edges of a solution that would change the lives of every family across the country. Now is the time to invest in universal child care as a public good, similar to how we invest in K-12 education.

We need more elected officials who understand what it’s like to spend years on a child care waitlist, who understand the stress of paying for child care so they can go to work just to put food on the table, and who will ultimately prioritize legislation that will finally solve this problem. However, many parents ― especially young mothers ― are not empowered to run. And ironically, many are unable to afford child care while campaigning full-time without a salary.

When I ran for Congress in 2018, I campaigned every day with a baby strapped to my chest and a toddler by my side because I couldn’t afford the cost of child care after giving up my salary to run. I petitioned the Federal Election Commission and became the first woman to receive federal approval to spend campaign funds on child care.

This ruling paved the way for other working parents to run for federal office: Rep. Nikema Williams, who now fills the late John Lewis’ seat in Georgia, used her campaign funds to hire a child care provider who had lost her regular child care job due to the pandemic. This allowed her to campaign and manage her son’s virtual kindergarten. Now, as one of the most active freshman members of Congress and a supporter of universal child care, she is advocating for the creation of a child care caucus to help push an agenda that meaningfully helps working parents recover from the pandemic and support their families.

While my 2018 Federal Election Commission ruling approved the use of campaign funds for child care for all candidates running for federal office, like Williams, each state has its own campaign finance laws and entities authorized to provide oversight of elections and campaign spending and reporting.

That’s why Vote Mama Foundation has launched an aggressive campaign to pass campaign funds for child care legislation in all 50 states by 2023. Legislation of this kind would remove a significant obstacle many mothers face when running for state and local office and help ensure that our representatives personally understand the priorities of the people they serve. This shift in the makeup of our democracy is essential to galvanizing support for family-friendly policies, especially universal child care.

Having more parents in office who will champion universal child care will benefit all Americans. Child care is the backbone of our country’s economy and the foundation of our children’s future. It’s time for us to urgently treat it as the public good and critical economic infrastructure that it is.


Liuba Grechen Shirley ran for Congress in 2018 and is the founder and chief executive of Vote Mama, Vote Mama Foundation and Vote Mama Action Fund.

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