Diverse toddlers play at child care

As a professional in my twenties I am often asked, “What’s your five-year plan?” Like most people, I have two answers. One relates to my professional life and another relates to my personal life. But really, these two plans rely heavily on one another. As I consider what’s next in my professional life, I also must think about my personal life.

For those who have children, or will soon, it can be nearly impossible to separate work decisions from family decisions. Over the past year, I have watched my older sister try to find child care throughout her pregnancy and even after my nephew was born. Like many Americans, leaving her job and giving up her paycheck is not an option her household can afford.

Not child’s play

So my sister remains on the waitlist at multiple child care facilities. She hopes to enroll her baby in a program soon so she can return to work when her leave ends.

Child care concerns are not limited to my family. These concerns impact parents, employers, and child care facilities across the country. Lack of affordable, high-quality child care prevents many individuals from going back to work after the COVID-19 pandemic and from entering the job market altogether. This situation impacts employers seeking to hire and retain workers.

Providers of child care services themselves face challenges. They are contending with staffing shortages and intense demand for their services. At the same time, they are navigating how to operate safely in a COVID-19 environment. As the Fed works to make sure that parents and nonparents who want a job can find quality employment, it is imperative that child care challenges are addressed as a collective community effort.

Co-creating solutions 

In my work at the Philadelphia Fed, I engage with communities in our District (made up of Delaware, southern New Jersey, and eastern and central Pennsylvania) through a process we call Research in Action Labs. These labs use research and events to bring community partners together to work toward innovative solutions to local economic problems. Currently, we are engaged in a lab looking at child care challenges in the state of Delaware. Our partners for the lab include representatives from local government, a nonprofit organization, and the business community. 

During this lab, community partners told us they are having trouble getting data and other information that can help them advocate for improvements to the child care ecosystem in their communities. In response, we reached out to PolicyMap. Together, PolicyMap and the Philly Fed designed an easy-to-use mapping tool that provides child care information and a range of community data. The interactive tool reveals where there might be gaps between families and child care.

Author Sloane Kaiser, left, with her sister and newborn nephew.

Community members’ input helps devise a better system

Still, there is a lot to learn that data alone can’t teach us. One of the lab’s many pluses is that it allows participants to share both challenges and potential solutions. To reach solutions surrounding child care in their communities that better serve everyone, the lab team is partnering with businesses across Delaware to host a series of listening sessions. In each session, we hear directly from parents, employers, and providers about their specific child care challenges.

Here’s a summary of what we’ve heard so far: 

  • From working parents – Employees regularly must juggle balancing work needs and family needs, making tradeoffs to address the situation at hand. Sometimes this means they turn down promotions or jobs with better pay if the opportunity also means working longer hours or paying more for child care. Other times parents may decline educational opportunities or settle for less-than-ideal child care to meet work commitments.
  • From employers – Firms are struggling to fill open positions. They find it even harder to fill jobs that have evening or weekend hours because there are fewer child care options then. Increasing child care options for employees is one way to help address these gaps in the job market. 
  • From child care providers – Like other businesses, child care providers experience challenges hiring and keeping staff. This limits how many families they can support. Child care businesses often lose staff to jobs with higher wages. They are unable to increase pay without increasing the cost of care to families, a situation which isn’t always realistic.

Each group faces unique challenges related to child care. Yet, the groups share the feeling that change is needed so that the system works better for families, businesses, and providers alike. And together, their voices are stronger than each group’s voice would be alone. It is my hope that elevating these voices will help advocates and policymakers move toward solutions that work for everyone.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve. 

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