The Key to Recovery: Affordable, Accessible Childcare

By Sarah Rittling, Executive Director, First Five Years Fund

Quality childcare for working families is the backbone of our economy—and critical to women’s economic security.


With every day that passes, more and more Americans are coming to understand the importance of quality childcare to our society. Without question, it’s essential to the workforce—and particularly to women—as more than three in five children under age 6 have all residential parents in the workforce. And now, with the childcare supply on the verge of disappearing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s childcare crisis has become a primary point of concern around kitchen tables as well as in the halls of Congress and in C-suites across the country.

In fact, the U.S. stands to lose 4.5 million childcare slots—roughly half of the nation’s supply—without relief. Seventy percent of parents report that their childcare programs are closed or are operating at reduced capacity, and 44% of parents found that the lack of childcare resources were a barrier to remote or in-person work. For parents who rely on childcare to be able to work, the situation is completely unsustainable. 

What’s more, the September jobs report made clear what experts have been fearing since COVID-19 began sending shockwaves through the economy: This crisis is disproportionately affecting working women—especially women of color—and stands to set progress on women’s workplace equality back a generation. Women are leaving the workplace in droves, and the lack of childcare is a significant reason why. Women ages 25 to 44 are almost three times as likely as men not to be working due to childcare demands, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve. Seventy-six percent of mothers with children under age 10 say childcare has been among their top three challenges during the pandemic, compared with 54% of fathers.

Women’s labor force participation overall dropped to 55.6% in September. Aside from April and May this year, this marks the lowest reading since 1987. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 865,000 women left the workforce in September—80% of all workers who left the labor force. 

Clearly, working parents, particularly mothers, cannot adequately participate in the workforce without a strong childcare system. The good news: There’s now overwhelming consensus just how critical childcare is. In a recent national poll from my organization, the First Five Years Fund, 79% of voters—and 82% of women—said the COVID crisis has shown how essential it is to build an accessible, affordable childcare system for all families who need it. This support spans across women of all political affiliations, including key groups of voters in this election. 

But the solution to the current childcare crisis cannot be a return to the status quo. Even before COVID-19, half of Americans were living in a childcare desert—an area that either has no childcare providers or has so few that there are more than three children for every available slot. Most childcare deserts were in low- and middle-income communities, and overwhelmingly in rural areas. Pre-pandemic, working mothers were 40% more likely than fathers to experience the negative impact of child care issues on their careers. 

So now, as we undertake the daunting task of an economic recovery from this pandemic, America must recognize how crucial childcare is for society, for women’s economic security, and for women’s ability to fully and freely participate in the workforce. We must hold our policymakers on both sides of the aisle accountable and find solutions to the challenges too many families face in finding and affording quality care.


Sarah Rittling is the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, which focuses on the needs of children living in poverty who would benefit most from access to high-quality early childhood education opportunities. Prior to joining FFYF, Rittling served as Senior Policy Advisor at EducationCounsel, an education consulting firm, where she was part of a bipartisan, education-focused team led by former U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley. Previously, she served as counsel to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on education policy before the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee and counsel to Representative Michael N. Castle (R-DE) on education and labor matters before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.


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