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Biden's childcare plan will work — if companies do their fair share

Op/Ed: As America’s childcare crisis reaches a fever pitch, President Biden’s executive order will change lives, but there’s another group we can turn to for faster relief: the private sector.
Image: President Biden Speaks In The Rose Garden On Reducing Child Care Costs
President Joe Biden signs an executive order related to childcare and eldercare during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House, on April 18, 2023.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

After years of screaming into the void about the dearth of affordable, accessible, quality childcare in America, this week the void screamed back. With the stroke of a pen, President Biden directed nearly every cabinet-level agency to help expand access to care, and provide more support to caregivers.

These executive actions will change lives. The Biden administration is advancing domestic workers’ rights, helping ease financial burdens for military families and government employees, and building on the CHIPS Act to require that federal grant applicants expand employee’s access to care.

And yet, as America’s childcare crisis reaches a fever pitch, President Biden’s clarion call is necessary — but not sufficient. It isn’t his fault; the president’s ambitious American Families Plan, which would have invested nearly half a trillion dollars in free universal preschool and affordable childcare, has been repeatedly muffled by a divided Congress.

The Biden administration acknowledges that we need lawmakers to finish the job. But until they do, there’s another group we can turn to for faster relief: the private sector.

Though more and more companies have begun offering childcare benefits as a means to attract top talent, a 2022 study by my organization, Moms First, in partnership with McKinsey and Co. found that these organizations are the minority. Fewer than 10 percent of working parents have access to on-site childcare at their employer, let alone financial subsidies to pay for childcare elsewhere. Hourly workers receive even fewer childcare benefits than their salaried counterparts.

While affordable childcare is a top priority for parents, 40 percent of whom have gone into debt to pay for childcare, workers face other obstacles as well. Today, half of all Americans live in childcare deserts.

Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Moms First and the founder of Girls Who Code. She is the author of the 2023 bestseller, "Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It's Different Than You Think)."
Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Moms First and the founder of Girls Who Code. She is the author of the 2023 bestseller, "Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It's Different Than You Think)."Adrian Kinloch

This crisis disproportionately impacts women, who take on the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities. Nearly half of all women who left the workforce during the Covid-19 pandemic credited childcare for their exodus; only 14 percent of men did the same. As a result, women have lost years of progress toward gender equity in the workforce: over three years since Covid-19 ground our nation to a halt, women are only just returning to pre-pandemic levels of employment. And to this day, women business leaders are quitting their jobs at historically high rates.

Insufficient childcare doesn’t just hamper women—it hurts the entire American economy.

A Boston Consulting Group brief forecasts a $290 billion hit to our GDP every year the country fails to address the lack of affordable childcare. Our study paints a more dire picture, finding that with women’s labor force participation muted, the U.S. is losing out on $840 billion in economic output annually — to say nothing of the costs incurred by individual companies as employees leave due to fluctuating childcare needs.

It's understandable that some businesses are looking for the government to lead: caring for small humans is as expensive as it is complicated. But investing in childcare is just that — an investment. And turns out, it’s a good one. In a moment when companies continue to compete for talent, employers that provide childcare have a clear leg up when it comes to recruitment.

Our Moms First study found that 88 percent of women looking for a job would be more likely to choose an employer who offers childcare benefits. Some 83 percent would be more likely to stay at their job if given better access to childcare.

More than just being loyal to their employers, workers who are given access to childcare are more productive and reliable — no surprise to any parent who’s had to race home to pick up their kid from a surprise half-day at school, or try and take a work call with a toddler tugging on their shirt.

And just imagine how much more creative, more dynamic, more resilient our workplaces would be if two-thirds of working parents didn’t suffer from severe burnout — exhaustion so extreme, they feel they have “nothing left to give.”

Any company would be wise to consider solutions that alleviate that fatigue: from offering subsidies to reduce costs to building on-site daycare, to offering back-up care options, to expanding resources for the hourly employees who most need support.

There are, of course, other components to America’s childcare crisis that companies can’t fix—at least not on their own. Though childcare is prohibitively expensive, childcare workers — 94 percent of whom are women, and 40 percent of whom are people of color — rarely earn a living wage.

It’s no wonder that we face a historic childcare worker shortage — a challenge that, unlike many other labor shortages, can’t be met with automation or even educational reforms. Then there’s the question of the millions of parents who work for themselves — an increasing number of whom are women — and need alternatives to company-sponsored care.

We do need government to step up to fill these gaps, and so many others: from paid leave to affordable healthcare to an expanded child tax credit.

But until they do, corporate inaction isn’t an option. We need leaders to hear our primal scream — and yes, President Biden’s quieted, firm call — and make some noise themselves. American workers, our country’s economy, and their own bottom lines depend on it.