Mother picking up her child from a Kindergarten near cubbies

Elizabeth Palley, JD, PhD, professor of social work and director of Adelphi’s social work doctoral program, is on a mission to bring American child care policy into the 21st century.

The majority of federal child care policies, created between the 1960s and the 1990s, are designed to help parents experiencing temporary and extreme circumstances—not to address the day-to-day challenges most American working families face when balancing work with raising a child.

“The problem is that society has changed, but child care really has not caught up,” said Dr. Palley. “It’s past time for the United States to look at what today’s workers need in order to enable a strong workforce, and to prepare our workers of tomorrow—today’s children—to develop important early learning skills.”

“Other industrialized countries seem to understand the importance of lifelong learning, beginning in early childhood, in a way that the United States does not,” she adds. “We need to begin investing in learning in early childhood and carry that investment through early adulthood. My research and policy focus has been on the importance of early learning.”

America’s first federally sponsored child care was created to encourage women to join the workforce to support the war effort during World War II. To ensure that women following the path of “Rosie the Riveter” could afford child care, the Lanham Act was passed, which included $52 million to subsidize high-quality full-time child care. The funding for this program ended in 1946 after the conclusion of the war.

The next focus on child care didn’t come until 1965 with the creation of Head Start, which supports part-time preschool programs for low-income children between 3 and 5 years old. In the 1970s and 1980s, efforts to garner legislative support for more comprehensive child care bills fizzled, and progress was largely limited to funding state programs for child care for low-income families. In the 1990s, two major federal programs were created—the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA)—that took some steps to assist working families, but had limitations: FMLA is completely unfunded and PRWORA only provided assistance to low-income families.

Dr. Palley makes her case for the imperative of a fresh look at child care policy regularly in the media, her scholarship often taking the form of opinion pieces published on influential websites and in newspapers.

Most recently, her op-ed in the Daily News, Childcare aid that families can actually access,” dove into the obstacles families face in accessing child care subsidies in New York for which they are legally eligible and the need for legislation to address these obstacles.

On the political website, The Hill, she discussed the importance of legislation designed to benefit children and families as President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda was broken up into smaller bills. Her op-ed “Even working piecemeal, Democrats need a full agenda for children” highlighted legislative possibilities like universal child care, the child tax credit and paid family leave, which would benefit workers with young children.

She is also frequently quoted as an expert on the topic. In the Times-Union’s “Child care crisis continues to burden parents, providers and employers,” she contrasted employer-based child care and tax credits—which are often less available to the people who most need them—with universal child care, which she says would improve the economy and employment outcomes for all families.

“It’s important to get this message out through the media so that America’s workers know what is at stake for them,” Dr. Palley said. “One of my goals is to help people become better informed about the legislative environment related to child care and how it affects their lives as workers, co-workers, or as parents.”

Top Child Care Challenges Impacting the Workforce

Child care in the United States is expensive.

According to a report from the nonpartisan Center for American Progress, low-income and middle-class working families alike spend a significantly higher portion of their incomes on child care than what is affordable—five times higher for low-income families and double for middle-class families.

This affordability disparity has consequences for America’s workforce, with many employees struggling to strike a balance between earning a living and securing quality care for their children. “Public child care was originally established for the poor, but now everyone needs it,” Dr. Palley said.

In fact, she says that when she and her husband—both tenured professors—had children, they faced this reality themselves. “I knew that our earnings as a couple were higher than many in our country, and wondered: If we could not afford care, how could lower earners?”

Juggling work and child care challenges is bad for business.

A report from Small Business for America’s Future says that 57 percent of small business owners surveyed believe that the lack of affordable, high-quality child care for employees has had a negative impact on their business. In addition, more than one in three employers (39 percent) said scheduling complications have negatively impacted their ability to fulfill client or customer needs.

“Quality child care improves workers’ lives, enabling them to better perform at work because they know that their child is thriving,” Dr. Palley said. “This is better for employers and better for society as a whole.”

Women experience challenges with staying in the workforce.

According to the State of Motherhood 2022 Survey Report by Motherly, 58 percent of women say that the stress and financial burden of child care have made them consider leaving the workforce, with even higher numbers of Hispanic and Black mothers expressing this concern. The same report showed that child care issues were the top reason mothers left or changed jobs last year.

“Women are an essential part of the workforce, and we often bear disproportionate responsibility for child care,” Dr. Palley said. “When faced with difficult choices because of unreliable or unaffordable child care, some women make the decision to leave their jobs, which can strain their families’ financial resources and is a human capital loss to the economy as a whole.”

Recommendations for Change

Dr. Palley’s top recommendations for meaningful changes to improve working families’ lives: Child care should be available to all families, either free or on a sliding scale, and child care workers should be paid a living wage.

“People who are wealthy can afford child care, and those living in poverty—at up to 300 percent of the poverty line in New York state, which is more generous than many other states—may be eligible to receive child care assistance from the government,” she said. “This leaves the vast majority of families in the position where they don’t qualify for support but are faced with increasingly unaffordable options to receive quality care for their children.”

She continues, “The process of applying for care can be onerous. In many places, including New York, families on public assistance have to apply for child care as a separate benefit even after they have already proven eligibility for food stamps and or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They also cannot maintain it if they are not working, and if they lose a job, have to reapply once they find a new job. If they end up working part time, they may lose hours of child care benefits.”

When it comes to pay for workers who provide this invaluable care, many do not take home enough to support themselves. Dr. Palley recently presented on the experiences of home-based care providers for the Society for Research in Child Development, and noted that many home care workers struggle to keep their businesses operating because parents cannot pay them enough and public subsidies are often below market rate. “These workers love what they do, but many think about and do leave child care because it is not financially sustainable,” she said, “As one woman noted, you can earn more at McDonald’s.”

One clear example of this crisis is New York City’s “child care deserts.” Dr. Palley says that the city has had trouble spending all of its available child care and pre-K 3 funds, partly because there is insufficient care available in certain parts of the city and not enough resources have been allocated to inform people of their eligibility. She says these “deserts” exist in large part because the economics of working in child care do not make sense for many people.

Still, Dr. Palley remains hopeful that progress is on the horizon. She believes that having more female legislators elected to office, or men with primary or co-parenting responsibilities, might bring positive momentum to the cause. And as a result of the pandemic, there has been an increased focus on child care at the national and state level. New York City and state have begun investing more money in child care programs, though she notes that continued reforms are needed to ensure families are aware of their eligibility and can access and maintain care, as well as to address child care for undocumented children. New York is also among the states that have begun supporting public pre-K, though it is not yet universal statewide—so some parents are able to access free care for 4-year-olds and sometimes 3-year-olds, but care outside of school hours and for children younger than 3 remains an obstacle for most.

“In my teaching, I strive to convey how hard it is to get things on the political agenda and keep them there,” Dr. Palley said. “Policymakers need to talk to the people doing the work, because they often don’t understand the challenges the workforce faces. Likewise, workers and researchers need to engage in politics to get their voices heard.”

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