As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on businesses, among the hardest hit are in industries that rely on the ability of customers to safely show up day after day — and to pay for the privilege. They range from the $32.3 billion fitness industry to the $47.2 billion child care sector. Hopefully, your neighborhood spin studio will survive. Unfortunately, your day care probably won’t.
Why? Because — despite all of our lip service to child care as “essential” to the modern American work force — we’ve flatly refused to finance it like the public good that it is. We accept that child care is a necessity for most families in America and that when it comes to preventing the education achievement gap, preschool is just as important as kindergarten and the grades that follow it. We know that child care is core to gender equity in the work force and that it directly affects a family’s financial security and opportunity for upward economic mobility.
Despite all of this, child care providers receive no meaningful public investment. As a result, they operate as small businesses. And Covid-19 has not been good to small business.
While nearly every other developed nation supports child care as a public good, the United States treats child care providers as private enterprises — more like gyms than K-12 schools. Compare them to your local Pilates studio, for example: To be viable, both business models rely on revenue from membership (tuition) fees and robust program enrollment.
And while public subsidies are available to child care providers to support enrollment of children from lower-income families, federal and state government support in the form of direct subsidies is minimal, accounting in some states for only about 20 percent of the market. The child care sector, like your favorite fitness enterprise, is propped up mostly by private dollars paid into the system.
So when the coronavirus forced centers and family child care providers to close, day care fees were cut off and the business of child care quickly collapsed. Child care providers operate on razor-thin margins with very little cash reserves, and the partial or complete loss of revenue these small businesses have experienced has pushed most to the brink of insolvency. Across the country, child care providers are going under; early educators have been laid off en masse without wages or health care benefits; and some providers offering in-home care risk losing their housing in addition to their businesses.
In Massachusetts, nonemergency child care programs were ordered to close in late March and are to remain shuttered through June 29, at an estimated state industry loss of $250 million in private revenue per month, according to analysis conducted on behalf of the state’s Department of Early Education and Care. The impact of market meltdown will be experienced most acutely by women, especially women of color. Women make up a majority of the child care work force, and many child care programs are women-owned businesses. On the home front, we know who will disproportionally bear the professional consequences of child care breakdowns.
Parents across the country are crossing their fingers that the centers and caregivers they rely on and love will survive alongside other small business. But will they? Child care providers are perpetually strapped and typically have minimal or no operations infrastructure, putting them at a significant disadvantage when it comes to the Hunger Games of securing federal small-business assistance, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Once they reopen, child care programs are likely to remain unstable, because it is probable that they will be under-enrolled because parents aren’t ready — or can’t afford — to send their children back to group care settings.
Given the low pay provided to early educators, it’s not clear how many will decide to stay in the field, even if their employer makes it through the next few months. In the end, it may be a rosier future for the fitness industry, especially in states that seem to be prioritizing the speedy reopening of gyms over safe and accessible care for children.
Around 76 percent of mothers and 96 percent of fathers with children under the age of 6 work full time. We deserve more than a hope and prayer that the child care sector will still be standing when our employers call us back to our places of work. Covid-19 has made clear that child care is a collective necessity.
Would we be content to hope and pray for the return of public school? K-12 schools will take time to reopen, but they will weather the storm, because they are publicly financed. Teachers will be at the front of the room, welcoming students, because their jobs are publicly financed. There’s no such guarantee for child care and preschool programs.
Most important, because of our commitment to making public K-12 education free to families, no parents will worry that being laid off because of Covid-19 will mean they cannot continue their child’s education. Not so for parents of preschoolers.
Before the crisis, you might not have given a lot of thought to how the child care sector operates in America. The fact that closures because of the coronavirus may cost the country half of its child care capacity no longer allows anyone that luxury, whether that’s because we are parents in need of care, employers trying to bring businesses back to life and employees back to work or governors trying to make up billions in lost tax revenue.
After the crisis, economic recovery depends on child care and planning because it presents a catalytic opportunity to create a child care system that works for every parent. One that is financed as a public good, not just referred to as one.
Months from now, we may very well see more luxury gyms than affordable, accessible child care choices. Avoiding this requires demanding that our elected state and federal representatives fight for government support for child care services. If it’s what we expect for K-12, we should expect no less for the child care sector.
And if no change comes? Good luck muscling your way through the new normal.
Lauren Birchfield Kennedy (@laurenkennedyMA) is a co-founder of Neighborhood Villages, a nonprofit organization dedicated to child care sector reform. Katie Mayshak is the director of development at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.