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Shuttered Day Cares and Scrambling Families: Unpacking the Childcare Crisis

A TNR Live discussion on how the pandemic brought the dire state of care work to the fore—and what we can do about it

mother with children in a stroller
A mother with her three children in Miami

Free childcare, in the form of publicly run, 24-hour day care centers, was a core demand of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Yet here we are in the United States in 2021, with senators insisting we have to choose between universal pre-K, fair wages for childcare workers, and a few weeks’ paid leave for new parents. Any of these options would be a big step up from what we’ve got, but what we’ve got is not much.

How did we get to our current system of privatized childcare options, with centers paying poverty wages and still closing left and right, while parents are forced to take what they can find and pray it fits with their work schedule and budget? The short answer is Richard Nixon, but for the longer answer, I spoke with Bryce Covert, a journalist focused on the economy and the U.S. social safety net, and Kendra Hurley, a journalist and researcher on childcare and early education, child welfare, and other social services. We were also joined by Marta Martinez, a senior editor at Latino USA, who recently wrote for The New Republic about the domestic workers, largely immigrant and often undocumented, who work as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers and are frequently left out of the conversation.

Our discussion covered the impact of Covid-19 and pandemic relief programs on childcare needs, as well as how lockdowns brought all of the invisible labor of care work suddenly into focus (often right there on Zoom). We hashed out what’s being considered for the Build Back Better plan and the relationship between workforce participation, childcare, and paid leave, and we found a few examples of places, like Portland, Oregon, that are trying something different. All of it comes back to a basic truth, as Martinez summed it up for us: “All this work, caregiving or reproductive work, not being considered as [having] an economic value. It all goes back to that.” Housework and taking care of kids and the family, she noted, have always been considered “part of women’s work.… It’s always been considered something that we have to do as women, just because we’re women and it’s part of our role.”

Watch the recording of the event, which was originally held on November 10, below: