Haley Swenson has seen up close just how severely families are struggling to find and afford child care, even in the best of times. As Deputy Director of the Better Life Lab at New America, she directs research projects and writes on issues related to gender equality, caregiving, paid family leave, and the future of work. The pandemic has disrupted parents’ best laid plans for child care (already a patchwork of contingency plans before the virus), forcing them to make constant shifts, difficult decisions, and trade-offs around work, care, and life. Many, mostly women, are pulling back or stepping away from their jobs just to make things work. Haley is with us to talk about the financial strain and stress that America’s child care crisis is putting on families, child care providers, and employers. She also discusses policy solutions that would help fix our broken child care system, and how parents, private industry, and government can intervene and band together to create systemic change.
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For more information, visit https://www.newamerica.org/better-life-lab/.
Child care plans, disrupted
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily: Being a working parent is hard, and without the right care infrastructure, it's even harder. Haley Swenson is the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America. She researches and writes extensively on issues related to gender equality, caregiving, paid family leave, and the future of work. She joins me to talk about our nation's caregiving crisis, how it's impacting families, businesses, and the economy, and how we can advocate for change. Have a listen. Haley, thank you so much for being here today.
Haley: Thank you so much for having me.
Emily: I want to start by talking with you about something really personal you wrote about recently in the Washington Post and that was that the pandemic has really made you and your partner think and reevaluate your decision to have kids or not. There was a lot of reaction to the piece in the comments. Some were supportive, others not as much. I just wanted to hear from you a little bit about your story, why you felt it was important to write about it, and how you felt about the responses you got.
Haley: My wife and I have had a really honest conversation about what we wanted our lives to look like for the entire time we've been together. We both have always wanted to be in partnerships that felt equal and fair, where neither partner had to put their career ambitions or their interesting caregiving last or first for the other person. We had reached a real good understanding of when we thought we would want to have a baby and what that would look like, and what would make it feel beautiful and fulfilling to us, as well as safe and stable. The pandemic just really changed everything. It changed, where we lived. It changed where we could afford to live and have space.
What I wanted to do in that piece was instead of just talking about the things I usually do, how many women are going back to work within two weeks of giving birth, because they don't have leave, some of these more shocking studies, about half of Americans living in childcare deserts. I really wanted to take the personal into it and see if I could reach a different audience of people who might understand the stakes of these policy questions.
Most people I would say, who've reached out to me have said, "Thank you so much for writing that piece because my partner and I are thinking the same things." Some people had a different reaction. Comments are [unintelligible 00:02:39] dicey when you write a piece. In this case, a lot of the comments made me sad. They would take attack of, "It sounds like you're asking for freebies. Maybe you two shouldn't have a kid because sounds like you're too selfish to sacrifice for them." Who makes me really sad for the people who are already parents who might be reading those comments, who are struggling, who are asking for better supports from their employer, from their state government, from the federal government?
The tone of these comments was, if you're asking for that you don't deserve to be a parent. That feeling I just think is so toxic, and so unnecessary and makes the experience of parenthood feels so isolating and so stressful for so many people that I've spoken to in this pandemic. That's where I want to come out and say, it doesn't have to be this way. We could have a country that is so much friendlier to parents and those who want to be parents and listens to people's fears and doubts. Instead of saying, "Shame on you," says, "How can we help? How can we support?"
Emily: I think that's a perfect segue into what you do for work as the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America. You've talked to mothers and fathers from all across the country as part of your research on gender equality and caregiving. As this pandemic continues to rage on, what are some of the themes and issues that have really stuck out to you and the stories and experiences that you've heard?
Haley: The big theme is disruption. This pandemic has disrupted all the best-laid plans that parents had going into the pandemic. Whether that was their plan for child care, or how they were going to divide their earning and income, maybe one partner working part-time, the other working full time to get health care benefits. Whatever arrangement American parents have come up with, parents have just said all of those best-laid plans have been disrupted, and we are starting either from scratch, or we're moving on from what maybe was plan B to plan C, plan D to get this done. That means a lot of stress, a lot of difficult decisions, and a lot of trade-offs that I think a lot of parents didn't feel they were going to have to make. That hasn't just stayed the same since March of last year. It was like pandemic started and then we figured out a new plan, but it's constant shift. Maybe a new school, closure shifting to online, childcare closed because there's been an outbreak of COVID. It's been a year of disruption. That has been wreaking havoc on families in their plans.
Emily: I'm sure that a lot of parents who are listening to this right now can relate to that. The pandemic has really made finding quality affordable childcare even more difficult than it already was. What's the impact on kids and parents as well as childcare workers?
Haley: There are going to be long-term effects of this that we can't even quite fathom yet. That especially comes when we think about kids who were receiving vital education through their childcare source. In early education, that is education of kids before kindergarten, there's a lot of resistance to thinking of it as a form of childcare, to thinking of it as babysitting. Certainly, childcare providers do very much more than babysitting, but that has been an essential service that they have been providing. They also have been educating kids, socializing kids, helping kids develop their vocabulary. What we've heard from childcare providers is even if we have been able to stay open, we no longer have the time and resources for that safety security and education plan. Instead, we've had to just shift towards safety insecurity.
