Opinion | ‘What American Families Experienced Is Not Something That You Get Over’

A few weeks ago, I got a panicked message from Jason Cohen, a dad in upstate New York. He told me that the day care where his twin toddlers had been happily ensconced for over a year, J.A.C.E. Daycare and Early Learning Center in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., was closing unexpectedly and had given parents less than two weeks’ notice and no clear explanation. But Mid Hudson News reported that the center was “suffering extreme financial stress and defaulted on a major loan.”

“It’s just a huge mess,” Cohen told me. He said that the worst part is that his family has grown close to many of the day care’s workers and that “a lot of them are young people who have children of their own who go to this day care and now these people are without a job.”

Over the past year, I’ve heard many stories like Cohen’s. News accounts from Georgia to Iowa to Missouri tell the same tale, some version of: day care closes abruptly, leaving parents scrambling and teachers unpaid. As my newsroom colleague Claire Cain Miller reported in February, the pandemic-era injection of federal funds that kept many child care centers from foundering are expiring, inflation is making child care centers more expensive to run, and some parents may be working from home more often, cutting back their work hours or relying on family or friends to provide care to save cash. The result is “an industry on the brink.”

If you’ve been covering family policy for any amount of time, you know that child care has been an industry on the brink for decades and that the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated its structural problems. There’s a reason that in 2021, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen described the child care market as a “failure.” A 2020 report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress estimated that before the pandemic, there were “more than four children under age 3 per licensed child care slot, or enough licensed child care to serve just 23 percent of infants and toddlers,” and found that 80 percent of counties in its study “would be classified as an infant and toddler child care desert.”

Don’t even get me started on the cost of care — families are spending an average of 24 percent of their household income on child care, according to a survey from Care.com’s 2024 “Cost of Care” report. Whitney Livsey, who lives in Pennsylvania, told me that the rising costs of child care on top of inflation and paying her husband’s student loan debt means her two-income family isn’t able to save much. “Our child care costs also went up in September of last year and will be raised again this year,” she said. “Our day care has had so much turnover and continues to struggle with keeping workers — even though they did raise their hourly pay rates.”

While the child care work force has pretty much rebounded to prepandemic staffing levels, there seems to be more volatility in the system than there was before 2020.

As an issue, the state of our child care system epitomizes the state of things for American parents right now, with this week marking the four-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of the Covid pandemic. Superficially, things are a reasonable facsimile of the imperfect place they were in 2019: Kids are back in school full time with most activities in full swing, and mothers of young children are back to work in droves. But emotionally, parents feel weathered and weary from what they experienced in 2020 and 2021. Many kids have not recovered academically and their mental health is more precarious than it was before.

As Abby McCloskey, who directs the bipartisan Convergence Collaborative on Supports for Working Families, put it: “What American families experienced is not something that you get over. I have memories of my grandmother in the early 1990s continuing to reuse foil and plastic bags because of the Depression. That’s 50 years later.” The emotional insecurity and trauma of the pandemic shutdowns will always be with us in some respect, she said.

At the same time, there’s been real, responsive change at workplaces and from policymakers like we’ve never seen before. At the state level, child care legislation is in the works, including in unexpected places. Many businesses are more open to flexible working arrangements, allowing parents to balance their caregiving and career responsibilities — to a degree. But will these changes happen quickly enough or cover enough to really change things for American families for good?

I wanted to check back in with some of the families that The Times heard from in 2020 and 2021 to see how they were doing. While there are bright spots, most parents say that the shutdown years took something of a toll on their families’ emotional and physical health. Philip Fisher, the director of the Stanford Center on Early Childhood, told me that emotionally, parents haven’t returned to their prepandemic levels of well-being.

Fisher works on the RAPID survey project, which has been regularly polling households with children under 6 since the beginning of the pandemic. While loneliness has largely abated, parents are feeling elevated levels of anxiety, depression and, in particular, stress — going from 33.8 percent of parents reporting feeling stressed “in the past week” prepandemic to 42.6 percent of parents reporting feeling stressed in February 2024. That feeling may be exacerbated by the financial stressors RAPID’s respondents feel — in February, 37 percent reported having difficulty paying for at least one basic need. (This may help explain why lots of Americans still feel that the economy is bad, despite the low unemployment rate and an easing in the rate of inflation.)

The parents I spoke to whose children have special needs, who experience more parenting stress than parents of typically developing children, found the pandemic years to be a particularly brutal time. And they, too, have found that their children’s services are even less reliable than they were before 2020.

