Experts say that every dollar invested in care produces $9 in spending. Child care spending in particular both creates jobs and enables millions of workers to keep their jobs, making it a $210 billion opportunity in the United States.
On the other hand, studies estimate our current, broken child care landscape costs parents, employers and taxpayers billions of dollars a year. The Century Foundation estimates that with the loss of emergency pandemic funding for child care, parents and families will lose $9 billion a year, and taxpayers and businesses will lose $10.6 billion in revenue. A study by ReadyNation estimates those losses now total $122 billion a year, more than double what they were pre-pandemic.
While some may debate the details of these estimates, no one who studies the issue seems to doubt the underlying premise that child care is an economic issue. In 2021, 125 economists signed on to an open letter arguing for a massive national investment in early childhood.
Yet nearly three years later, a massive federal investment in child care remains politically out of reach, even after the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery have drastically weakened the child care sector and revealed just how critical child care is to a functioning economy.
Why haven’t arguments highlighting the billions of dollars on the line moved us to action?
The economic data points are one of many tools the movement for child care has at its disposal, but they can’t replace a well-organized and well-funded political movement led by the people experiencing the crisis firsthand.
“I think it has moved some folks, and that’s why it’s been our dominant argument. We’ve been making these arguments for twenty years,” said Eliot Haspel, senior fellow at the think tank Capita and author of the book Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It.
“The economic argument for child care is an important one to be able to marshal for certain audiences,” Haspel acknowledged. “But at certain times I worry we’ve gotten just about as much mileage out of them as we’re going to. I don’t know how many people are left who are persuadable by economic data, who aren’t already persuaded.”
What’s more, Haspel worries the economic case for child care leads to solutions that prioritize the economy over kids and families. A child care system built for maximizing economic returns is not necessarily the best for the people involved.
“There is some danger to making the case for child care purely about its economic benefits,” said Haspel. “If what you’re trying to do is make sure that parents can get to work so that company productivity can continue to operate at the highest level, then you actually don’t want to invest in a really high-quality child care system that offers lots of good options and well compensated educators. All you need is a child care system that is minimally adequate.”
Haspel believes the economic case for child care has to be made in the larger context of an argument for family freedom and flourishing. “Every family deserves the opportunity to flourish and thrive and have the care situation that’s going to let them do that,” said Haspel.
My New America colleague Katherine Goldstein has spent the last year reporting on the care movement, including its strongest tactics and the hurdles it faces. Goldstein has seen economic arguments prove successful in garnering public investment in early childhood particularly at the state and local levels where the consequences of a lack of child care for work and economic opportunities are concrete and visible.
Golstein reported on the success of a 2021 New Orleans ballot initiative that provided high quality child care spots for 2,000 low-income families through a small property tax increase. A few local business owners convinced of the need for a better-supported workforce became key champions of the initiative and helped defeat opposition from others in the business community.
As for the big economic numbers like the $122 billion ReadyNation says a lack of child care is costing the U.S., Goldstein is skeptical this kind of data alone will pull along any lawmaker who isn’t on board. “When you see those big numbers and you say, “Wow, that’s compelling. But it’s compelling because you’re already converted,” said Goldstein.
Unlike economic arguments specific to particular cities and their business and workforce communities, numbers in the billions can feel abstract. And policymakers at the federal level consider a whole slate of issues that have major economic implications. The question for the care movement is how to get legislative attention for this particular set of economically beneficial billion-dollar investments.
Goldstein thinks that the child care movement has all the evidence and sound arguments it needs. What it lacks is the political money and the voting blocs to force policymakers to care about and act for child care. For example, Goldstein found that when it came to the 2020 Build Back Better (BBB) legislation that would have massively overhauled the U.S.’s early care and learning systems, care organizations had just “1.4 percent of the lobbying spend compared to top business groups who opposed BBB.”
Jeannina Perez is director of Early Childhood for MomsRising, an online and grassroots advocacy organization that directly engages mothers to build a movement to influence and attract policymakers’ attention to these care issues. Perez says the economic data has different uses for different audiences, but that parents themselves are a key audience for it. “One of the key ways that we use this data is that it really helps working moms realize that the inability to find affordable child care isn’t a personal failing,” said Perez.
“People often don’t realize until they’re looking for child care, how incredibly difficult and expensive it is, and then they think, ‘What is wrong with me?’ And the economic data helps show that this is not a ‘you’ problem. This is a larger systemic failure.” When moms become convinced the problem they face is a systemic failure, Perez said, they are more confident to advocate for public policy solutions. It’s that growing movement of advocates for child care who ultimately will be tasked with not only convincing policymakers of the need for investment, but of pressuring them to take action.
All the advocates I spoke to about the economic case for child care agreed there’s no silver bullet argument that will get us to a well-funded, equitable and high-quality child care system. The economic data points are one of many tools the movement for child care has at its disposal, but they can’t replace a well-organized and well-funded political movement led by the people experiencing the crisis firsthand.
“The data tells us a story, but so do people,” said Perez. “People have a visceral experience of this day-in and day-out. We’ve made leaps and bounds in communicating what the cost of child care means for families. The good stuff takes time and care and love and energy. I have to believe that our elected leaders are going to do what’s right and come up with a comprehensive solution.”
Haley Swenson is a research and reporting fellow for Better Life Lab, the intersectional gender equality and work program at the non-partisan think tank New America. She is also editor and co-founder of Work Life Everything.