Co-Founder and CEO of Winnie, a child care marketplace that helps millions of parents discover daycare, preschool and more.
It’s no secret that our country lacks a solid child care infrastructure, often described by experts as a crisis. For starters, child care is expensive and therefore unaffordable for many of the American families it’s meant to serve. Even when families can afford child care, they encounter long wait lists and limited spaces that may not meet their needs. Some parts of the country are even child care deserts, with little to no options available. It has also become increasingly difficult for the industry to attract and retain high-quality early educators.
Despite these failures, it’s important to recognize and understand the massive scale and impact of the existing child care market. We’re talking about a $136 billion industry, serving 59% of children under the age of 5. There are nearly one million child care jobs in this country. A market this massive, which is positively impacting so many families, is clearly functioning to some degree.
At its most basic level, child care enables parents to work. When families can access high-quality child care, they earn higher wages and are less likely to drop out of the workforce. Since the start of the pandemic, millions of Americans have left their jobs due to lack of child care, sending shockwaves through our economy. High-quality, affordable child care benefits the economy and has the potential to lift families out of poverty, a benefit that has an impact on the family as a whole.
Child care does more than just allow families to work. It has been proven time and time again that early childhood education is fundamental. A recent long-range study found that Oklahoma’s universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) program “successfully produced a wide range of outcomes—from early academic progress and socio-emotional development to high school graduation, college enrollment and even participation in civic life as young adults.” In other words, preschool had a lasting benefit to these children throughout their academic career and into adulthood.
The issue with rhetoric like “failed market” and “crisis” is that—as we tell our kids—words matter. This rhetoric turns people off from working in child care because it makes the field seem unattractive and messy. It turns investors off from funding the market because it makes it seem like there isn’t any money to be made. It turns innovators off from building companies in the space because the issues the child care industry faces seem too gnarly.
We need to campaign around the opposite. Child care is essential. It’s critical to the education of children, the income of families and our society at large. We need more of it, and we need to attract more talent to the field. We need to increase the size of the industry so we can pay early educators better. To get there, leaders should use expansive language to highlight the industry’s strengths and focus on its potential.
For example, a program in Milwaukee created a pipeline of early childhood educators by introducing careers in the field to local high schoolers. The program stimulated interest in the field and highlighted what makes education a great career path. Positive language that gets people interested in the field helps solve the child care worker shortage.
Employers can also take a stand. When companies offer child care as a benefit, it not only helps employees stay in the workforce, but it also strengthens the message that child care is good for business and that high-quality child care makes economic sense to provide.
The problems that plague the child care industry are not going to fix themselves. This is a massive market, with the potential to change our economy and impact society for generations to come. It’s begging for disruption, innovation and investment. The way we start to chip away at the decades of damage is by attracting people to the industry who are willing to take on the challenge of rebuilding it. Let’s stop calling it a crisis and instead call it an opportunity.