Solving the Child Care Crisis

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S1: If you talk to a parent these days, especially a parent who’s trying to juggle a career and a young kid or two, there’s this flurry of emotion you can hear in their voice because whatever they pictured, parenthood would look like it sure wasn’t this.

S2: People don’t even know where the boundaries are between work and family life right now. And I think that’s true for most people. It’s certainly true for me.

S1: Betsey Stevenson is an economist. She’s also a mom. And this is her winding up to unleash that emotional slurry.

S2: I was running five minutes late because I decided to embark on the project of getting the tangles out of my daughter’s hair at 11, at 11, 30. And it just turned out to be a bigger project than I thought because she has long hair and it got really naughty from the ocean. And so I’m like like Matilda, I’ve got a podcast at noon, so we got to like, abort and I’ll pick it up after lunch.

S3: Betsey’s always been interested in the ways work and family intersect. Now with this pandemic work and family, they’re not just intersecting, they’re braided together.

S1: It feels like evidence of what she’s been saying all along.

S2: Economists have often treated work decisions in isolation from family decisions. But there’s no way to separate your life like that. Everything is really intertwined.

S4: I feel like what this year is about is like we’re all that guy.

S2: Do you remember that viral video of the guy in Korea where he’s doing a live shot and the kid wanders in that? That video is one of my favorite things of all time.

S4: You remember this video and what will it mean for for the wider region? I think one of your children is just 14. I mean, if a guy’s doing a Skype interview with the BBC from his home office and his toddler walks in, the kid doesn’t just walk. Actually, she marches like she’s in a parade.

S5: I know. But I really I love this video. I want to talk about this because I think it does encapsulate everything that’s going on until, like, the daughter walks in and he’s just like, I am going to pretend she is not here. And he thinks plants his own kid just pull to the face of his child because I’m on TV and I am not a dad right now.

S2: And then, of course, the baby, you know, toddlers. And you realize like you can pretend all you want by putting your palm over your kid’s face, but they’re there and we see them. That’s basically doesn’t that sort of summarize where a year has been?

S4: Yeah. I wonder if as an economist, you are able to think about this moment as an experiment where it’s a little unclear what’s going to happen.

S2: So as an economist, we think about like, where’s the experiment? We know enough from a wide set of literature to know that there’s going to be a lot of harm. And there are actually like a lot of things we could do to minimize some of those repercussions. So I certainly hope we take action before we see the studies that use this experiment to show us what the harm is.

S3: Today on the show, the home economics of the pandemic, the relationship between work and family life, it was in crisis before covid-19 Betsi says maybe now will have the will to make some changes. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S4: I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you see the tone of the conversation around women and work and child care shifting during the pandemic.

S2: I think that for the first time I can remember the entire country is having to realize that. That child care is not a personal issue, it’s not a women’s issue, it’s an economic issue. You know, we have tens of millions of kids who need care and they all have parents, tens of millions of people who leave their jobs, who stay home, who take jobs, where they produce less than them or are less satisfied or work less. All of that will add up to an economy that doesn’t recover to where it was when we went into this pandemic any time soon.

S1: The reason Betsy thinks this economy isn’t going to just bounce back is because the pandemic has walloped the childcare sector. Some daycare providers are closed, and like other small businesses, they might not be able to open back up when this is all over. So Betsy suspects even when the economy is ready to get back to normal, families won’t be.

S2: I’ve heard from child care centers that were like, this is really important. We’re struggling to survive. We might not survive. I think all the discussion of a V shaped recovery is so bananas to me because it’s missing this thing that’s happening to our kids and families and to our child care infrastructure. And there is no way we flip the switch and go back if the child care isn’t there. Anybody who has ever tried to put their kid in child care knows how hard it is to find a slot at a child care facility that you feel really comfortable with, that you feel is going to serve your child’s needs? Well, I was on a wait list for years at my preferred childcare center and actually never got in and ended up using a nanny because I never got in. That’s a privileged position. Here’s the one child care center I want. But as we have child care centers close, there’s going to be fewer and fewer slots. There’s going to be more people on the waiting list. And I know people who didn’t get child care slots and didn’t go back to work as a result. So if that was already happening, imagine what happens if even 10 percent of our child care slots disappear.

