2 social scientists explain how childcare insecurity is hurting caregivers across the US

Not having childcare affects mothers’ interpersonal interactions and quality of life.

  • Childcare insecurity, or limited or uncertain access to adequate care, is a public health issue.
  • The pandemic caused a spike in need that impacted the well-being and mental health of caregivers.
  • Biden has proposed policies to address the issue, but economic constraints aren’t the only cause.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Childcare insecurity is a term we’ve come up with to describe limited or uncertain access to adequate childcare.

It factors into many Americans’ decisions whether to even have a child. Parents – mothers especially – often weigh the cost of childcare in their decision to return to work. And when a kid has a disability, there may not even be childcare options that meet the family’s needs.

As researchers who study how policies and systems affect well-being and health, we argue that childcare insecurity is a public health issue similar to food insecurity.

And just as with food insecurity, increasing access is necessary. However, access alone will not address the problem.

Read more: Some wealthy parents are eager to give their children multicultural experiences, from elaborate trips to nannies that speak multiple languages. During COVID-19, they’ve had to get creative.

Why childcare insecurity matters

Female caregivers in the US have traditionally borne most of the burden of finding and managing childcare and providing care directly. This results in stalled careers, higher stress, and lower earnings.

When schools and childcare facilities were forced to close or restrict access during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions more American parents and guardians – men and women alike – found themselves suddenly facing childcare insecurity. This affected their well-being and mental health.

A group of health psychologists surveyed parents throughout the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 4% of the parents reported having high stress levels “before COVID-19.” But by May 2020, that share had ballooned to 22%.

Meanwhile, sociologists who surveyed and interviewed US mothers in April and May of 2020 found that not having childcare affected mothers’ interpersonal interactions – such as increased frustration with their children – and quality of life.

How common is it?

In January 2020, 26 million working caregivers in the US “did not have an in-home care option” – whether a parent, grandparent or older sibling – for children 14 years and younger, according to a Rand Corp. analysis of data from the US Department of Labor.

A World Bank Report from December 2020 estimated that globally, over 40% of all children who needed quality childcare or preschool in 2018 did not have access to it. That’s nearly 350 million kids.

President Joe Biden has proposed some national policies to address childcare insecurity in the US – for example, limiting the percentage of income families need to spend on childcare to 7% by providing subsidies to care providers. This would likely improve access.

However, childcare insecurity is not always based on economic constraints. The quality of childcare, location, hours, and access for children with disabilities can all play a role as well.

The Conversation US publishes short, accessible explanations of newsworthy subjects by academics in their areas of expertise.

Cassandra M. Johnson, assistant professor of nutrition and foods, Texas State University and Shailen Singh, assistant professor, department of organization, workforce, & leadership studies, Texas State University

The Conversation
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