The staff we can afford is cleaning up the classrooms, sanitizing, making sure the airflow is effective, making sure spacing is effective, making sure we don't have too many teachers in one classroom. Really the priorities of childcare providers have shifted. I also think parents are really struggling with whether that is the safest environment for their kids anymore. Going to group childcare, institutional childcare setting maybe a classroom, or if they need to be thinking about childcare options in home with private families. It's just this myriad of questions people are asking and what that's doing to the childcare industry. It's really difficult for childcare providers to predict how many kids they'll be caring for on any given day, how many staff members they can afford, and how many staff members they're going to need to actually keep up.
I have some friends in DC who right at the outset of the pandemic, their childcare closed because of fears and then it reopened but my friends were left basically with the question of, do you keep paying for the childcare so you can keep your child's spot secure and keep that center open, even though you're not using it right now. This is just one example of the many questions that parents are facing and the childcare providers are facing.
Emily: Speaking of the cost of care at care.com, we do an annual cost of care survey and we found that most families are spending about 10% of their income on childcare. It's really one of the biggest line items in a family's budget. The cost really just keeps rising and rising and it's hard for families to keep up. What can businesses and the government, what can we be doing to try and make care more affordable? What's going on here?
Haley: I think the United States is unique when it comes to other developed countries and that it expects parents alone to really hold the burden of paying for childcare. That's really unique. Another study we've done shows corporations are only paying the cost of about 3% of childcare, but of course reaping the benefits, like being able to have a workforce who shows up at work. The first thing is just saying, parents should not be shouldering these costs alone, business and government have got to pick up a piece of the tab. That's just on the cost side of things. The other issue here is supply and demand. If government also plays a role in increasing the number of providers there are that supply, it should also have an impact on cost. What we really need is just some intervention from the private sector, from the public sector that can step in and say, "Parents, it's too much and here we are with some solutions."
Emily: We have a new administration in the White House and a very divided Congress. How optimistic can we be that we'll start to see meaningful childcare infrastructure legislation be passed by the federal government? Do we have any hope for this happening anytime soon?
Haley: I am full of hope. I definitely feel that the new administration's tone on care issues has been extremely promising and actually probably the most detailed and I think progressive and ambitious plans on childcare that we've seen from any president, from any presidential candidate even have come out of Biden and Harris so far. I'm really hopeful, but I do think barriers are still there. If parents are seeking help, this is the time to call elected officials and let them know Just those promises alone to campaign on, those aren't going to help us get through the day-to-day that we're facing right now with these disruptions, with these exorbitant costs. We're going to have to see some actual legislation take place, and that has been hard-fought in our political system recently here. There isn't a lot of big legislation coming out, we're going to need that. We're going to need Congress to be bold. I think what that's going to mean is, we have to really put aside some of these old fashion arguments that say, "This is on parents." Exactly with that response to that article that I wrote that this is on you alone. We have to get past that, and we have to actually demand that action be taken here because parents really need it.
Emily: What legislation and childcare policies do you think would offer the most urgent relief to American families, and caregivers right now?
Haley: I think one of the most important things Congress needs to get done, is major support for childcare providers themselves as an industry. The industry itself needs a lot of cash. It was a really ailing industry before COVID hit, and what has happened because of COVID, is about half of childcare providers say, "We're going to have to close our doors permanently if we don't get some financial support." What we need to see is, the same way Congress supported the airline industry, the hospitality industry, the childcare industry is asking for about $50 billion. They think they need 90, in the next few years, in order to stay afloat, and really just maintain the baseline of childcare slots that we had before the pandemic. That's the first thing, is really shore up the system now, and that will come through really direct financial support to those providers.
The second thing though is that parents need flexibility and options for how to get through the remaining months, hopefully just months, of this pandemic. That means paid family leave. Congress date at the outside of the pandemic, create an option for parents whose childcare or schools were closed. They could take about 10 weeks of paid leave. That actually ended in December. Congress couldn't really quickly, and reauthorize that leave option, they could also expand it and more parents can take it. What that allows, is that even if parents can't find the childcare provider that they need right now, they don't need to leave their jobs in order to make do over these next few months.
Paid leave and childcare really go hand-in-hand in giving parents the options that they need. Tax credits, of course, are always welcome, but the thing to remember about them is you don't get them until you pay your taxes, and there are a lot of families who need that more instant relief. If that is direct cash support based on the number of children they have, there are many ways that can be distributed, but the key thing is, families with children right now have been especially hit by unemployment, and especially hit by school closures, they need the most support of anybody in the United States right now. There's a variety of ways we could give it to them, we just need to make sure we prioritize that.
