Dunn: Who cares for our children?


Linda Dunn

Childcare is a linchpin of our economy. Parents can’t work without it.

When schools and daycares shut down during the pandemic, it forced many parents out of the workforce. Now that businesses are open again, we have a labor shortage, and one reason for this is the difficulty — especially for those with young children — of obtaining safe, affordable and accessible child care.

While we pride ourselves on American exceptionalism, caring for our children is one place where we fall far short of other countries.

Among the 38 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is second only to Luxembourg on education spending from elementary school through college.

But while other wealthy nations invest heavily in their future by funding child care at an average 0.7 percent of GDP, the US spends only 0.2 percent.

In 2021, while other wealthy countries were contributing an average of $14,000 per year for a toddler’s care, the US was contributing $500 a year. [https://www.epi.org/publication/whos-paying-now-costs-of-the-current-ece-system/]

Let’s compare that to what parents in the United States are paying for child care.

In 2017, infant care in Indiana cost an average of $8,918 a year, which was more than the price of in-state tuition for a four-year public college. In 2022, move.org listed Indiana as the third most expensive state in the nation for child care with infant care costing an average of $14,210.

Child care for an infant at a licensed day care generally costs 61 percent more than for a preschooler, but most state’s child care subsidy rates were only 27 percent higher for infants than preschoolers. And worse, only about one in six eligible children actually received that assistance. [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Human Services Policy, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation,ASPE Issue Brief: Estimates of Child Care Eligibility and Receipt for Fiscal Year 2011, 2015.]

Compare that to France, where parents of babies and toddlers receive tax credits up to 85% of the cost of attending child care centers or hiring in home care until their children are old enough to attend public preschools at age two or three. [https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/06/upshot/child-care-biden.html]

Our next door neighbor, Canada, offers new mothers and fathers paid leave and job security during their absence. Maternal leave is 17 weeks and if Mom and Dad share paternal leave, they may have up to 86 weeks. During that time, they are paid 55% of average insurable week earnings, up to a maximum amount that in 2023 is $650 per week. It drops to 33% for extended paternal benefits. Some employers provide additional benefits.

In the US, a family is lucky if the mom has three months at home with her newborn to recover from the not insignificant health impacts of pregnancy and childbirth before she has to return to work or lose her job. Leave for fathers to bond with newborns and/or care for older children during this time is rare.

Our country is an outlier among first world countries in how we care for our families and while everyone claims to care about our little ones, we seemingly lose interest as they grow older.

We’ve been rolling back child labor laws and increasing the hours they may work, even during the school week, apparently as a means of providing employers with those low-wage workers they need during a time when some businesses have to close or cut services due to staff shortages.

And some companies don’t seem to be paying much attention to the restrictions that do remain in place. Just recently — February 16, 2023 — the Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI) paid a $1.5 million penalty for illegally employing minors to use caustic chemicals to clean razor-sharp saws and other high-risk equipment at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states.

Do we no longer care about child safety in the workforce once we substitute “minor” for “child” in those child labor laws that our grandfathers wisely put in place to protect children from being exploited?

If we don’t care, maybe we should start caring because — to paraphrase what comedian Steven Wright once said — we need to be nice to our children because they’re going to decide how to fund services in our golden years.

What goes around, comes around.

A lifelong resident of Hancock County, Linda Dunn is an author and retired Department of Defense employee.