Dekeda Johnson lives in Maryland and has an 18-year-old daughter, Leilani, who has nonspeaking autism, and a 14-year-old daughter, London. Johnson told me that while Leilani has a wonderful technician who helps her after school and whose services are paid for through a Medicaid autism waiver, many of the other services once available to neurodiverse kids in her area have been curtailed in the past few years, some because of staffing issues. Some are gone entirely, Johnson said. Johnson has also gone through a divorce since the early years of the pandemic, so part of her daughters’ care is all on her.

June Cai, who also lives in Maryland, told me via email: “My son was in kindergarten when Covid began. He was in a mainstream classroom with support. He did not function well in virtual school, and all the outside therapy and services he was receiving shut down.” She said her son didn’t transition well back to a mainstream classroom because he was set back by virtual school and the lack of in-person therapy services during the early part of the pandemic, and he was ultimately placed in a special education program. Because of his behavioral challenges, he’s also been dismissed from before and after care. “He’s now attending 4-5 weekly sessions with different providers a week, and we have to shuttle him to all those,” Cai told me.

I reached out to four experts to try to get hard numbers on shortages of caregiving for children with intellectual and physical challenges, and they all told me that exact figures are tough to come by — as one noted, “a lack of funding means that there’s not enough data and it lags.”

But the available research suggests that parents of children with disabilities have a much harder time finding care for their kids and that as a result, they’re more likely to experience career disruptions than many other parents — and that those trends have only become worse since 2020. “Caregivers of children with disabilities are less likely to be employed, are more likely to turn down promotions and lose an average of $18,000 per year due to scaling back work hours or leaving jobs because they can’t find child care,” Jackie Mader wrote in May for the Hechinger Report.

In February 2021, I wrote the headline “America’s Mothers Are in Crisis: Is anyone listening to them?” I’m thrilled to say I can answer that question with a resounding yes. Both Republicans and Democrats are working on legislation meant to help parents with child care costs.

According to a report this month from the federal Government Accountability Office, several states, both red and blue, are taking measures to maintain child care program changes made with pandemic-era funding. A bill to expand the child tax credit is working its way through Congress.

The Biden administration’s newly proposed budget includes “a historic new program under which working families with incomes up to $200,000 per year would be guaranteed affordable, high-quality child care from birth until kindergarten, with most families paying no more than $10 a day, and the lowest income families paying nothing.” Various states are budgeting more for subsidized child care spots.

Even the bizarre State of the Union response from Senator Katie Britt mentioned the high cost of child care as a kitchen table issue affecting American families. That’s not something I could have imagined a Republican doing even a decade ago, when highlighting child care on the agenda was seen as cutting against an old-fashioned family values message that favored moms staying at home.

I talked to Missouri State Representative Brenda Shields, a Republican who is sponsoring a bill that involves “three types of credits: for taxpayers who donate to support child care centers, for employers who make investments in child care needs for their employees and for child care providers,” as Anna Spoerre reported last month for The Missouri Independent.

Shields told me that she traveled across her state talking to parents and child care providers. She said inflation and the cost of retaining good employees has made the business practically impossible for providers, because they can’t pass the costs on to parents who already can barely afford the going rates. There are “people telling me that they’re paying $18,000 to $22,000 a year for infant care,” she said. “So if you’re making $40,000 a year, you’re bringing home $30,000 a year, and then you’re going to pay $20,000 out of your pocket for child care, then you’re starting to question, ‘Do I really go to work for $10,000?’” Shields pointed me to a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation that calculated that “Child care issues result in an estimated $1.35 billion loss annually for Missouri’s economy.”

A lot of the legislation aimed at addressing these issues is pending, and I’d be shocked if the child care money in the president’s budget makes it through in current form. Another hurdle: New or increased tax credits at the state level aren’t the kind of splashy policy wins that make headlines across the country. And I don’t mean to suggest that tax credits are the fix for all parents’ problems — or that we’re going to become a European-style, generous social democracy tomorrow (or ever).

Still, incremental change matters. And it’s meaningful that more and more people of all political persuasions see the provision of affordable, quality child care and the general well-being of children as issues affecting everyone and everything in our society. We shouldn’t have to remind people, least of all our elected leaders, that today’s children are tomorrow’s adults, or that the disruptions of 2020-21 had a profound and lasting effect on American families — but sometimes we do.

Jason Cohen’s old day care shuttered even earlier than expected, leaving his family in the lurch for about a week. Luckily, they were able to find another day care with room for both of his sons, who’ve settled in well. Despite the disruption to their lives, their story had a happy ending. I’m hoping more families find this kind of relief and satisfaction.

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