-This program was made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
-If you're a parent with young kids in the United States, chances are this child-care center looks familiar.
Maybe you dropped off your kids at a place like this this morning.
Maybe you left them with a grandparent or a friend or a sitter while you went to work.
And after this first pandemic year we all lived through, with child-care programs of every size and shape shuttered and kids stuck at home all day, that drop-off probably felt like a welcome slice of normalcy, like the system was working again.
But the truth is for millions of families, the system has never worked, long before COVID.
The pressure of the pandemic made undeniably clear how precarious and how dysfunctional the U.S. child care system really is.
Just look at how America stacks up to the rest of the world.
Countries like Britain and France, Israel and Sweden -- they all offer parents substantial subsidies to help cover the cost of child care for kids aged zero to 5.
In the United States, the cost of child care has largely fallen on parents.
On top of that, the people who take care of our kids are often overworked and underpaid.
Look, most agree.
We want what's best for children, especially in those crucial early years, but Americans are divided on how to get that done.
And that has long-term consequences for families, for kids, for all Americans.
This is "Raising the Future: the Child Care Crisis."
I'm Amna Nawaz.
♪♪ -Floating in the sea, along came a whale and took them home for tea!
The child-care experience as a whole has been challenging.
-It was really stressful because we didn't really know our options.
Like, we didn't really ever think about are we going to have a nanny?
Are we going to do group care?
It was things that we just kind of thought when she needed care, we would just, like, bring her someplace, which I guess is such a naive way of thinking now.
I'm Heidi Lohman, a school counselor, and this is my wife, Marenda.
-I'm Marenda Chamberlain.
I'm a service electrician, and our daughter, Autumn is 3.
-When Autumn was 4 weeks old, somebody asked us, "What waiting lists is she on?"
And that wasn't anything that had occurred to us that we needed to be planning in, like, the becoming-moms phase.
Are you going to eat all those?
So I went around and kind of made it a full-time job to get her on a couple of different waiting lists.
She was born in 2018, and some of the places I toured were touring for the 2021 school year.
So it was a scramble.
What time would work best?
Well, Marenda and I were hoping to plan some stuff and do some shopping for her birthday.
-Heidi and Marenda's story is the story of families across the country who've struggled to find quality, affordable child care.
-I took the first six months of Autumn's life off, and then we found a nanny for like the second 6 to 8 months.
We got really lucky to find her.
-I ended up working part-time that first year because the nanny was only 2 1/2 days a week, and we kind of thought if we're gonna be paying for somebody to take care of her, you know, it just made more sense for me to just work part-time and be that part-time care for her.
You can have a snack out here, Autie.
We were blown away by the cost of child care.
So, some places were more affordable but longer wait lists and limited hours, and some places were just incredibly expensive.
-They ended up getting Autumn into a small daycare run out of a caregiver's home.
It cost the couple around $1,400 per month.
-As far as, like, our monthly budget, child care equaled our mortgage.
So it was like, you know, one of the most expensive things that we spent our money on each month.
-I think after we'd done the research and figured out, "Okay, we're going to have to spend a large chunk of money on child care," it just was like coming to terms with that.
Like, "Okay, it is what it is," and honestly, I just had made my peace and accepted it and knew that that was going to be a part of our budget for a while.
We're in a fortunate situation that we both have really great jobs that we weren't able to put as much into retirement, but we are able to stay afloat every month.
[ Chatter ] -Our child-care system in this country is broken.
It does not work well for most people, most children, most families, and most child-care workers.
It's a system that relies on a market to deliver what really is a public good.
Child care is something that makes our economy work.
It supports families to go to work.
It supports children's learning and development.
We know that there are strong lifelong outcomes for children who participate in high-quality early care and education and child-care services, but that just does not exist for most children and families in this country.
-Well, Kimberly, daycares across the state are closing its doors because of the coronavirus.
-Child-care centers trying to cope with staff shortages are struggling to stay afloat.
-Parents who want to go back to work are faced with a new problem -- a child-care shortage.
[ Chatter ] -The pandemic has revealed a lot about the child-care system that perhaps people didn't see before -- how fragile it is, how low-paid the women doing this work are -- but I'm not convinced that people really understand the disparities and pay gaps that exist in the child-care system.
-More than 90% of child-care workers in the U.S. are women, and just under half are people of color.
On average, they earn only $12 an hour.
Most do not receive benefits, and about half are on public assistance.
-The work has, from day one in this country, been devalued.
The roots of this work are in slavery.
You know, Black women were enslaved and expected to care for White children.
