Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and dealing with a broken child care system doesn't help. Elliot Haspel literally wrote the book on it. He's the author of Crawling Behind: America's Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It. He's also an early childhood and education policy expert and father of two. Elliot and I talk about how we can reopen school safely and how a lost school year will affect our kids in the longterm. We also dug into the state of child care in America and whether we can make systemic changes to fix our broken system. Have a listen. Elliot, thank you so much for being here today.
Elliot Haspel: Thanks so much for having me.
Emily Paisner: Before we get into the child care crisis that we are facing right now in the middle of a global pandemic, can you tell us a little bit about how broken things were even before all of this started since you basically wrote the book on it?
Elliot Haspel: Yes. I like to say that child care was one of those rare systems that managed to work for literally no one involved. Didn't work for parents, didn't work for providers, it didn't work for businesses, and it didn't work for children. We have this system where, before anyone heard of coronavirus, parents had trouble finding care, and if they could, they had to pay through the nose for it.
Because childcare is so expensive to deliver because you have to have really low adult to child ratios, which you want, it actually turns out that paying through the nose isn't actually paying the true cost of quality care, and these childcare programs respond by doing the only thing they can, which is they cut their wages to the bone so most childcare teachers are making barely above minimum wage.
It's so hard to find care. There's so many breakdowns or it's unaffordable that, for employers, they're having all these issues with recruiting and retaining staff as a result of it, and obviously, this disproportionately affects women and mothers. Then, through all of this, these unstable care environments, that were not high-quality care environments, are not good for child development. Basically, you did an orbit of the child care system pre-COVID. Every part of it was really struggling.
Emily Paisner: Having such a broken child care system has a, as you mentioned, cascading effect on so many different people. We've seen this firsthand over the past several months, is that without care people truly cannot work. With such an unfair child care system in place and the pandemic making it so much worse, what are some of the impacts that this crisis is having right now?
Elliot Haspel: The number one impact, I would say, is it's really a hammer blow to family stability. We've seen is disproportionately women and disproportionately women of color have been not so much forced out of the labor force as they've been unceremoniously pushed out because of these childcare breakdowns. In the middle of the pandemic, over the summer, we had upwards of 30% to 40% of childcare programs either weren't operating or they'd reduce their hours, or they'd reduced their capacity, so they couldn't take in all these children. These numbers are staggering. The last ones I saw was something like 800,000 women have left the workforce in the past year.
Emily Paisner: I think it's over 2 million now.
Elliot Haspel: Oh, now, over 2 million?
Elliot Haspel: Yes. That has obviously, as you say, a cascading effect on the entire family unit in terms of financial stability, the relationships, all of that. It's really exacerbated those faultlines. Then, again, from the child perspective, young children thrive on routine, consistency, and relationships. When you're with your childcare teacher one day, and then the next day, you're not, that can be very disruptive for developing brains, to say nothing of the stress that's happening within the family unit. The pandemic pushed on these fault lines that existed and it just drove them open.
Emily Paisner: You talk about the need for childcare to be seen as a common good. I'd love for you to elaborate a little bit on that idea for our listeners.
Elliot Haspel: We think the common good or a public good in a society, it's something that is so societally beneficial that we basically say everyone gets access to it, and beyond the taxes you pay, there's no gate to you getting in. A good example of this would be the public schools. You or I, or Bill Gates, or Jeff Bezos can send our kids to a neighborhood public school for free.
Public parks, fire departments, roads, these are good examples of things that are considered common goods, but childcare is really an odd one because we have a society, and if you want, we can talk about the history of why this is, where we basically say to parents, "From the time a kid is born until the time the kid is five, you're basically on your own. Good luck." From the time the kid turns 5 to the time that kid is 17 or 18, we're going to provide for their education and a safe place for them to be for most of the day, five days a week, for free. Again, that'd be on the taxes you pay. We treat the early childhood years very, very differently than we treat the middle childhood and adolescent years. That's what animates a lot of the crisis.
Emily Paisner: Why is that do you think? How did this start?
Elliot Haspel: Sexism is basically the one-word answer here. If you trace back the history of the American's child care system, a lot of it comes down to the fact that for most of American history, and in large part, this still exists in some circles today, there was this idea that young children must be taken care of by their mothers and that it was harmful to the child and it was harmful to the mother to separate them during those early years.
When you have that prevailing view, then why would you invest in a public childcare system that would seem to incentivize women to go work and not be with their kids if they didn't want to be? That thread of thinking, which we now know by brain science and lots of other reasons, is highly erroneous, but when you have that thought, you wouldn't want to create a public childcare system. In fact, we don't have one.
Emily Paisner: People who do have children over the age of five are all talking about, "When can we get our kids back to school? When can we reopen the schools?" The CDC has recently said that with the right precautions in place, we should be able to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction. I've recently read an article that you wrote in The Atlantic that said that safety isn't necessarily the only issue here. Can you talk about the other issue going on?
