Carol Naughton, Purpose Built Communities CEO

The link between early childhood education and poverty is strong. Children who have access to high-quality early learning are more likely to be ready for kindergarten and beyond. When families can send their children to safe, nurturing environments close to home and work, adults can focus on their own education and jobs. And women in particular, who often bear the brunt of child care and related decision-making, can enter and stay in the workforce, further improving the outlook for the entire family.

During a recent hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said, “Our peers, our competitors, advanced economy democracies, have a more built-up function for child care, and they wind up having substantially higher labor force participation for women. We used to lead the world in female labor force participation, a quarter-century ago, and we no longer do. It may just be that those policies have put us behind.”

As we pass the grim milestone of living for a year with the COVID-19 pandemic and look to take tangible and meaningful action to end racial inequality, discussions at the federal level about early childhood education and its relationship with the success of women are a cause for hope.

The child care sector of the economy has been significantly affected during this past year of disruption, overlooked and undervalued during this pandemic.

The 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index report published by the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) revealed that within the first six months of the pandemic, the child care industry shrank by 20 percent. Nearly 200,000 child care workers lost their jobs. These job losses disproportionately impacted communities of color because women of color represent a majority of child care workers.

“Chronic underinvestment in child care is harming working mothers, it’s harming the women who are doing this work, and it will drive greater economic hardship for everyone,” warns CSCCE Director Lea Austin, a co-author of the 2020 index report.

A recent study published by the National Center for the Education Young Children surveyed more than 6,000 child care workers around the United States about the pandemic. Nearly half of survey respondents reported that they know of multiple centers or homes in their community that have closed permanently within the last year. And 42 percent of those child care centers were minority-owned businesses. The centers that have been able to remain open are losing money daily due to a lack of resources and attendees; 51 percent of the minority-owned child care centers that are still open aren’t expected to survive. Most are estimated to close within the next three months.

And even for those who remain employed, most early childhood educators are paid at poverty-level wages while working in high-stress and often low-quality working conditions. We need to ensure that these educators are paid a living wage and provide resources for continued education. They are preparing children for school, and they should be treated and compensated in accordance with the importance of that role. Child care facilities that provide those kinds of jobs promote economic development in minority communities — Black and brown-owned businesses that reflect and support their neighborhoods.

As a country and a community of practice, we need to focus on supporting the early childhood education sector.

We can do this by working with government leadership, business leaders, grassroots organizations, and educational groups and scholars. The pandemic has showcased the inequality in early childhood education and hit women and minority communities hardest. We especially need to focus on delivering quality care and education in low-income communities of color. To achieve that, we must amplify the voices of educators and caregivers and take action to ensure they are paid a living wage. Those efforts will result in not only enabling the women who care for and educate our children to move up the economic ladder and provide greater stability for their own families, but also radiate increased opportunity to the children they nurture and to the entire surrounding neighborhood.