American childcare is broken — and the people who need it most can't afford it. If children are the future, we have to consider it an investment.

American childcare is broken — and the people who need it most can't afford it. If children are the future, we have to consider it an investment.
We need to view childcare as an investment.Getty
  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures, a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books, and a frequent cohost of the "Pitchfork Economics" podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • In the latest episode of Pitchfork Economics, economist Kate Bahn discusses how, prior to the pandemic, those who most needed pre-K childcare were the least likely to be able to afford it.
  • Now, as with many other issues, the pandemic has laid bare and worsened the existing problems with childcare — and women are more likely to shoulder the burden.
  • We need to think of childcare as an investment, and consider it part of our infrastructure.

It should go without saying that a sane and stable economy must provide for the future. One of the most important elements of a strong economy is that people and businesses feel secure enough to invest in it. Without that kind of stability — without the idea that investments will pay out ten, twenty, or a hundred years down the line — an economy is only worth the sum of its parts, ready to be sold for scrap. Why would you start a business, or invest in public transportation if you had no guarantee that people would need those services in the future?

It's shocking, then, that the United States invests so little in its children — the very people who'll be carrying that economy into the future. The US is the only one of the world's richest nations that has not written paid parental leave into law. Our public education system, largely reliant as it is on local property taxes, is always the first government program on the chopping block in hard times. College is so expensive that it's weighing Americans down with student debt that will take decades to pay off.

And American childcare is impossibly broken.

The people who most need pre-K childcare in our economy — single mothers and low-income parents — have always had the hardest time accessing it due to astronomical costs. But in the latest episode of Pitchfork Economics, economist Kate Bahn explains that prices have skyrocketed even as supply has failed to meet demand.

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"Even families who otherwise may be financially secure still face a lot of constraints when trying to get high-quality accessible childcare," Bahn said.

Like so many other economic injustices in this country, Bahn explains, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and worsened our existing problems with childcare. Those same low-income parents who couldn't afford to access childcare before have now been relabeled as "essential workers," and even while most childcare facilities are shut down, those low-wage service economy workers need childcare more than ever.


They don't have the same option of working and parenting from home that many middle-class Americans do right now. All their options are bad, from exposing children to potential infection by placing them in unsafe and unregulated childcare situations, to leaving them at home alone, to putting more pressure on grandparents and great-grandparents to provide care.

The economic costs of care work are about more than just the high price tag of services. Without childcare providers, caregiving falls on the parent. And when it comes to the costs incurred by unpaid caregiving, the gender divide is tremendous.

"Women's household unpaid work was 35 hours a week prior to the [pandemic]," Bahn said, "and now it's 65 hours a week. Men who have caregiving duties went from 25 hours a week to 50 hours a week. These are huge numbers for both men and women, but it is still consistently much worse for women."

When women have to work so many hours doing important, but unpaid, labor, that affects their economic productivity. They have to drop hours at their jobs, or risk losing their jobs due to the growing needs of family. They pass up educational opportunities and additional projects that could have resulted in better pay down the line.

"Mainstream economic paradigms have a really hard time acknowledging the central role of caretaking as a foundation to our entire economy," Bahn said.


Essentially, the American free market identifies recipients of care work — largely children and infirm elders — as somehow outside the economy. In a strict Econ 101 framework, recipients of childcare don't generate income, which means their care doesn't really fall within the market's concern.

But Bahn points out that "with something like caregiving and childcare, the benefits of it lasts the rest of a lifetime, so it's really hard to measure the outputs. The value is spread across someone's entire lifetime."

So because it's difficult to calculate and monetize caretaking, and because the value of care work pays out across decades and not within a financial quarter, our economy views care work "as coming from a place of altruistic motivation, that shouldn't be worth fair pay or shouldn't be seen as a economic policy priority, because people should just be doing it because they love it," Bahn said.

We clearly need to rethink our economic understanding of caregiving.

"There's research showing that access to one year of quality K through 12 education increases someone's future lifetime earnings by almost a half a million dollars," Bahn said. Perhaps a long-view of economics, then, would take those future earnings into account, and raise teacher salaries accordingly.

We don't know yet how many childcare facilities around the country have closed permanently in the wake of the coronavirus, but that number is likely to be substantial. By the time a coronavirus vaccine is finally discovered and widely distributed, parents will confront a massive childcare shortage just as they try to re-enter the workforce. Prices will likely climb even higher, and access to quality childcare will likely shrink for low-income Americans. This is a crisis that, with a little bit of foresight and investment, could prove to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink childcare in America.


"I think caregiving should be considered part of the infrastructure, because it is improving the overall economy in the long run," Bahn said. If we treated childcare as an investment that will pay out decades from now, and if we established universal access to good-paying, quality care, we could emerge from this economic collapse into a brighter economic future.