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Child care used to be a family matter, taken up household by household, depending on a variety of circumstances. But times have changed and child care now moves appropriately to the public policy realm. The experts at the Center for American Progress look at three available child care options – a stay at home parent, privately paid for, or subsidized with public funds, in The Importance of Pre-School and Child Care for Working Mothers.   Below is an excerpt from their brief, focusing on the consequences of having one parent provide the needed child care.

Fifty years ago, suggesting that one parent stay at home and forgo paid employment to provide child care would have made plenty of sense both culturally and economically. This was largely because families could live comfortably on one breadwinner’s income and also because women had traditionally been relegated to the domestic sphere. But in the past 40 years, due to both social advances and economic changes, American families have undergone a dramatic change. Leaving the workforce to provide care today, even temporarily, carries real risks.

The majority of parents now work, regardless of the age of their children. Parents are workers and workers are parents, both out of necessity and preference: 70.5 percent of mothers are in the labor force, including 64.8 percent of mothers with a child under the age of 6. That’s in large part because many families in today’s economy rely on two incomes in order to pay the bills. In fact, the only married-couple families that have seen real income growth over the past 30 years are families where both parents work.

Given that the cost of child care may be nearly as large as one parent’s entire salary, a worker’s choice to leave the workforce or work part time so that his or her family doesn’t need to cover those costs may appear to be an economically rational decision. And while there are mothers who choose to stay home for other reasons, short-term economic pressures are often part of the equation. But this choice is not without consequences.

Women are more likely than men to cut back their work hours or leave work entirely to care for their children. Unfortunately, this puts them at an economic disadvantage in the long run. Leaving the workforce, even for less than a year, can have long-term negative consequences for women’s careers and lifetime earnings.

The fact that women are more likely to take time out of the workforce to provide unpaid care for their children is part of the reason why there is a persistent gender wage gap in this country—10.5 percent of the differences in men’s and women’s earnings can be attributed to labor-force experience. When women work less, they pay less into Social Security over a shorter period of time, which is one of the reasons why retired women are more likely to live in poverty than retired men.

Access to child care is essential to a woman’s ability to participate in the workforce, and a lack of access to child care affects the work-family balance of both women and men. Women need to have the ability to make the choices that are best for them and their families in both the short and long term, and greater national investments in child care and preschool programs could help remove some of the constraints that may push mothers toward decisions that have negative economic consequences for them and their families down the road. It would make quality care more affordable for American families and support mothers’ employment.

I encourage you to take a look at the whole brief, comparing private and public funding for early education, right here.

‘Til next time -

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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