S4: You’ve said really clearly that you think the only solution here is government spending. But I want to talk a little bit about the history of how the government has thought about child care for more kids. Because when you look into it, what’s interesting to me is that it’s not that we haven’t thought about this before. It’s just that whenever we start up something that looks like universal child care or child care for most or all, we get stymied. So do you know the history there? Because my understanding is that one of the first times the United States considered it was back in World War Two.

S2: Yeah, I mean, back in World War two. Right. The idea was that we wanted women to get into the workforce because we sent all the men who were running the factories to war and somebody had to run the factories. So we had the Lanham Act, which passed in 1943 and provided child care to mothers who are employed for the duration of the war. So it really an incentive for women to work during the war.

S4: Yeah, I mean, when you read about these child care centers from back in World War Two, it’s like as a working mother, like your jaw drops because there are little details about grocery shopping would be done for you while your child was in daycare and you’d pick up your groceries along with your child. I remember reading that and just like my jaw dropping, my tongue hanging out, like that’s all that was available, you know. You know, little of me, like I sit here, like trying to go get my groceries and find the time for everything. And, yeah, it sounds insane to me.

S2: When you look back at that history, it really was done in conjunction with the defense industry. And all families were eligible for child care for up to six days a week, including summers and holidays. But in addition to being like very affordable for parents, it was actually really high quality. There’s a study by this economist named Chris Herbst, and he showed that the benefits from this act was much broader for for parents and for kids. You mean it benefited the economy? Yeah. So an additional hundred dollars and Lanham Act funding increased high school graduation rates by one point eight percentage points, college graduation rates by one point nine percentage points, and overall employment of these children at ages forty four to fifty nine point seven percentage points, an overall increase those kids lifetime earnings by. One point eight percent, so child care was provided, but it didn’t just put the women in the factories, it actually had lifetime benefits for the kids who got that great opportunity. And so the thing that’s always struck me about the craziness of this debate about child care is that it pays for itself. If you were a kid today, you would be better off if the government took out a loan paid for your high quality child care and you paid it back out of your wages as an adult, you would still earn more money, consume more, have a higher quality of living as an adult if they did that.

S4: It’s funny you say it pays for itself. I think that’s really important because after this child care went away after World War Two, the idea of more child care came up again in the 70s and Richard Nixon actually vetoed the idea after Congress passed it. And I heard this interview with Pat Buchanan, who was a Nixon speechwriter and had advocated clearly against child care in a universal way. And his way of explaining that was he said, well, you know, if we had done that, we would have ended up with this entitlement program that would have been very hard to get rid of. And, of course, we would have spent so much money on it and that would have been something we were still spending money on today.

S2: Yeah, it’s I mean, the money we spend on investing in early childhood education, which child care is part of, when you send your kid to a high quality child care program like the Land Lanham Act provided they’re also providing a curriculum that helps children start to develop the skills that they’re going to need to keep developing over their lifetime. And it’s sort of sometimes, I think people they get confused. They’re like, what kind of skills does a two year old need they need to color? Well, actually, yeah, that’s important. They need to learn how to hold the crayon and they need to start to learn how to express themselves and they need to develop their creativity. I mean, creativity is one of the most important skills in our modern economy. So what we see is when you put kids to those types of early childhood child care centers that build skills, the kids come out with a broader set of skills more productive. They also come out as more cooperative members of society, less likely to participate in crime, less likely to be violent, less likely to have learning related issues that we then spend more on in through K through 12 education. So there are linkages here. We’ve already agreed we’re going to provide an entitlement to K through 12 education. You know, a lot of people don’t think of that as an entitlement program. I don’t it’s investment. And I think we need to be thinking about child care in the same way we think about K through 12 education. You know, zero to five is super important to.

S4: So Congress did just pass two bills. I mean, obviously, this is the Democratic led Congress, so who knows what will happen in the Senate? But I was looking at them a little bit to try to understand, like, how are legislators thinking about child care in this moment? And they’re what you would expect. It’s, you know, grant money for child care providers so they can survive and, you know, a tax credit for families and child care providers. And I looked at that and I just wondered, is this going to move the needle at all? Like, what do we actually need to be doing if we were going to really address the problems we have here now?

