If we didn’t know it before the pandemic, we sure know it now: child care and schools provide essential services beyond their core mission. As schools and child care centers closed their doors during the COVID outbreak, women were forced to choose between their jobs or their children with devastating results.
More than 2.3 million women have dropped out of the labor force since this time last year, and a third of women not working in July cited child care issues as the reason. Hispanic and Black women have been hit hardest, and women’s labor-force participation reached a 33-year low in January. Economists have dubbed this recession a “she-cession.” And it’s no small matter that many of these women are single mothers whose families are now spiraling down into poverty.
“Our backs are against the wall. I don’t know what they expect us to do,” said Krystal Foti, a parent who lost her job and home after losing her child care. She is now staying with her mother, sleeping in a same bedroom with her two sons. “The schools are closed. What are single parents to do?“
While Pennsylvanians can technically file for state unemployment due to lack of child care, the reality is much more complicated. Women are regularly denied because the application process doesn’t allow applicants to specify child care as the reason. To make matters worse the state’s unemployment system is still rebuilding from years and years of cuts demanded by conservatives that slashed the unemployment claims processing unit by 500 staff and forced the reliance on outdated technology.
Now it’s obvious that women and children are suffering the greatest blows of the legacy of demands by conservatives to slash and burn core government services from child care to school funding to operating a basic unemployment payment system.
As our country wades through economic stagnation, the “she-cession” will only make this worse. Just last week, Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, Jerome Powell, a Donald Trump appointee, specifically named child care as essential to growing our economy because it makes it possible for women for to continue contributing to our country’s bottom line.
There is one bright spot, and the proof comes from Pennsylvania: high-quality, affordable child care through Pre-K Counts.
The first independent study of PA’s Pre-K Counts program by the prestigious University of North Carolina shows that children in the state’s early childhood education program are better at math and language than kids who stay home. “For children who participate in PA PKC, these differences were equivalent to an increase of approximately 4-5 months of learning, a substantial difference in terms of skills development.” This is so important because math and language are the building blocks to lifelong learning and job success.
Researchers found that Pre-K Counts has higher standards than most other state-funded pre-k programs across the country, a point of pride for Pennsylvania. Children benefitted from Pre-K Counts across the commonwealth. Achievement was equal among urban, rural, and suburban children so it’s a formula that works statewide.
Leaders on both sides of the political aisle have long touted the benefits of pre-k, and now, with these compelling findings, we have the evidence that expanding pre-k is a good strategy for PA’s long-term economic success.
As lawmakers in Harrisburg debate the state budget, there shouldn’t be any question about the value of child care and pre-k: it contributes to our economic and educational bottom line. The path is clear to support Governor Wolf’s proposed increase of $25 million for Pre-K Counts and $5 million for Head Start because the facts are in: Pennsylvania’s unique pre-k program is worth every dime.
And, while they are at it, state lawmakers owe it to mothers, fathers, and children to make sure we have a working unemployment compensation system in Pennsylvania. The impact of doing so is priceless.