Emily: You mentioned earlier that parents can call Congress and get involved in fixing this crisis. I'm sure a lot of people are willing to do that at this point. What else can we be doing to help change the childcare laws and policies within our local states and communities?
Haley: I think that individual parents can do a lot here to make sure that issues are on the minds of all Americans, and help them understand how critical this is. The business side of things is really interesting. We've never heard from more businesses in what I do at the Better Life Lab of New America, who are saying, "How can we help? We know there's a problem, we know that our workers are really struggling to get to work every day, to make sure that their work is uninterrupted, or at least so that it can get done at some point of the day, how do we get involved?
What we're really encouraging private industry to think about especially, is one, what can you do right now that could help? Maybe that is, an extra benefit that is available to all workers, but that parents will need really immediately to help pay for care services they may not have needed in the past. We're hearing from companies doing that. The other thing is that companies can also lend their voice to these political discussions. At every juncture of American history, where the question of universal prepay or universal childcare has been a real concrete possibility, business has often been a part of the side that has argued against it. I think the pandemic has really changed things.
We're actually seeing chambers of commerce come out now all around the country and say, "We need publicly subsidized childcare because it's just gotten to such a breaking point." Businesses is too-- business is working in coalition together, can even make their voices louder. Politicians will listen to businesses because they really do want to be supporting a growing economy. I think it's time for businesses and parents to say childcare is key to that growing economy.
Emily: We recently had Josh Levs on the podcast and he talked about ending the stigmas that men face as caregivers and ultimately that this really is a women's rights issue. He said that women will never have equal opportunities in the workplace until men can be treated as equal caregivers. I couldn't agree with him more and I'm guessing you probably agree as well. If you do can you share your perspective on that and some of the findings from your research on gender and caregiving?
Haley: Yes. absolutely. This is a huge issue for us at the Better Life Lab we've been pushing for the last few years and completely agree with Josh who's been such an important father's voice on this issue. We embarked on a major study of men as caregivers actually the year before the pandemic started. We're just releasing the final reports of that now. What we have found largely is that a lot has changed when it comes to how men think about caregiving, that men do think about caregiving, and that they see themselves as valid caregivers.
These are all things that make somebody who has researched gender equality throughout US history make me very excited that you can ask dads questions like "Do you think mom and dad should share the caregiving of a baby." 88% say yes it should be a shared job. That's really phenomenal that dads agree that this is both of our responsibility. What we're seeing though is that when that actually plays out it's not 50 50. The ambition to do this equally as there but in reality, what we found in our research is that's not happening yet.
We want to know why of course as researchers what is it that's holding men back.
Often and this came out in a few ways in our research. I'll just say one is paid leave. Men and women alike that I anticipate needing paid leave in the future. We're seeing that only women are really taking it or taking it at much greater rates. That is a question that says to us there's something here about the actual finances about actually deciding what's going to happen with the job. What we're finding is that men are really afraid often about the impact on their breadwinning if they are too loud and out there about their caregiving.
There's stigma there. I think there's also economic anxiety.
If we actually tackled some of these financial questions that you mentioned say about caregiving about childcare the cost of it in parents budgets, that we'll actually see that men walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It's not to say the talking the talk isn't important. It's a really big important step but we need some structural support and changes to ensure that men take that extra step and are actually present as fully engaged equal partners.
Emily: I couldn't agree more and it definitely has to come from leadership and from the top and people seeing others in more prestigious roles taking advantage of these benefits that are being offered to them and providing equal support to their partners. Finally as we near the end of our interview I just wanted to ask, I really admire everything you're doing at the Better Life Lab and wanted to see if you could tell us a little bit more about where to find more about your work.
Haley: Absolutely, I'd love to. If you go to newamerica.org you are going to be able to find all of the policy programs there including the Better Life Lab. We also have a podcast with slate.com. If you go to slate.com and search Better Life Lab you'll find our podcast. We did about 26 live episodes where we had parents. We had childcare providers. We had nurses really just talking about how the pandemic was disrupting work and life and how people were responding. Then the third thing I would say is if you just type into your browser BLLX Better Life Lab Experiments is what that's short for.
We have a behavioral science-informed tool. We're looking to find out what are the best strategies families can use to share the load at home. That includes caregiving as well as housework. I would encourage any listeners who are struggling with sharing things fairly and just feeling like the household is running without losing their minds on a daily basis to check out Better Life Lab Experiments or BLLX sign up and then give us feedback about what's working and what's not. Like I said this is a research-based project. We want to hear from real families about what helps them get through this really really difficult time.
Emily: Thank you so much for that Haley and thank you for sharing all of those great resources for parents and ways that we can get involved to try and create change. I really really appreciate talking to you today.
Haley: It's been a pleasure being here and I hope that we can hear from some of your listeners and find out what they need and what we can be working for on the policy trying to help them.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily: Wait before you go. I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work at 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/careatwork.