Episode 4: Women’s work: Women bear the brunt of the child care crisis Episode 4: Women’s work: Women bear the brunt of the child care crisis

Runtime: 19:09 — The American ideal once saw women at home, while men went to work. But cultural expectations have changed, and for many women that’s not possible or desirable. Still, women say the child care system hasn’t adjusted, and they bear the brunt of its problems.

Overview Overview

The deficiencies of the U.S. child care system have a disproportionate impact on one group in particular: women.

Its poor wages impact women most because they hold almost all child care jobs. When child care becomes unavailable, women are more likely to leave the workforce to take on child care duties. And when a heterosexual married couple has a child, the woman is more likely to be earning less and more likely to step back from her career to care for the child.

In this episode, we’ll speak with child care advocates who say all this makes women more in tune with the costs of our flawed system. But they also say progress is slow to nonexistent because the institutions we rely on for reform are run mostly by men.

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Transcript Transcript


In the political world, the views of Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro and Virginia Foxx rarely align.

DeLauro is a Connecticut liberal, and Foxx is a North Carolina conservative.

A voting comparison on ProPublica finds they disagreed on 70 percent of votes in the last Congress.

But they do find some common ground on child care.

Both say society’s lack of regard for women is at the root of some of child care’s most important problems.

Here’s DeLauro:


It's a lack of respect. And it's a lack of the role of women in our society. It's bigger than the Congress, much bigger than the Congress.

Why are the workers in the child care industry, who are mainly women of color, the lowest paid workers that we have?


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 95 percent of child care workers are women, and the average hourly wage for a child care worker in the U.S. is $11.65.

That’s nearly at the bottom percentile for all occupations.

Foxx says our society seems to have difficulty “honoring” the people who care for children by paying them enough.


I think part of it is, frankly, that the professions are dominated by women.

We just don't pay the professions dominated by women what we should be paying them in many cases. And that’s unfortunate.


This is Six Hundred Atlantic, a podcast produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. I’m your host Jay Lindsay.

We’re looking at child care this season, and in this episode we’re focusing on the disproportionate impacts its deficiencies have on women. For instance …

Poor wages impact women most because they hold almost all child care jobs.

When child care becomes unavailable, as it did during the pandemic, women are more likely to leave the workforce to take on child care duties.

And when a heterosexual married couple has a child, the woman is more likely to be earning less and more likely to step back from her career to care for the child.

Child care advocates say this makes women more in tune with the costs of our flawed system. But they say women have had a hard time making progress because the institutions we rely on for reform are run mostly by men.

Congress is 73 percent male. State legislatures are about 69 percent male. And about 92 percent of chief executives are male, including 86 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

These men are also often beyond the early care years with their children. In the last Congress, the average member of the House was about 58 years old, and the average senator was about 63.

As a result, advocates say, our institutions often don’t adequately respond to the problems caused by inadequate child care.

Here’s Eric Rosengren, president of the Boston Fed.


Just look at the composition of Congress. It's not dominated by women. They're disproportionately men. It's also who are of the people who are CEOs of companies? Again, there are women in Congress, there are women CEOs, but there are more men, and they may be less sensitive to this issue.


U.S. Census Bureau economist Misty Heggeness, who studies the economic impacts of child care, says it’s easier if you’re male to underestimate how important child care is to the ability to work.


Most of the time, you haven't been expected to be the predominant person responsible for the daily care of your children, whether you're deciding you're going to take care of them yourself, or you're deciding you're going to put them in child care.


Heggeness has no doubt where the push for comprehensive child care reform would stand if the male-female ratio in Congress was suddenly flipped.


I believe that if we had leaders in power who were predominantly women, we would have right now a child care package tasked and being implemented.


But as advocates work to fix a flawed system which tends to impact women most, is it possible that the future of child care will be imbalanced in a different way?

Will we design reforms that overvalue work and undervalue mothering? Some say we already do that.

Erica Komisar is a psychotherapist and author of the book, “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Really Matters.”

She says both our child care system and our culture wrongly dismiss the importance of a nurturing and highly present mother or primary caregiver in a child’s earliest years. And she says we need to do a lot more to enable that.


We devalue mothering in our culture. As women we devalue mothering. If we don't stop devaluing mothering, we're heading in a very, very bad direction.


We know from our second episode that expanding child care access throughout U.S. history has always been – at least partly – about allowing more women to work.

