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Author Elliot Haspel on "America's Childcare Crisis"

Photo of a man in a blue blazer next to the cover of a book titled "Crawling Behind"
Author Elliot Haspel talks to Megan Pauly about his new book, Crawling Behind, which details a crisis in childcare. (Photos courtesy the author)

This article is a transcription of a conversation between VPM reporter Megan Pauly and author Elliot Haspel.

Megan: Thanks for joining us.

Elliot: Thanks so much for having me.

Megan: So tell me, what is the crisis that you write about?

Elliot: Yeah so, the crisis is that it's incredibly hard to find affordable, available, high quality childcare pretty much no matter who you are. And so in Virginia, the average cost of childcare for a toddler or preschooler of $10,000 a year, for an infant it's $14,000 a year and at the same time, half of the census tracts in Richmond are considered a childcare desert, which means there are severe shortage of available slots. And this is having huge impacts on families, not just the who the lowest income families, but even up into the middle and upper middle class as well.

Megan: And are those prices public and private?

Elliot: Yes, exactly. So, there are few public programs that are heavily subsidized or free, your headstart or the Virginia preschool initiative, but those serve are really just a fraction of the children in the region.

Megan: So what, what are families doing to pay for this?

Elliot: They're pinching pennies. I mean, and this is one thing I found in researching for this book is that families are having to make really tough choices. So, in some cases, one parent has to stay home regardless of if they want to work. There's one report that suggests nationwide, 2 million individuals are staying home who would prefer to be in the workforce. So that's one of the solutions. Another solution, someone heartbreakingly, is people just having less children or choosing not to have children at all because they feel like they can't afford it. And so, the ability to choose the family size that they want, it's being constrained. And the other thing is, it's just causing tremendous amounts of financial strain. It's causing people to have to pick up, you know, work a second job or you know, not do savings or not defer maintenance on the car, all of these things that become crises down the line. And again, that impacts the entire functioning of the family, then impacts how well parents are able to parent and impacts how well, you know, children are able to have their interactions with their whole family units and it's just got cascading negative effects.

Megan: And you might think that with the high costs that teachers are getting paid well, but you found that that's not necessarily the case.

Elliot: That's right. In fact, no one's doing well in this broken system. So childcare teachers working in the center's average nationally around $11 an hour. And I've heard plenty of stories locally here in Richmond where teachers are having to leave to go to Walmart or Target because they're getting better pay and better benefits. And these are, you know, it’s a labor of love. Does it take care of children? Yes, but it's also incredibly demanding skillful work. We know the earliest years of child development have shaped children's entire life trajectories, it shapes the way their brains are functioning. And so, we want our best people there but when paying these prices they’re not able to get them and then at the same time, childcare providers aren't able to keep their doors open. You know, about 2016, the community was rocked right when the south side of Community Development Center and Williamsburg Community House both closed within a few months of each other, the 75 year old child care institutions, and like I mentioned so many census tracks are in childcare deserts. It's just really tough to find providers, and that’s a national trend as well.

Megan: So what are some of the solutions for this?

Elliot: Yeah, so my proposed solution is I think we need to think about childcare differently entirely. And we need to think about it the way we think about k-12 education, which is a public good, something that is completely free to every family beyond the taxes that we pay, regardless of if you are the richest person in Richmond or the poorest person in Richmond, you get to send your child to a high quality early childhood provider of your choice. And so, you know, I don't… early childhood is a little different than the older childhood. So it doesn’t necessarily mean we're talking about every child going to a publicly provided center. It could- but the important part is that this shouldn't cost money, any money for families and it shouldn't cost… it should be able to be high quality, which means that we need to be able to pay providers, you know middle class wages, benefits. All the things we would want for a highly functioning system.

Megan: Are there any states that are addressing this?

Elliot: So, the one that comes closest is Washington DC, and they offer free universal pre-k for four and three-year-olds. And so, 90% of four-year-olds and 70% of three-year-olds in Washington DC attend a public program there. They're seeing tremendous benefits. They’re seeing benefits as those children are starting to hit third grade and their test scores are higher. Also seeing benefits in that the maternal employment rate jumped up about 10% as soon as they started implementing this and other countries that have done this - Quebec and Canada and other ones - all found that as soon as you put some form of free or nearly free childcare, even just for a few grades, it tends to pay for itself economically because you get parents - primarily women because this burden falls on her - choosing to reenter the workforce. And so, in a way, lots of social programs always love to say they're going to pay for themselves but this program we actually have empirical evidence would pay for itself.

Megan: Why do you think now is the time and do you think Virginia… there's any movement in Virginia to do this?

Elliot: So I think now's the time because people are finally paying attention to this issue. You know, child care for so long has sort of been in the back corner of social policy. You know, people talk a lot about k-12 education, talk about higher education. We talked a little bit about pre-k which we use childcare to mean anything zero to five, but really childcare has been pushed to the side for all the reasons we talked about, right? This is a women's issue, it isn't that important, because kids are now essentially blank slates until they start to be five or six. But now it's become something we’re paying attention to, so we're seeing this on the presidential debate stage for the Democratic primary, right? Like Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, they're talking about this, and on the other side of the aisle on you know, Ivanka Trump is talking about this. You've got the nation's attention and that is honestly a credit to all of the champions for childcare who have come before. I've been working for decades to get anyone to pay attention to this issue. There were reports coming out in the 90s, calling this a silent crisis and a quiet crisis. And it isn't a silent or quiet crisis right now. But now I think we have to say, okay, we fought really hard inch by inch to get to this point. Now let's take advantage of this moment to start moving in leaps and bounds, rather than continuing to go up the path of sort of more marginal and incremental increases, like a little bit more subsidy here, a few more pre k slots there. That to me strikes me as a missed opportunity to really have a bigger conversation about what this means to be a public good. And I see no reason why Virginia shouldn't be you know, first out of the gate on this, you know, we've got everything, I think we have an extraordinarily supportive business community around early childhood issues. We have a governor and first lady who, you know, really get it, it’s one of their signature issues. I think we have some great leaders on this we have some great programs so you know, I think this should just be a conversation that we really should be having.

Megan: Thank you so much for joining me.

Elliot: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

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Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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