Well, truthfully, it has been a decades-long push for many advocacy organizations to put child care at the forefront of the national economic debate, and certainly to recognize it as a critical input of our economy. If we want people to work—especially women—and we want children to thrive, then we need a robust, high-quality child care system that families can access and afford.
Build Back Better was the first time since the 1970s that our country was on the precipice of making that historic investment in child care through sustained year-after-year funding. Despite polls that show the vast majority of Americans believe child care is worthy of federal investment, and despite having a President who championed the legislation, it failed.
There are myriad reasons why it failed, and documenting those failures would fall outside the scope of this article. But one of the reasons we saw that child care was lagging behind other public interest priorities, like K-12 education, was that there was insufficient news coverage. It wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic spotlighted the role that child care played in our economy—literally, families could not work because no one could watch their young children—that news coverage on the topic increased by 90 percent, according to data collected by the First Five Years Fund.
These reporting grants just scratched the surface, but they have reiterated for us what many in the field have long known: child care is a worthy investment and requires federal support. We cannot keep band-aiding our way through to a patchwork system that leaves too many families to fend for themselves.
But how could we keep that drumbeat going? We know that media coverage influences the national debate, and that stories oriented toward solutions resonate more with readers. My colleague, Haley Swenson, and I made the case in the Columbia Journalism Review that mainstream news organizations have for too long neglected to cover child care in a sustained, robust and rigorous way. We argued that news outlets across the country should dedicate resources to forging child care beats in their newsrooms. Yet we also saw that those same newsrooms were struggling to survive in a tightening economy, shedding jobs and dropping coverage areas. Many lacked the bandwidth to add child care coverage to the reporting beat.
I work at the Better Life Lab at New America, where narrative change is part of our mission. We sought to find a way to keep the conversation on child care moving forward. Just because Build Back Better had withered did not mean that sustained support for child care must meet that same fate.
We decided to take advantage of both trends: that there was more to report on child care innovations, and that there were now more seasoned policy reporters in need of work. So in response, we offered a round of reporting grants. We asked independent journalists, writers and content creators from a variety of backgrounds and regions in the country to turn their reporting eyes on the child care crisis and places where communities were coming together to seek solutions to address it.
What followed was a series of 15 multimedia stories: told through audio, video, graphic stories and the written word. Through our reporting grants, we showcased that child care problems exist across the country, at every socioeconomic level—though it disproportionately affects the most marginalized and least-resourced populations—and the solutions required must be responsive to the very diverse communities, regions and families in the United States.
We found that there is no substitute for federal funding for high-quality, universal, equitable child care infrastructure. But, other entities (workplaces, states and localities) are recognizing the need for stable child care infrastructure and attempting to fill the gap, showcasing the growing interest among the public, local policymakers and community stakeholders to find workable solutions. Diverse types of child care arrangements—including home-based care and flexible family, friend and neighbor care—can help meet the demand of child care and better serve under-resourced and lower-income populations, especially in rural areas or for families of color.
When we focused on the providers and listened to their stories, we also found that educators who receive adequate compensation, training and support for their role as child care providers are able to do a better job, stay in their positions longer and experience less burnout and turnover than those operating in the current system where many child care centers pay poverty wages. A stable workforce not stressed about paying bills improves the quality of care.
Finally, the many consequences of a broken system for a variety of populations need to be fully understood to help build public support for child care, including the way child care is reported on and visualized in our country. These reporting grants just scratched the surface, but they have reiterated for us what many in the field have long known: child care is a worthy investment and requires federal support. We cannot keep band-aiding our way through to a patchwork system that leaves too many families to fend for themselves.
Change may take time, it may take a mindshift, and it may require new leadership and a new generation ready to challenge previous frameworks of thinking about what care entails and how it is provided. But it also takes journalism to cover the issues and do the deep digging. And it is our hope that the high-quality team of journalists covering child care are only just beginning.