And it was white women, in particular. Out of economic necessity, Black and Hispanic women have historically had relatively high labor participation rates.

The default, then – the ideal – for much of our history was that women would stay at home, and men would work outside the home.

And the desire to reach that ideal eroded support for child care, according to child-care expert Beth Mattingly, an assistant vice president at the Boston Fed:


For a long time, the attitude was that a woman's place is in the home: Children do best when they're cared for by mothers, therefore, mothers should do it, mothers shouldn't be working out of the home. So, that there wasn't widespread public support for this type of sector.


But times have changed.

Many mothers do still choose to stay home full-time these days, and often make significant career or financial sacrifices because they think it’s best for their families. But the general cultural expectation has shifted.

Here’s Carrie Lukas, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, a women’s policy group.


I don't think that there's anyone, and truly just about anybody, who thinks, “Nope, women get back home, you all need to get back in the kitchen and nobody should work outside the home, everybody's only responsibility is to raising their little kids.” That completely outdated, nobody thinks that.


Still, advocates say the system doesn’t seem to have adjusted to new economic and vocational realities that impact women more than men.

Consider the rise of single-parent households. Studies by the Pew Research Center indicate nearly 1-in-4 children in the U.S. under 18 now live with just one parent – the highest percentage in the world.

And most single parents are women – five times more children live with single mothers than single fathers.

These women need affordable, accessible, high-quality child care to hold a job.

And Rosengren says when they can’t find it, it’s a problem for them and the entire economy.


Ideally, we want as many able-bodied people to work as possible.

But if you're a single parent, particularly if you're a single parent making modest wages, it's not economical for you to be sending your child to daycare, because it will eat up most, if not all of the money that you earned. So, for many people, they would be working, but are not able to do so because they don't have affordable ways and quality of care ways to make sure that their children are taken care of.


In another massive change from generations ago, about 66 percent of married women in married-couple families with children under 6 were working in 2019.

That’s compared to about 30 percent in 1970 and 12 percent in 1950.

That second income so many households have today is a choice for some, but it’s a necessity for many, according to Boston Fed researcher Sarah Savage, a child care expert.


I that’s definitely a factor. I think that to achieve or maintain a middle-class lifestyle, you do have to, in most cases, have two parents working.


Essence Lee Souffrant, a parent of two from Malden, Massachusetts, says she and her husband considered dropping down to one income when they were expecting their second child, because their projected child-care costs were so high.

They decided it couldn’t work.


That's not a choice for us, to just have one income and to live comfortably, right? I think that's always the running joke my husband and I have. He's like, "Yeah, we can have one income, but we'll be eating hot dogs for dinner."


Still, as important as that income is, when times get rough and child care gets more scarce or tough to afford, the woman is seen as the primary caregiver and often gives up a job to assume child care duties.

This was on vivid display during the pandemic.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, a half million more women than men – 2.3 million total – left the labor force between February 2020 and January 2021. That dropped women’s labor force participation to its lowest level since 1988, around 57 percent.

Preschool teacher Aimee Hoffman says she’s frustrated that women and their careers so often bear the brunt of downturns.


I think that it is so crucial that we don't keep putting the moms under the bus. During this pandemic the mothers have really taken a hit. It's women more than men who have lost their jobs and who really are uniquely suffering.


Heggeness says the gender wage gap is a major factor. She says in about 70 to 75 percent of dual-income, heterosexual couples, the man makes more than the woman. The economics of deciding which spouse should work are clear – and self-perpetuating.


And, so, if child care is too expensive, it's the woman who's taking the hit generally and stepping back from the labor market. Women are very aware of this. We know that this is a serious issue that impedes our ability to be productive.


She adds that coming to terms with this reality can be pretty jarring for women. It was for her.

Heggeness is a mother of two and has her Ph.D. She calls it “eye-opening” to come out of an exhaustive educational experience like that, want children, and realize there are some tough tradeoffs ahead in her career and family that men generally don’t face.


So, there's a lot of literature, a lot of economic literature showing that having children is beneficial for men's careers and having children is detrimental for women's careers. So that's nothing new.

And I just think that if there were more women in the position to make decisions about investments in child care, this wouldn't be something that we aren't acting on.


But what should “acting on” child care really mean, if one of the goals is to better support women?

