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Child care providers struggle as need for services remain for many

Economic challenges have only grown amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaving workers and providers squeezed.
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WASHINGTON — Lynita Law-Reid is an optimist, but even she admits the last few months haven’t been easy.

Her already-tight budget at Kids Are Us Learning Center in Washington D.C. is now stretched even thinner due to new COVID-related costs and lower than usual enrollment.

Law-Reid, the center’s director, counts herself lucky to have gotten loans as part of the Paycheck Protection Program — which allowed her to keep all her staff on payroll — and says without that, she wouldn’t have made it. Still, she struggled with the decision to reopen, ultimately deciding to move forward after conversations with parents in her community.

“[If] they don't go to work, many of them don't get paid,” she told NBC News, noting that many of these parents are the heads of their households and describing the kinds of phone calls she got while closed. “Things like, ‘Miss Law. When are you guys gonna reopen? Because my baby has gone from my sister's house for one week because I have to work, to my grandmother's house. Next week, I'm not quite sure where I'll put her, you know, but I have to get to work.’”

Law-Reid’s story is one with national resonance for parents across the country — but particularly for women, those who need child care for their own kids to those whose jobs it is to provide it.

Women make up less than half of the overall workforce in the United States, but nearly all of the child care workers, with women of color over-represented in the industry. The child care sector was hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic losing nearly a third of its jobs between February and April, with women accounting for 95 percent of those losses. As of July, the workforce was still 20 percent smaller than it was pre-pandemic.

State closures have left child care centers shuttered or struggling to survive, while parents across the country are vexed by the question of where to send their kids while they work — and if it’s even safe enough to send them anywhere.

Exacerbated by the pandemic, the cost of child care in the U.S. is not a new problem. Studies found that child care was already getting more expensive each year — growing twice as fast as inflation since the 1990’s. The average cost of center-based care for an infant in the United States is over $11,000/year, according to The National Women’s Law Center.

And for women, child care and employment are closely correlated. A 2018 study found mothers with child care were more likely to be employed than those who didn’t — with single mothers experiencing even steeper drops. The child care situation had virtually no impact on a father’s employment.

“Women are impacted no matter where you look,” Catherine White, Director of Child Care and Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center, told NBC. “You have families who have lost their jobs or lost their income, and they're thinking about going back to work without money to pay for child care. And then on the other side you have child care providers who are facing rising costs, they're serving fewer kids and having less revenue coming in. So they have to charge more, and parents can't pay and providers can't charge less.”

A study by the National Women’s Law Center and the Center for Law and Social Policy found that it would take nearly $10 billion per month to keep the child care system afloat during the pandemic. Congress has already appropriated $3.5 billion for child care in the first CARES Act, but advocates are calling for more.

“$50 billion sounds big, but not in terms of when you're thinking about the size of the workforce and the impacts. Child care providers employ millions of caregivers across the U.S. and supports tens of millions of families to go to work,” said White.

Advocates point out that $50 billion is a big figure, but far from unheard of. In the CARES Act, for example, Congress gave the airline industry $58 billion.

White says that while she’s seen a “growing consensus across both sides of the aisle that child care is a winning issue, it has yet to translate into change.

“Child care has been largely viewed as an individual responsibility because it's women that are doing the work,” she said. “They're taking on the burden of caregiving, they're the providers, they're the child care workers, and so policymakers have for decades just said ‘It's your problem, you deal with it.’”

Back in Southeast DC, Law-Reid feels the weight of that responsibility. “We wish that everybody understood what is required of a woman,” she said. “In the end, we are the ones who make the sacrifices most often when it comes to caring for our little ones.”

She also sees it in the mom’s who entrust her with the care of their children. “They know that everything rests on their shoulders.”