The coronavirus pandemic has struck a severe blow to the already inadequate child care system in the United States. As of August, approximately 214,000 child care workers—one fifth of the pre-pandemic level—are still out of a job. More than four fifths of child care providers report that if they don’t receive additional public assistance they expect to close permanently. As result, 13 percent of parents say that they were forced to reduce hours or quit their jobs, on average losing a full day of work a week. The lack of child care has become one of the key factors holding back the U.S recovery.

Even before COVID-19, more than four out of five parents of young children reported that finding quality, affordable child care in their area was a serious problem. This is because child care is neither widely accessible nor affordable. Millions of American families live in “child care deserts,” in which the demand for child care far exceeds the supply. The average family that uses child care spends about one fourth of their income to pay for it. In some states, a single-earner family earning median income would need to spend more than half of their earnings to care for a single infant. In 30 states and Washington, D.C., the average cost of center-based infant care costs more than average in-state college tuition.

Child care is expensive in the United States because, unlike in other developed countries, it is not seen as a public good, despite extensive research showing that it has substantial public benefits. The U.S. federal government spends less than half as much on child care as a share of its gross domestic product as the average of other nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In some of those countries, free child care is widely accessible; in others, fees are means-tested and on average amount to only about 15 percent of average earnings.

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