Psychotherapist Erica Komisar says we need to be careful about answering that question – if it means focusing too much on women as workers and not enough on them as mothers.


Child care, first and foremost, should be giving parents the option of caring for their own children in those early years.


Komisar says the importance of parental care in the early years became clear to her after seeing what she calls an “epidemic” of stress disorders like depression and anxiety in young children in her own practice.

She began investigating how to better help children regulate their emotions. Her research convinced her that many children aren’t getting enough early nurturing, and that’s impacting their long-term ability to cope.


We're not born with it. We're not born with emotional regulation. We’re not born with resilience to stress. It's basically programmed into us through our environment.


She says this nurturing – things like eye contact and skin-to-skin contact – is tied to the production of a hormone that helps children regulate stress, and that the interaction with the mother is particularly beneficial here.

She says mothers should embrace that and prioritize being with their children as much as possible during their first three years.

Komisar notes fathers are also critical caregivers, and she adds that extended family, like grandparents, can offer important support. But she says our system, culture, and even parents make it tough to put mothers and fathers at the center of child care, and it’s at the cost of the child’s long-term health.


So, I'm going to say something that is dramatically counterculture: Your baby's needs matter more than your own when they're in the first three years, and forever. If you have a child, your child's needs have to come first.


Komisar says the best system would offer paid leave to help parents who are primary care givers stay home with their child for a year. But she says these stipends would be flexible, so parents could use the money to fit their circumstances.

For instance, a single mother who had to work could potentially combine her stipend with close friends, so one of them could be a full-time caregiver who she knows is deeply invested in her child.

After the paid leave ends, primary caregivers would be allowed to work flexibly and part-time to further maximize time with their children. She says that’s simply what’s best for kids.

Carrie Lukas of the Independent Women’s Forum said she’s felt a “taboo” against questioning whether it’s really best to leave children with a provider because it’s seen as so important to a woman’s economic advancement.

Lukas has five kids, she’s used center-based child care, and she knows it’s essential for mothers like her who work outside the home. But she wonders if there are better answers out there for her or her children.


I wish there wasn't this taboo, and then I could depend on the research because moms want to make informed decisions. It doesn't mean that moms are going to quit their jobs, but they might think through what it means and see if mom or dad could do something different or at least try to mitigate the effects if there were negative effects. It's funny, parents have to make compromises all the time, we all can't be our perfect selves and do the perfect job every moment, but we want to do it with kind of the best information we can.


University of Maryland professor Corey Shdaimah wrote “In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy” with Adelphi University professor Elizabeth Palley.

She says something that’s stymied comprehensive child care reform over the decades has been the worry about an inflexible approach.
People think it’s going to be too one-size-fits all, or too heavy on government dictates, or too dismissive of what parents want for their children. But Shdaimah says no one really wants any of that.


That pits all these groups against each other. But that's predicated on an assumption that any kind of support for child care is going to be uniform and won't increase our choices. The kind of child care that Elizabeth and I are advocating for, and actually most of the programs advocated for, although it was portrayed as if they did not, will actually give people more choices rather than fewer, right?

So, it will support parents who want to care for their own children in their own homes. It will support parents who want center-based care or home-based care. It'll support parents who want to leave the workforce.


There are a lot of ideas. But what is truly possible?

What lessons can we learn from past legislative efforts?

And is right now the best chance in decades for comprehensive child care reform? Or is it too expensive and too complex for a divided government to pull off?

Some don’t think it can happen.


I don't see anything on the horizon. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I don't see anything on the horizon that is going to solve this problem right now.


Others say the moment is now.


I think this is probably the best time that I've seen in the last 20 or 30 years for making the argument and arguing that there is a public good to

having child care.


That’s next time on Six Hundred Atlantic.


Thanks for listening to Six Hundred Atlantic. Please check out all five episodes of our second season. You can find our first two seasons and subscribe to our mailing list at bostonfed.org/six-hundred-atlantic. Listen and subscribe to Six Hundred Atlantic on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

The producers would like to thank our contributors for their time and insights. They are Rosa DeLauro, Virginia Foxx, Misty Heggeness, Aimee Hoffman, Erica Komisar, Carrie Lukas, Beth Mattingly, Eric Rosengren, Sarah Savage, Corey Shdaimah, and Essence Lee Souffrant.

This had been “A Private Crisis,” the second season of the Boston Fed’s Six Hundred Atlantic podcast.