S2: We need to we need a massive investment like we did in World War Two. Now, if we’re not going to do that, do something, something, anything. But we know anything more than what we’re currently doing right now. We’re doing so little. It’s just mind blowing. Right. The the idea that we can come up with 50 billion dollars for airlines and we come up with three point five billion for all of child care, where are our priorities?

S4: Yeah, I mean, you’ve laid out how we have to think about all of the follow on effects. And I wonder if you could just tick off like your five priorities if you were writing the covid legislation that would address working families the way you think it needs to be addressed.

S2: So I would massively increase funding for schools. I think we’re going to need to spend more money on education because kids are going to need if they’re not really doing school for almost an entire year, the amount of catch up that’s going to have to happen. The amount of work we’re going to have to do to bring these kids back up to speed is going to be huge. I’m very worried because state and local governments are facing huge revenue shortfalls. That means that we’re going to move in the opposite direction, letting teachers go at exactly the time when we probably need smaller classes so kids get more individual attention because of the fact that they’re going to be coming from very different places, that this is thinking about what the kids are going to need over the next four or five years. And then there’s thinking about the parents. There are a lot of parents who are either going to take time out of the labor force, cut their hours, pass up promotions. And I think that we need to be providing incentives for companies to bring people back that quit because of childcare issues or that cut their hours because of childcare issues.

S4: If a parent is listening to the show and like staring down the barrel of this coming school year, like the end of summer and is thinking of quitting or putting their career on hold because of their kids. I wonder what you’d say to that person.

S2: So what I would say to them is you need to think about all the costs and all the benefits, if it’s any need to do it over time. You need to don’t have magical thinking. You’re not going to step back into your career in a year or two years and be exactly where you left. That’s definitely not going to happen. Take a look at the data in your industry, because it does vary by industry. How much of a penalty will you face if you stay home? Don’t be afraid to learn the facts, learn the facts so that you can make the best decision you possibly can for yourself.

S4: It’s funny, I saw this tweet recently and it was directed specifically at women. It said, women, if you are thinking about quitting, leaving your job to take care of your kids, I would take under consideration just working less like channel. The energy of that guy at work who’s doing the bare minimum does not care and just wait it out. And I was like, there’s a wisdom in that.

S5: And I wondered if you would agree.

S2: Oh, let me be super clear. I think that’s absolutely right. I think that it is way better to just barely tread water than it is to step out in terms of your long run outcomes and don’t feel guilty. There are so many people who do that at work for no good reason. And if you’re doing it for good reason, I just know guilt. You’re doing the best you can. And honestly, I don’t think your company, your co-workers, et cetera, et cetera, would necessarily be worse off without you. If you’re just doing the bare minimum, would they prefer somebody who goes all out? Absolutely. But we can’t go all out all the time and. You know, if that’s an option for you and I think they’re in more concretely, if you can cut your hours rather than quitting your job, you’re better off if you’re in your company. If you go to your company and say, look, I need to go to 60 percent time, and they say, OK, that company’s going to be more likely than to let you go back up to 100 percent time, you’re still going to struggle to get the same kind of promotions and opportunities, but not like having completely left the labor force starting from scratch, trying to find a new employer. I think there’s going to be obviously a lot of people in a situation where that gap on your resume is going to be covid homeschooling gap. And so it’s going to be a lot easier to explain in an interview. So I think that will help. But I do think attachments better than non attachment.

S5: Oh, honey, why are you here? Christology, you’re starving. I can’t find anything to eat. And you couldn’t. Oh, no. Well, this brings us to a crashing, and I’m highly sympathetic.

S6: Betsey Stevenson, thank you so much for joining me. Please feed your child lunch. Oh, it’s a pleasure talking with you today. Betsey Stevenson is a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, and that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Danielle Hewitt. We had a little help this week from Daniel Eavis, thanks to Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for what next TBD. Henry Gabbar is back with the final episode of his series on the future of the city. He’s going to tell the story of one block on Chicago’s South Side and how its businesses weathered the pandemic. Thanks for listening. If you want to like something for us to cover on the show, we are all ears. Just track me down on Twitter. I’m at my desk. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here Monday.