By RESHMA SAUJANI
(White House Press Office) – As America’s child care crisis reaches a fever pitch, President Biden’s executive order will change lives, but there’s another group we can turn to for faster relief: the private sector.
After years of screaming into the void about the dearth of affordable, accessible, quality child care in America, this week the void screamed back. With the stroke of a pen, Biden directed nearly every cabinet-level agency to help expand access to care and provide more support to caregivers.
These executive actions will change lives. The Biden administration is advancing domestic workers’ rights, helping ease financial burdens for military families and government employees, and building on the CHIPS Act to require that federal grant applicants expand employee’s access to care.
And yet, as America’s child care crisis reaches a fever pitch, Biden’s clarion call is necessary – but not sufficient. It isn’t his fault; the president’s ambitious American Families Plan, which would have invested nearly half a trillion dollars in free universal preschool and affordable child care, has been repeatedly muffled by a divided Congress.
The Biden administration acknowledges that we need lawmakers to finish the job. But until they do, there’s another group we can turn to for faster relief: the private sector.
Though more and more companies have begun offering child care benefits as a means to attract top talent, a 2022 study by my organization, Moms First, in partnership with McKinsey and Co. found that these organizations are the minority. Fewer than 10% of working parents have access to on-site child care at their employer, let alone financial subsidies to pay for child care elsewhere. Hourly workers receive even fewer child care benefits than their salaried counterparts.
While affordable child care is a top priority for parents, 40% of whom have gone into debt to pay for child care, workers face other obstacles as well. Today, half of all Americans live in child care deserts.
This crisis disproportionately impacts women, who take on the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities. Nearly half of all women who left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic credited child care for their exodus; only 14% of men did the same. As a result, women have lost years of progress toward gender equity in the workforce: over three years since COVID-19 ground our nation to a halt, women are only just returning to pre-pandemic levels of employment. And to this day, women business leaders are quitting their jobs at historically high rates.
Insufficient child care doesn’t just hamper women – it hurts the entire American economy.
A Boston Consulting Group brief forecasts a $290 billion hit to our GDP every year the country fails to address the lack of affordable child care. Our study paints a more dire picture, finding that with women’s labor force participation muted, the U.S. is losing out on $840 billion in economic output annually – to say nothing of the costs incurred by individual companies as employees leave due to fluctuating child care needs.
It’s understandable that some businesses are looking for the government to lead: caring for small humans is as expensive as it is complicated. But investing in child care is just that – an investment. And turns out, it’s a good one. In a moment when companies continue to compete for talent, employers that provide child care have a clear leg up when it comes to recruitment.
Our Moms First study found that 88% of women looking for a job would be more likely to choose an employer who offers child care benefits. Some 83% would be more likely to stay at their job if given better access to child care.
More than just being loyal to their employers, workers who are given access to child care are more productive and reliable – no surprise to any parent who’s had to race home to pick up their kid from a surprise half-day at school or try and take a work call with a toddler tugging on their shirt.
And just imagine how much more creative, more dynamic, more resilient our workplaces would be if two-thirds of working parents didn’t suffer from severe burnout – exhaustion so extreme, they feel they have “nothing left to give.”
Any company would be wise to consider solutions that alleviate that fatigue: from offering subsidies to reduce costs to building on-site daycare, to offering back-up care options, to expanding resources for the hourly employees who most need support.
There are, of course, other components to America’s child care crisis that companies can’t fix – at least not on their own. Though child care is prohibitively expensive, child care workers – 94% of whom are women, and 40% of whom are people of color – rarely earn a living wage.
It’s no wonder that we face a historic child care worker shortage – a challenge that, unlike many other labor shortages, can’t be met with automation or even educational reforms. Then there’s the question of the millions of parents who work for themselves – an increasing number of whom are women – and need alternatives to company-sponsored care.
We do need the government to step up to fill these gaps, and so many others: from paid leave to affordable health care to an expanded child tax credit.
But until they do, corporate inaction isn’t an option. We need leaders to hear our primal scream – and yes, Biden’s quieted, firm call – and make some noise themselves. American workers, our country’s economy, and their own bottom lines depend on it.
Reshma Saujani, CEO of Moms First and founder of Girls Who Code.