Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

For most parents, returning to work requires affordable child care

an empty classroom

[This commentary was originally published in Newsweek.]

Even hard-shelled economists have discovered what parents with school-aged kids at home realized weeks ago: Returning to work requires affordable child care.

an empty classroom
Mayors and local educators dodge this inconvenient truth as they unveil back-to-school options, from New York to Seattle, at best reopening classrooms just two or three days a week. So who will care for children when not in school? There are only so many warm and fuzzy grandmothers to go around.

Congressional leaders — taking up aid to schools next week — could pull from the Republican playbook to expand portable vouchers for after-school care. Democratic leaders rightfully seek more federal dollars for education. Yet parents can't return to jobs without fresh child care financing.

Employers help out in isolated cases. Sonia Caudillo, a single mom and surgical nurse in southern California, took leave after her six-year-old's school closed. But soon, her hospital opened makeshift classrooms, staffed by volunteers and fellow nurses. Her daughter "loves meeting new friends, playing educational games [and] being outside," Caudillo said.

But 19.4 million other school-aged children remain at home nationwide, dealing with stir-crazy parents who are eager to get back to work, yet are trapped by the lack of affordable child care. Part-time schooling can work—when matched with safe and predictable care providers. Otherwise, we will spend billions to half-heartedly open schools, while parents still must remain at home.

It was Republican George H. W. Bush who grasped a milder version of this family-work tension back in 1990, creating portable vouchers to ease child care costs faced by young parents, including middle-class families, for the first time. Head Start served poor preschoolers. Republican leaders saw the opportunity to serve school-aged youngsters as well, and extended the voucher idea into early education.

Bill Clinton grew the program with bipartisan support—now dubbed the Child Care and Development Block Grant—helping millions of single mothers move off public assistance. Washington's current $5.9 billion contribution is matched by even greater funding from the states, as eligibility widened to a range of working families.

Flexible vouchers allow parents to choose (and pay) a variety of care providers, from those cozy grandmothers to licensed day-care homes to after-school programs on school campuses. Unlike pre-kindergarten centers, which are slowly coming back to life, parents can select less formal caregivers to fit their work schedules. About one-fifth of the nation's workforce labors during irregular or unpredictable hours each week. Home-based caregivers funded via vouchers can adjust to that uncertainty.

Strange political bedfellows remain enthused over child care vouchers. Conservatives celebrate the choice-empowering fungibility of these portable chits. Anti-poverty advocates view them as efficient cash transfers to parents, bringing additional income to close kin and caring neighbors.

A major boost to the federal program would instantly employ many women who display big hearts yet have modest incomes. Or consider college graduates facing an otherwise-dismal labor market who could tutor school-aged youngsters to forestall widening achievement gaps.

Congress and state governments could quickly create millions of child care slots for school-aged children by the fall — either through growing out the existing federal program or through refundable tax payments, as returns arrive to the IRS this month.

Stretching care vouchers to all school-aged children — for say, 20 weeks — is affordable, costing about $55 billion. This cost would be offset by the resulting surge in labor supply and income, as parents resume work, helping to jump-start the economy. This child care investment would equal just three percent of Treasury's economic stimulus, and a fraction of the Democrats' new request for school aid.

Parents could award payments to employers that organize after-school programs, or to educators who respond more quickly. Local child care agencies would verify safe caregivers. After-school vouchers pay a rainbow of caregivers about $650 monthly per school-aged child, depending on local prices.

The cost of buoying the nation's families would be modest, compared with Washington's sprinkling of over $2 trillion in economic relief to large firms like Ritz-Carlton — even casino operators are winning federal cash or tax breaks. Yet corporate welfare fails to liberate parents still at home with school-aged children — families that now face irregular classroom schedules this fall.

Parents like Sonia Caudillo will head back to jobs when their children seem safe and enjoy predictable schedules. A bipartisan push to expand child care vouchers would deliver that necessary certainty at home, allowing antsy moms and dads a return to work and helping to shift the nation's economy into a higher gear.