A moment for reform? Or a missed opportunity? A moment for reform? Or a missed opportunity?

An update on a child care sector in crisis An update on a child care sector in crisis

November 1, 2021

“Child care reform is all the rage”

“Biden has chance to reverse 50 years of failure on child-care policy”

“Child care is now a major political issue”

These recent headlines reveal a rare moment in child care history: A sector in a long crisis of affordability, quality, and accessibility has grabbed the public's attention. Experts say that’s because the pandemic has proven high-quality child care is critical to the economy. Employees are struggling to find it, and businesses and families are feeling the pain.

Policymakers have responded. For instance, President Biden's pending proposal would limit family costs and raise worker pay, among other things. Advocates say now is the best time for major reform in decades. But is change really coming?

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston asked that question during a bonus episode of Season 2 of its Six Hundred Atlantic podcast, which focused on child care.

The episode, released Friday, features a discussion with Tom Weber, former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, and Boston Fed assistant vice president and child care expert Beth Mattingly.

The pair covered numerous topics, including the ongoing child care worker shortage, how a shift to remote work will impact the sector, and the tricky politics of major – and expensive – reform.

Both agreed that the public is paying more attention to child care now than in years. Weber said tens of billions in federal relief for child care have “helped stave off the ruin of the child care sector.” But he added the help to date has only kept pace with the damage caused by the pandemic.

“So far, I think we've bought a little extra time for a portion of the child care sector, but certainly not a permanent solution,” said Weber, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education.

Mattingly said the crisis could help mobilize groups that have been on the sidelines, like the business community. But she added it’s too soon to say if real change is ahead.

“I’m not confident,” Mattingly said. “I’m hopeful.”

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Mattingly: Pandemic didn’t cause child care worker shortage, it exacerbated it

The conversation came during a child care worker shortage that’s forcing providers to shut down or cut back hours – and requiring parents to work less or even leave jobs to care for their kids.

The sector lost more than 100,000 workers during the pandemic, and some have been slow to return. But Mattingly said the pandemic didn’t cause the worker shortage, it exacerbated it.

“It's a field with high turnover because the wages are so low,” she said. “People leave for other fields. People leave for other centers that can pay just a little bit more per hour. So, this is a problem endemic to the sector.”

Weber said a broad and ongoing shift by businesses to a hybrid on-site/remote work model could alter demand for care, but that remains to be seen. In the meantime, there’s a significant need among parents right now for quality care, and the sector and employees must adjust to a new working world with far more employees at home or mixing in-office and remote work.

“That could very well lead to different models of care … than presently exist in any large measure within the child care system,” he said.

Mattingly said those and other needed reforms are much more complex and expensive than a one-time infusion of cash. She added that the fact that results aren’t seen for years makes the politics of a massive, multi-year funding commitment for reform extremely difficult.

“If a politician spends the money now, it's way past their political timeline to reap that benefit when that child produces more in the economy, or doesn't get arrested, or continues their education,” Mattingly said. “It's hard to see that in the immediate term.”

But Weber added this moment of high public awareness about child care’s flaws and its importance as a workforce issue could be changing the political calculation about major reform.

“I think for those that are interested and committed to this, and we all should be, the moment to lean in is now, and the achievement is within our reach, if we're willing to commit ourselves to it,” he said.

Listen to the bonus episode and the rest of Season 2 of Six Hundred Atlantic.

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