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You don’t always realize a culture change moment when it happens. While the large-scale investments we need and deserve to bolster our care economy haven’t happened yet (RIP Build Back Better) I’m seeing some promising public examples of a collective shift in mindset away from childcare being a private problem handled by individual families to a larger understanding of how it affects our society and economy as a whole.
To me, the national culture change moment ignited in September 2020, when the Bureau of Labor report showcased that 865,000 women had left the labor force just in the previous month (four times the rate of men.) As someone who spent August 2020 frantically trying to figure out how on earth we were going to manage being a two working parent family, proctoring virtual kindergarten for a highly social 5-year-old (not to mention also having baby twins at home) it felt incredibly predictable to me that mothers were being forced from their paid jobs in droves. To add on to the stress of impending virtual school, the cultural conversation that summer relentlessly piled on desperate parents. Op-eds and social media posts hysterically shamed parents trying to figure out solutions, like advocating for school reopenings, sending their kids to open schools, hiring babysitters or even forming informal childcare sharing with friends and neighbors. Turns out mothers can’t do it all, and somehow plenty of people in power were shocked, shocked that the lack of public support for families, closed schools and limited childcare meant that many mothers could not maintain their jobs. Turns out childcare is infrastructure, you morons.
At first, this was covered as just another “women’s issue,” but I would pinpoint this as a culture change moment where the national conversation began to shift in seeing childcare as being an intrinsic need to our economy rather than a personal problem that only impacts moms. To put it more bluntly, men with economic and political power began to realize that a lack of childcare was going to cost them, particularly in not having enough workers. In the years since, they’ve started to want to do something about it.
While paid family leave is a policy that’s consistently enjoyed an enduring bipartisan approval rate of over 70%, polling results on how widespread support for government funding of childcare is more uneven. One Pew Research survey from 2022 found that just over half of respondents thought the government does too little to support children, but this CBS/YouGov poll from 2021 found 67% supported Universal Pre-K. My hunch is that the polling data has a lot to do with how the questions are framed. That’s why who’s talking about childcare and how they are talking about it lately feels meaningful. Let me share some examples of what I mean.
We are now two and a half years past those 2020 headlines, and last month I was invited to speak at the Institute for Emerging Issues’ annual summit at NC State University in Raleigh around “Talent First” economics. The conference brings together around 500 business, government, and nonprofit leaders. Basically, it’s a mainstream business/economics conference in a southern purple state.
My first task in the morning was to participate in a panel conversation about recommendations for better supporting and engaging families with young children in the workforce. Maybe I’m a little jaded, but I was expecting a sparsely attended audience of mostly women. But the room was full, and about 40% men.
Neil Harrington, a recent graduate from Duke Public Policy school who works at the NC Department of Commerce gave a data presentation about how the lack of childcare was having a huge economic impact on the state, including a recent study that the crisis is costing North Carolina $3.5 Billion a year. Neil is jazzed about childcare and aftercare as important economic issues for the state. I’m not used to young childless men who work in government being jazzed about the importance of childcare. It disarms me.
I was also invited to speak on a main stage panel in front of 500 people about North Carolina’s childcare crisis and how it impacts our economy. Probably what surprised me most was not being the only person on the main stage throughout the day beating the childcare crisis drum. Later that morning, our Democratic Governor Roy Cooper spoke extensively about the need to invest in early childcare as being not just good for kids but good for the economy. Gerald Cohen, the chief economist at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC Chapel Hill also used his time on stage to cite childcare as the most important economic issue that needed to be addressed in North Carolina. Through working with IEI, I’ve also gotten to know David Farris, the CEO of the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce, a self-described conservative businessman and grandfather from rural North Carolina who’s passionate about how better and affordable childcare access is crucial for his community to thrive economically.
Of all the topics featured at the conference, the local news chose to do a segment about IEI framed around the childcare crisis, and interviewed me. As I was getting mic'd, the journalist confessed he had a 16 month-old and his wife was home with her while trying to work full-time without childcare. “It’s not working,” he admitted flatly.
To hear many men in positions of power and authority talk extensively and amplify why childcare is an economic issue feels new and important to me. The data on why early childhood is a great investment has been around for ages, but “helping kids now and saving society money in the future” hasn’t landed in the way I see that “expensive and scarce childcare resources NOW are making it hard to get workers NOW and holding back growth NOW” is grabbing attention. At the federal level, Biden’s Commerce department is trying to clumsily tie together manufacturing jobs with guaranteeing more childcare. The proposal itself feels slapdash to me, but the idea that economic growth can only happen with childcare support is a step forward.
I am excited about the traction I’m seeing around the economic case for government funding for childcare. But let’s also be real about what this means in practice. This is still all talk. At least in North Carolina, with a conservative majority legislature I don’t see the kind of funding we really need coming from the state immediately. However, building these coalitions and pushing culture change around why childcare is infrastructure is a crucial step to any forward progress. And so I’ll count this as a win.
More on this: If you need the perfect synthesis of why childcare is so expensive for families while still not paying workers a living wage, this Planet Money episode is the best explanation of the childcare market failure I’ve come across.
On the employer side, this is a great study from Vivvi/WerkLabs/The Mom Project about how crucial it is for employers to support parents in the marathon of parenting, not just with parental leave benefits. It absolutely DOES NOT surprise me that they found that 37% of career breaks take place during the toddler years, and 78% of parents have needed backup care during their careers and only 8% of companies offer any kind of childcare benefit. This data is super helpful if you want to advocate for your company to offer more support for the parenting marathon, so check it out.
For this week’s members-only thread, I’ll be asking: Have you noticed any big or small signs that the culture is changing around care issues? I loved the members' comments from last week on changing their relationship to ambition. If you want in on these great discussions, become a member.
Members-Only March Hangout
March 23rd 8pm EST
Let’s Start Dreaming Bigger
Our February hangout was such a big success that I want to offer it at a different time of day (evening EST) so a different group of people can attend. I got great feedback on the format, and we'll do some breakout rooms so YOU ALL can get to know each other. (My dream.) So here’s the deal: reading about our feminist foremothers has made me want to encourage us all to dream bigger about what care and motherhood COULD look like in America, not just focus on tiny incremental changes. Join me for an inspirational, collaborative workshop/conversation with other Double Shifters. If you typically can’t come to events during the workday, this hangout is for you!! Members will get a cal invite in their inboxes.
March 25th we're doing an IRL playground meetup in Durham. So much fun this month!!
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