How the US government is failing parents, caregivers, and care workers

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A new Oxfam report finds federal policies for child care lacking, proposes solutions to achieve a more caring economy.

As the U.S. heads back to school next month, many parents are looking forward to getting back to a stable schedule. However, on September 30, the expiration of pandemic-era federal funds to keep the child care industry afloat could result in severe disruptions, not just to parents’ schedules, but to the child care sector and overall economy.

If Congress takes no action and this funding ends, 70,000 child care programs are in danger of closing. More than 3 million children are projected to lose access to child care nationwide.

It is against this backdrop that Oxfam has released its US Care Policy Scorecard, which assesses over 30 federal care policies, including child care. The report, completed in partnership with National Women's Law Center, National Partnership for Women and Families, and Notre Dame's iLab, gives the U.S. an overall score of 43% on federal care policies. What that means is that the U.S. government is failing care workers, caregivers and families.

What's behind the failing score?

Care work fuels our society and makes the economy run, but it is often taken for granted, and the people who are doing paid care work lack protections under labor laws and are greatly underpaid. Many of the people who care for and educate our nation’s children—both paid and unpaid workers—are struggling under great physical and emotional pressure and experience deep financial hardship. In our scorecard, labor conditions and wage policies for paid care work received a grade of 51%.

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Cynthia Davis is the founder and owner of Kings & Queens Child Care Center and Executive Director of the D.C. Family Child Care Association. Photo: Provided by Davis

In July, Cynthia Davis, founder and owner of Kings & Queens Child Care Center and Executive Director of the D.C. Family Child Care Association, spoke on a panel organized by Oxfam on the need for federal policies that meet the needs of caregivers, care workers and working families. She explained that she and other care workers and teachers often had to take on additional sources of income to support their careers.

“In order for me to do what I do and support what I do, I have to have other incomes,” she said. “We have so much love for the children, but we cannot work only on love [for the children] alone, because it's coming to the point that as the inflation happens, and as the market grows, we have to grow with it.”

One of the reasons that care work is undervalued stems from our nation’s history. In the early days, Black enslaved women were forced to care for white children. Our economy continues to exploit care workers today, and many of the labor laws in this sector were created to be exclusionary.

When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938—a bill that created the minimum wage, addressed child labor and established a 40-hour work week—pressure from Southern lawmakers to exclude jobs that primarily employed Black workers meant that domestic and home care workers were intentionally excluded. They wouldn’t receive Social Security benefits until 1950 and it was not until 2013 that basic protections were extended to home care aides. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law in 1993, guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family and medical reasons—but only if workers meet several qualifications. Even then, it might not be possible for low-wage workers to take unpaid leave without creating hardship.

U.S. policies prevent children and families from thriving

Parents need child care in order to go to work. Ensuring that care is available outside of the home redistributes care from unpaid family members to paid caregivers, who receive training and are compensated for their time.

Care services overall received a score of 59% in the US Care Policy Scorecard. Our report found that none of the programs we looked at (for instance health care, child care, elder care, and care for people with disabilities), were universally accessible; they lacked prioritization of underserved groups; and that affordability for low-income groups was not guaranteed.

As it is, child care costs the average U.S. family a third of their income. For low-income families, that percentage can be even greater. From her own experience, Davis explained that child care is just not available in certain communities, whether due to workers leaving the sector or simply not having nearby facilities. That puts additional pressures on families to find somewhere else for their child to go or make the difficult choice to leave the workforce to care for their child.

If Congress takes no action and pandemic-era child care funding ends, more families will have to decide whether it’s more feasible to send their children farther away or at greater costs or whether to stay at home or take a pay cut to care for their children. This will have an impact on everyone who lives in the U.S, whether you care for a child or not.

What can we do to create a child care system that works for everyone?

The only way we will achieve a child care system that meets everyone’s needs is if the federal government invests in it.

The US Care Policy Scorecard shows us that a lot needs to be done to create a federal policy environment that supports care work.

  • We need care that is affordable and accessible for all working families across the country.
  • We must ensure that the people who are doing the critical work of caring for and educating our future leaders are paid well and have workplace rights.

While there is long term work to be done to build a system where everyone thrives, there is also a pressing need to improve what we have in place now.

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