Economists seem flummoxed by the slow pace of Americans re-entering the job market nearly two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The political right tends to blame an entitled citizenry. The political left often cites stagnant wage growth. 

For any mother with young children, there is no mystery here: Lack of affordable child care is the main culprit.

According to The Associated Press, the percentage of mothers with young children employed in September 2021 was 4% below pre-pandemic levels. For fathers with young children, employment was only 1% below the pre-pandemic threshold. White women are re-entering the labor force at greater rates than women of color. 

Lack of child care has contributed to a labor shortage, which in turn hurts businesses and contributes further to supply-chain issues. A house of cards falling before our eyes.

None of this will improve until we fix the child-care industry.

The child-care industry is a market failure. It is broken on both ends — child care is too expensive for middle- and working-class families and child-care centers cannot pay a living wage, so they are perpetually understaffed. The free market simply cannot create quality child care that everyone can afford.

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These broken conditions existed before COVID, but like so many other societal ills, the pandemic fully exposed the wound. A full 9% of licensed child-care centers have permanently closed since March 2020, according to The Associated Press.

With little government support, child-care centers rely on razor-thin margins and low staff wages to stay open. Yet 60% of dual-income parents rely on child-care centers. And 90% of dual-income parents rely on some type of child-care arrangement in order to work, according to The New York Times. 

Aside from a brief stint of governmental generosity during World War II, child care has never been treated as an essential service in the United States. Arranging child care continues to fall on the mother and is often seen as her “personal choice” when, clearly, our national economy depends on a stable child-care system.

President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill would address the market flaws of our child-care system by providing subsidies for parents and child-care providers. Child-care spending is capped at 7% of income for families. Child-care workers are guaranteed a living wage for their vital work. 

If this bill fails, another plan needs to follow that provides similar subsidies if we hope to bring mothers back to the workforce anytime soon.

I was one of the 3.5 million mothers with school-aged children who left their jobs in Spring 2020. My children are not young, but my eldest teen son has significant special needs. Accessing child care has been a challenge for our family in the best of times. 

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For many years, my husband and I worked opposite schedules to limit the cost and to circumvent the difficulty of finding care for a special-needs child. In the years leading up to the pandemic, we found some good care options for our son. 

When COVID hit, this care disappeared. 

My husband and I quickly realized that one of us would need to become our son’s full-time caregiver in order for him to access online school and navigate the many hours of the day that became unstructured due to lockdown. Like so many other American mothers, I quit my job.

Now my kids are back in school, but in order for me to resume full-time work, we will require supplemental care for our eldest, and it has been impossible to find.

When will I start looking for a full-time job and contribute to our country’s post-pandemic economic recovery? As soon as reliable, quality care is available for my son. And I know I’m not alone.