Elliot Haspel: Absolutely. The other issue going on is really the staffing. When the rates of coronavirus in any given community are really, really high, what happens is the likelihood of a teacher, a bus driver, a food service worker contracting COVID or being exposed to COVID is really high. It doesn't actually matter whether or not they're getting it in school. In fact, most of the evidence suggests that school staff become infected or exposed are not being infected or exposed in the school building but just existing in a community where there's a lot of the virus.
If you start running out of staff, then you very quickly stop being able to offer quality instruction. There are not very many substitute teachers this year. Some districts are dealing with a quarter of their usual sub pool because people don't really want to be a sub right now. It doesn't sound like a great job in the middle of the pandemic. What you end up with is even if districts want to open, either it's very disrupted, they have to close a lot because they just don't have the teachers to staff it, they don't have the bus drivers to get the kids to school, or if they are opening, there's lots of churn. These kids are dealing with lots of long-term subs and things like that. That's definitely an element here.
I will note, even in the months since that article came out, we are starting to see rates drop, thankfully, in lots of other parts of the country. It's very much a regional question of like, in any given community, how high is the spread rate? That's what's going to influence how bad the staffing issues are.
Emily Paisner: One of the solutions that you've talked about around getting kids back in school is reopening for kindergarten through second grade as well as some special education classes. Why do you think that's the right plan for right now?
Elliot Haspel: Starting with the younger grades and with special needs is really the first step because they happen to be the populations, young kids here, that are least susceptible to getting or spreading COVID. That's what the research says. They're also the age group of kids who most desperately need in-person interactions. A lot of what's going on in the early elementary grades is much more about social development.
It's about learning to read, which we know that if you haven't mastered learning to read by around third grade, that really puts you on a path to struggle through the rest of your academic career because fourth grade and on, all of a sudden, every subject involves reading, and it's really hard to teach someone how to read over the computer. That's why it seems to make sense if the need is high the risk is low, start there. It also requires less staff. If you only need to staff three-plus grades at a time, it's a lot easier to deal with that. You can concentrate the number of subs that you do have just on those grades.
I think it makes sense because then if you carefully do that for a few weeks, you see how it goes, you learn what lessons you need to learn about implementing precautions. You can then start phasing in the older grades because, I will say, again, over the past month or so, more and more evidence is emerging that the teenagers who we thought previously were doing okay socially, emotionally because at least they still had the ability to connect with one another, there's a lot of mental health struggles that are emerging, so we really do want, safely and quickly as possible, kids back in school.
Emily Paisner: I think you make a good point that depending on the age, there are different implications around not being in school. I struggle with this because sometimes I think I'm okay that I am picturing this year as a lost year for my kids, and then, other times, I get really upset and frustrated and feel like the fact that they're missing a year school is going to set them back so much.
As you mentioned, for younger kids, this could have long-term impacts. For the older kids, you're talking about how both socially and emotionally they're having a really hard time. How can we as parents start to think about this as, "There are better days ahead," and not completely freak out that my kindergartner or first-grader hasn't been in school, and my high school age kids are really struggling emotionally? How do we write this in our heads?
Elliot Haspel: I think a lot of this is actually parents banding together to advocate for policies and for interventions that are going to support kids moving forward. What we can't just do is be like, "Well, that was a really rough year. We're just going to move on as if that didn't happen." That's, in my mind, the worst possible scenario here.
We have to say our kids absorbed a lot, whether or not they were in a remote school or whether they were in a district that did in-person school, they've absorbed a lot this year, and it's going to require a lot of supports to help them moving forward, things like school districts being able to provide mental health supports. I'm not just talking about school counselors here, I'm talking about clinical child psychologists. That's something that is expensive, but it's something that school districts can do if they have money to do it.
Learning recovery is another example. It's actually probably the case that we're going to want to have schools go longer in the next couple of years, whether that's an extended, more intensive summer school, whether that's going to more of a year-round school, whether that's for doing Saturday school here and there. There are lots of different ways you can do it, but the fact is they lost a lot of learning time. They're going to need new learning time.
Our parents need to get comfortable with that idea. I think being able to understand that, "Yes, we took a real blow and our kids are going to need some real support moving forward," because you can look back at things like World War II, where schools were closed, obviously, much of Europe, and researchers have been able to track those kids and the impacts are long-lasting. You can actually see decades later, their average earnings and things like that being significantly lower than kids in countries where schools didn't close. This is not a small thing.
Elliot Haspel: Again, the fact that was the 1940s and we're in the 2020s, I would hope that we're in a place where we can actually step up and say, "All right, we're going to support our kid moving forward. We're going to mitigate that damage. We're going to make sure that they can get back on track."
Emily Paisner: Let's switch gears for a second here. Remote work looks like it's here to stay in some cases. Companies are starting to look for work from anywhere talent. It really broadens opportunities for a lot of companies and people looking for work, and a lot of employers are realizing they don't need their big corporate headquarter locations. What do you think the effect will be on employer-supported childcare, especially companies that have traditionally offered on-site care? Do you think that companies are going to have to step up and offer more flexible care options to their employees to really help support them?
