A working mother recently wrote to the New York Times asking what really makes for a “family friendly” company. Her workplace experiences were the opposite of the company’s stated commitment to the notion and she wanted to know if her expectations were too high. The reply that followed was not so much a definition of a family friendly workplace, but advice: “Even if you are short on funds, it is worth it for you to go into (potentially further) debt at this time to pay for as much day-to-day help as you can get.” In other words, if you’re looking for a better work-life balance, you’re on your own in 2019 America.
A survey on work-family stress due to lack of childcare support conducted among working mothers from the US and other industrialized countries found “it was American moms uniquely who blamed themselves for their own stress and thought it was their own job to resolve it.”
Recent studies underline the importance of childcare to mothers’ employment. One survey estimates that in 2016, 2 million parents in the US made career sacrifices due to problems with childcare. More important may be the impact that a good early childhood education program can have on helping working mothers enter and stay in the labor force. A 2018 assessment of Washington DC’s comprehensive universal preschool found it directly increased the city’s maternal labor force participation rate 10 percentage points over the two-year period of the expanded program.
If we build it, be assured, they will come.
America’s working mothers are over all of that rugged individualism and are ready to embrace national child care and early education programs. There are two proposals before Congress for a comprehensive national child care and education policy. Both proposals would expand and increase federal funding for some of the existing hodge-podge child care and early education efforts in states and cities. Furthermore, they would both even out the quality, affordability, and accessibility of services nationwide while guaranteeing living wages and professional development for the early child care and education workforce.
The Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act is primarily based on expanding two existing federal programs: the military childcare program and national Head Start/Early Head Start program. Expanding the existing model set by the US Department of Defense would address universal access to childcare for very young children. The Pentagon currently offers universal childcare to over 200,000 children of military families. By expanding and fully-funding the existing federal Head Start/Early Head Start, the program could serve all eligible pre-school age children.
The Child Care for Working Families Act would increase federal and state cost sharing to expand childcare ensuring that no family under 150 percent of state median income pays more than 7 percent of their income on childcare. The proposal would provide incentives and funding for states to create high-quality preschool programs for low and moderate-income 3- and 4-year olds during the school day.
If you think it’s too expensive to have such policies, consider how much is lost without them.
A generation ago, mothers dramatically increased their entry into the labor force. By 2000, three-quarters of mothers with children under 18 held paying jobs and nearly half of mothers (46 percent) worked full-time. This surge of working women bulked-up the size of the US economy by about 10.6 percent.
Women’s participation in the US workforce stalled after a peak in 2000. Working women work fewer hours and women in their prime (25 to 54) have cut their labor force participation rate by almost 3 percentage points between 2008 and 2016. As a result, the US economy was 2.1 percent smaller in 2016 than it would have been if women’s work hours had remained at their 2000 level.
Meanwhile, women’s labor participation rates have continued to rise in other rich countries primarily due to increased availability and affordability of work-family policies like childcare and paid leave.
So, America, when it comes to mothers, don’t be stingy. Whichever child care and early learning program goes forward fund it like your economy depends on it.