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Child care crisis has worsened during the pandemic, amid fears over how that will affect the economy

Each teacher resignation, coronavirus exposure and daycare center closing reveals an industry that’s on the brink, with broad implications for the entire workforce.

Kids eat lunch at Forever Young Daycare in the Seattle suburb of Mountlake Terrace. Owner Amy McCoy has had to do more of the child care work herself after being unable for half of this year to find a new assistant for her in-home child care who would accept the $16-an-hour pay for the entry-level job. “Nobody wants to work for what I can afford to pay right now,” McCoy said.
Kids eat lunch at Forever Young Daycare in the Seattle suburb of Mountlake Terrace. Owner Amy McCoy has had to do more of the child care work herself after being unable for half of this year to find a new assistant for her in-home child care who would accept the $16-an-hour pay for the entry-level job. “Nobody wants to work for what I can afford to pay right now,” McCoy said.
Elaine Thompson / AP

After Bryan Kang’s son was born in July, the occupational therapist and his wife, a teacher, started looking for child care in the Los Angeles area.

The couple called eight day care centers. Some didn’t have spots for months. Others stopped taking their calls. Some never answered at all.

With no good options, Kang scrambled to find a new job that would allow him to work remotely.

“I told my manager, ‘Hey, by the end of the month, I have to transition out,’ ” Kang said. “Now, there’s one less body to see patients.”

Kang said he’s fortunate he found a job teaching online classes. But the career shift meant meant an 11% pay cut.

Even if he could find a spot for his now-3-month-old son, the $2,500 monthly cost of infant care is so high that taking a lower-paying job so he can work from home and care for the baby makes better sense financially for his family.

For years, the child care business has limped along in a broken, paradoxical market, with low wages for workers but high costs for consumers.

Now, the pandemic has made clear what many experts had long warned: The absence of reliable and affordable child care limits which jobs people can accept, makes it harder to advance and restricts the ability of the nation’s economy to grow.

The not-for-profit Child Care Aware of America estimates that 9% of licensed child care programs nationally have permanently closed since the pandemic began. That’s based on its tally of nearly 16,000 shuttered centers and in-home day cares in 37 states between December 2019 and March 2021.

Now, each teacher resignation, coronavirus exposure and day care closing reveals an industry on the brink, with wide-reaching implications for the nation’s workforce.

The crisis has forced many people — mostly women — to leave their jobs. It has contributed to a labor shortage, which has hurt businesses and made it more difficult for people to get goods and services.

“The decisions we make about the availability of child care today will shape the U.S. macroeconomy for decades to come by influencing who returns to work, what types of jobs parents take and the career path they are able to follow,” said Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economist.

President Joe Biden has pledged unprecedented federal spending in hopes of fixing the child care market. He recently assured parents in Baltimore they would “not have to pay more than 7% of your income for child care.”

Federal money would go directly to care centers to cover costs in excess of the 7% cap. This means the median U.S. family making $86,372 would pay $6,046 a year for child care.

Biden’s plan also includes universal pre-kindergarten, which could further reduce child care costs. The expanded monthly payments from the child tax credit approved in Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package would be extended another year. The president also proposed increasing the tax credit for the cost of child care.

Meantime, the pandemic is proving to be a make-or-break catalyst for the future of the child care industry.

At Forever Young Daycare in the Seattle suburb of Mountlake Terrace, Amy McCoy has spent half of this year trying to hire a new assistant for her in-home child care. For now, the former public school teacher says she’s working 50 hours a week caring for children herself and more doing the cooking, cleaning and administrative work needed to run her business.

One of her assistants quit the $19-an-hour job in April after five years for a $35-an-hour job as a nanny. McCoy posted the opening for an entry-level assistant on Indeed and Facebook, offering $16 an hour — nearly 20% more than the state’s minimum wage — but has gotten few responses. And all turned her down over pay.

“Nobody wants to work for what I can afford to pay right now,” McCoy said.

According to the Treasury Department, child care workers make, on average, $24,230. More than 15% of them live below the poverty line in 41 states, and half need public assistance. Child care centers often operate on profits of 1% or less.

In Edmonds, Wash., Briana McFadden closed her Cocoon Child Care Center due to the stress of the pandemic, though she says she probably would have stayed open if there were government subsidies to help the industry.

In 12 years in business, McFadden said she never raised tuition and was the rare day care in the affluent northern Seattle suburbs to accept low-income families on a state subsidy.

“It really wasn’t worth it to continue,” McFadden said. “Day care is a hard business.”