Elliot Haspel: In the immediate term, yes. Companies are going to need to rethink what is a childcare benefit look like and can it be converted into something that is, you said, more portable. That can look like contracting with slots in different childcare centers near where employees live. That can look like providing you a lump sum, "Here's some number of thousands of dollars, go figure out the care situation that's going to work best for you." I think companies are going to have to get creative.
My overarching thing I want to say on this though is companies on their own cannot solve the childcare crisis because they can't possibly provide enough money to, again, provide good wages for childcare teachers and to stabilize the sector. This is going to ultimately have to be a government solution any more than we ask employers. Again, let's use the public school example. We don't ask employers to subsidize the cost of employees' public schools. Being able to send your kid to a public school is not linked to your employment.
I think the other thing I would like to see companies do is rethink their role in the childcare ecosystem and just to name it. What does it look like to be okay with paying a little bit more in corporate taxes or to pay a little bit more on payroll taxes to be able to create a truly equitable, accessible, affordable, high-quality system for all of their employees and for the communities in which they exist? Because one thing we know from places like Quebec, that do have a mostly universal childcare system, is it actually pays for itself in terms of the economic productivity, increasing maternal employment, increasing employee retention, all of these things which companies should want, but it's not saying individual companies are going to be able to solve in a macro sense.
Emily Paisner: Absolutely, it has to be a full ecosystem. I'd love to hear from you a little bit about your argument around paying parents to stay home, and you've called it a parent protection program. Can you explain this idea, and what other things you think could help to bring families some relief that they urgently needed right now?
Elliot Haspel: Essentially, we know that for many, many lower-income workers, and this tends to report disproportionately be workers of color, they can't actually work from home right now. They're considered frontline employees or essential employees. These are your grocery clerks, et cetera, et cetera. Then, you have this other set of workers, myself included. We're trying to sit at home and do our work. We're also trying to care for our kids, or we have to support their school.
Basically, if you can pay parents to stay at home, and other nations have done a version of this, basically, the government's going to cover your wages, then you can institute a temporary lockdown of sorts that's going to help with the COVID cases without causing parents to have to basically lose all of their income or have to stress themselves out trying to figure out, "Where is my kid going to go to do school or to be cared for while I'm trying to do some work here?"
More broadly, I think the idea of just getting more money into parents' pockets to deal with the financial hit that they've taken is going to be essential. That's why I'm really encouraged by the movement. There's bipartisan support for this, to reform the child tax credit to basically create, what would be, a child allowance, just like a direct monthly payment, all parents get for each kid that they have as a way to support families with children. Most developed nations have, the US does not. I'm really, really encouraged that it looks like we're going to get one here sometime in the near future.
Emily Paisner: Me too. Me too. It's a bright spot that I think we all need right now. Let's hope that it happens. Speaking to that, sometimes, as parents, we feel like there's nothing we can do. We feel like the childcare system seems so broken that it feels overwhelming to even know where to start. How can parents get involved to try and create change?
Elliot Haspel: That's a great question. There are a couple of ways. I would say, directly within the childcare sector, there are places like childcarerelief.org, which is a coalition of different national advocacy groups that have been pushing for getting the childcare sector stabilized and getting more funding moving forward. Think about banding together with other parents into more of a political force. There's no AARP for parents, and if you think about it, it's a little weird.
Parents are absolutely an interest group. We have some common interests, but we aren't organized in a way that makes us a particularly powerful constituency. The more and more the parents come together-- Most states have some kind of parent group. There's one in California called Parent Voices. There's one in Oregon called Families Forward. You can google your state and parent organizing, you'll probably find a group. Those groups are going to be really important moving forward. We need a parent movement. We need parents to be able to say to politicians, "There are tens and tens of millions of us, and we have certain-"
Emily Paisner: We need parents on K Street. That's for sure.
Elliot Haspel: Exactly. That's why I'd say, get engaged, specifically, the childcare or more broadly, in organizing amongst parents so that politicians have to reckon with the parents.
Emily Paisner: I know that you are a father, and I am sure that this year has been challenging for you on many, many levels as well. Are there any lessons that you've learned and that you'll take away from this crazy year we've all been living through?
Elliot Haspel: [laughs] That's a good way of putting it. I think the bright side of all of this, off on this, has certainly been the ability to have more time with my children. The fact that I'm here, my daughter is doing virtual kindergarten downstairs, as we speak, as opposed to me being in the office and her being in a school. We have had more opportunities for quality time. We've gotten to start some new traditions like a pizza movie night on Fridays and doing more games than I think we would've otherwise. I will take that away to really prioritize that quality time. It's the chaos of everyday life, that's the number one thing, I say, I'm trying to walk away from this one.
Emily Paisner: Elliot, it's been so great to talk with you. Can you share with our listeners where they can find out more about you and the work that you do?
Elliot Haspel: Absolutely. I have a website which is just www.elliothaspel.com, E-L-L-I-O-T-H-A-S-P-E-L.com. That's got some of my writings on it. There's a link to my book on it. You can also follow me on Twitter @ehaspel, would love to engage with anyone who's listening.
Emily Paisner: Thank you so much. It was great to have you here.
Elliot Haspel: Thanks so much for having me.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/care-A-T-work.