An empty swing at a playground. A child plays on a spring rider in the background.
Image credit: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Parents in the United States work two jobs: powering our economy through paid labor and building our country’s future by raising children. But child care is more expensive than ever, and the federal government hasn’t done enough to support families, especially working mothers. Now more than ever, families bear the brunt of the economic burden. As the old refrain puts it, the children are our future; to nurture them, and our potential as a country, we need to address the nationwide crisis underlying child care.

As the old refrain puts it, the children are our future; to nurture them, and our potential as a country, we need to address the nationwide crisis underlying child care.

Child care is a frustrating calculus for working parents, who must weigh if it’s financially feasible to keep working or if they have to leave the workforce to care for their children. Families spend an average of over $8,000 per year per child for full-time child care, a cost that has increased by 26 percent in the last decade and more than 200 percent over the past 30 years, not nearly in line with wages. In a 2022 survey, 63 percent of parents reported that child care had gotten more expensive over the past year. In short, it’s increasingly difficult for parents to pay for the care they need to be able to work—and the pandemic only exacerbated an already strained situation. Soon, with federal aid for child care drying up at the end of this month, millions of children will have nowhere to go, and parents will be forced out of work.

The federal government must act quickly to preserve and increase funding for child care. As those who work with philanthropists committed to improving child and family wellbeing, we add our voices to call for federal action knowing that no amount of private investment to create innovative strategies can replace a stronger federal commitment to public support that makes access to quality child care more equitable.

Women (Not) at Work

The pandemic demonstrated that working families—especially mothers—suffer when quality, affordable child care is too limited, costly, or outright unavailable. When the pandemic upended routines, including in-person education going remote, a shocking 4.2 million women across the country left the workforce, largely to support their children—a full million more women than men.

As the cost of child care vastly exceeds minimum wage pay, women working in low-wage jobs simply can’t afford to go to work.

Women were forced to leave work in those numbers due to cultural factors, such as disproportionate care responsibilities. But the division of child care responsibilities between genders is often a question of simple math: when women become parents, they see their pay drop by 30 percent, while men see a 20 percent increase in pay for doing the same. Add to this equation the fact that according to census data analyzed by the National Women’s Law Center, on average, full-time working mothers are paid 75 cents for every dollar working fathers make. That gap is worse for mothers of color. Closing the gender pay gap is critical to achieving gender equality—and providing affordable child care for working women is one way to do so.

Women also leave the workforce due to educational inequality. While a recent labor report found that workforce participation among women ages 25 to 54 has finally returned to pre-pandemic levels—taking a full year longer than it did for men—women without college degrees have not experienced the same rebound as college-educated women, with 1.6 million fewer of the former working in 2023 than in 2020. Lack of access to affordable child care often keeps low-wage women workers from returning to their jobs, as they cannot find adequate care to support demanding schedules. As the cost of child care vastly exceeds minimum wage pay, women working in low-wage jobs simply can’t afford to go to work.

For the lucky families that can afford quality child care, it is often challenging to find. During the pandemic, 16,000 child care centers closed nationwide, leaving half of all children in the United States in child care deserts. In 2019, 76 percent of families with young children reported difficulty finding adequate child care. Military families, for example, cite lack of child care as one of the main impediments preventing military spouses from working. If the federal government is not even providing adequate child care for people serving in the military, civilian working families have even less hope of finding the support they need to keep the economy going.

Federal Funding Is Taking a Critical Step

The federal government is making small steps toward mitigating this shortage. Earlier this year, the Biden administration passed an executive order with 50 directives to nearly every cabinet-level agency to expand access to affordable, high-quality care. As with the mandate in the CHIPS and Science Act requiring federally-funded semiconductor manufacturing employers to submit a plan for how they will help employees access affordable child care, applicants seeking federal job-creating funds will also be required to expand access to care for their workers.

These systemic changes implemented by the White House are an important first step toward supporting working families—but philanthropy can also be a part of the solution.

Federal mandates can guide the country away from the child care crisis by forcing companies to take the needs of parents, especially working mothers, seriously. As part of the new executive order, federal agencies may also provide child care subsidies to federal employees, expand federal child care centers, improve the affordability of child care on military bases, and streamline the process for tribal grantees of federal child care assistance and educational programs to apply for and develop early childhood facilities.

Philanthropy Can Support Public Funding

These systemic changes implemented by the White House are an important first step toward supporting working families—but philanthropy can also be a part of the solution. Within the philanthropic community, women’s funds have long tracked the economic impact on women who can’t find or afford quality child care. Women’s funds—community foundations created with the goal of accelerating progress by investing in the leadership of women and girls, especially Black, Latina, Native American, and other women and girls of color—have been at the forefront of directing funding to organizations working against the underemployment of women.

For example, the Iowa Women’s Foundation’s Child Care Solutions Fund helped train more providers, leading to 350 additional child care slots in the state. Similarly, the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative’s Raising Child Care Fund supports community organizing across 17 states to make more affordable, high-quality child care slots available for families and raise the wages of early educators, who often make poverty-level wages despite being essential workers supporting the country’s entire parental workforce. One of the fund’s grantees, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice in Louisiana, was instrumental in getting a small local property tax increase passed that will fund 1,000 new infant and toddler child care spaces for low-income families.

Greater funding for child care is part of the solution, but private giving in the United States is inadequate to solve our child care crisis. Philanthropic support must be supported by significant federal investment. President Biden’s proposed 2024 budget invests $600 billion over 10 years to expand access to high-quality, affordable child care and free, high-quality preschool—a historic investment that would cover 16 million children. Just last week, Senator Patty Murray and Congresswoman Katherine Clark filed legislation to extend the successful $16 billion Stabilization Fund that was passed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. The Fund, which helped 220,000 child care programs from closing, is scheduled to expire at the end of this month. Congress needs to act to create the child care system that working mothers and their families need to succeed.

Women’s and early childhood funds and other philanthropic advocacy organizations are leading the way not only in terms of financial investment but also by piloting innovative, family-forward policies that can be a model for government programs. In Massachusetts, the Coalition for Social Justice’s Common Start Coalition is working to pass a universal child care bill. Parent Voices California got state leaders to waive copayments for families qualifying for child care assistance, saving low-income families over $224 million a year. The Metrowest Women’s Fund in Massachusetts runs a fund for single mother students at community college supporting nontuition emergency needs, primarily child care expenses, that help keep single mothers from dropping out of school before they can finish their degrees.

During the pandemic, when it became impossible to ignore the child care crisis, political leaders began turning to women’s funds for thought leadership on solutions. The CEO of the Iowa Women’s Foundation was appointed to the governor’s Child Care Task Force to advise on long-term solutions, and the CEO of the Western New York Women’s Foundation joined the state’s congressional Economic Recovery Taskforce, where she lobbied to include child care as a critical component to pandemic recovery efforts.

Foundations can also break down bureaucratic barriers to child care access. The Women’s Foundation of Arizona worked to change a policy intended to grant federally funded child care vouchers to low-income working mothers. These vouchers were meant to help fund child care but were off limits to women “not working” because they were earning degrees or completing vocational training—making education unaffordable and blocking economic mobility. By working with legislators to change state qualifications for funding, the organization made sure all working mothers in the state could receive the child care they needed.

To abate the child care crisis, the US government needs to act quickly to change policy and create better support for working families, especially working mothers. That means substantial financial investments and program developments must be centered on solutions identified in collaboration with families and providers who rely on or work in child care every day so we can listen to those closest to the pain points. Members of the philanthropic community who are committed to these populations stand ready to partner with local, state, and federal governments wanting to enact child care policies that help working families. Child care is the ultimate social safety net that will keep kids in the United States safe and their parents employed—and it is the future of this country’s success.