When slavery ended, that expectation of Black women caring for White children and White families was continued.
It was often one of the few jobs that Black women had access to, and over time, you know, we have seen, as the system has has grown and built out, that workforce and low-wage workforce has extended to other women who have had opportunities shut off for for them across race and ethnicity in this country.
And so it's been something that by design has been low-wage, devalued work.
-My name is Olivia Pace.
I'm a freelance writer and early-childhood educator and community organizer.
I'm 24, and I went to Portland State University for my undergrad.
I've always loved working with younger kids, since I was a kid.
-When the pandemic hit, more than 350,000 child-care workers lost their jobs.
Olivia Pace was just one of them.
When she was first laid off as the lead teacher for 3-to-5-year-olds at a Portland child-care center, she worried about the future of her career and her income.
She bonded with the kids she cared for, and she's kept in touch with some of them and their parents.
But then unemployment and COVID relief checks started coming in.
-I went from making $500 a week as a teacher to $772 a week on unemployment, which is more money than I've pretty much ever made in my life.
It kind of opened up this window of opportunity to me where I was like, "Oh, I can do whatever I want.
I don't necessarily have to work a job that burns me out."
Even though I love working with children, the structure of the field is such that if that's what you want to do, you're gonna be worked to the bone, and I didn't want to do that anymore.
-And there were other factors influencing her decision.
-I didn't feel amazing being a Black woman who was broke going in and teaching a mostly White classroom of kids whose parents are making more money than I have ever made, who have a kind of wealth and privilege that I haven't experienced, that I'm not experiencing teaching their kids.
If you're asking me to provide a service that, like, families are benefiting from, that is kind of fundamental to our economy, to our society, then I should be having more than my basic needs met.
I should be able to buy the foods that I like, buy the clothes that I like.
I should be able to live in a place that feels comfortable for me.
-Childcare is incredibly skilled work.
They should not be worried about feeding their own families.
You know, I would invite anybody who thinks this is babysitting or unskilled work to spend a day in a child-care program.
The McDonald's down the street from my house is paying people $15 an hour.
Target just announced that they're going to be supporting college tuition for their workers.
We can't compete with that in the child-care sector.
-So if child care workers are paid so little, why is child care so expensive?
Well, think of it this way.
The younger the child, the more individual attention they need.
You can't have one person watch over 20 or 30 infants or toddlers.
There are even laws to prevent that.
On top of paying those caregivers, there's rent, electricity, cleaning supplies, snacks for kids, monthly costs that all add up.
Nationally, parents pay on average about $10,000 a year per child, but prices can vary widely depending on where you live and where you send your child.
And some estimate that cost would be even more -- between $30,000 to $37,000 -- if child-care workers were paid higher wages and had better benefits, and most parents can't afford that.
So many child-care providers pay workers less and cut back on other expenses to make up for that gap.
Others find extra revenue from government subsidies, grants, and donations.
-That's the dilemma is that the only thing that can fill that gap is public money, and we refuse to wrestle and acknowledge the fact that that's the only thing that's going to make a viable, sustainable, high-quality system is public money because otherwise, programs cut corners by slashing wages to the bone, not offering benefits, you know, finding quality sort of workarounds.
And I understand because their other option is to close, and we have child-care deserts all over the place.
Access is already an issue, and so they don't have any other option.
In order to keep your budget in the black, you basically have to be at full enrollment all the time.
You have to be charging enough money to cover your costs all the time, and you have to be collecting the money from your parents all the time.
And if any of those things go down, the entire enterprise crumbles and you're in the red.
-The dilemma over what to do about child care has a long history.
-There are 100 million of us men and women of working and fighting age.
To fight this war, 10 million... -Let's go back to World War Two.
Millions of American men went to fight overseas, leaving many factory jobs open, which women stepped in to fill.
-In war towns all over the United States, women are called upon to leave their homes and take jobs.
-That created a new problem.
Women who had mostly stayed home were now leaving every day for work, and their kids needed care.
-When married women with small children have to take jobs, everything possible will be done to provide daycare for the children.
-So Congress jumped in with a solution.
It created thousands of child-care centers across the country that served over half a million kids.
-These centers were set up in the same communities where women were working in defense industries, and there's beautiful photographs of them of children drinking milk, sitting on the floor with these very respectable-looking teachers watching over them.
And they were, you know, really seen as nursery education for these children.
It was really the first time that it was seen that, you know, respectable women should be working to help the war effort.
Women had always worked, but during the war was the first time that it was seen as really acceptable for perhaps White middle-class married women to be working.
-But lawmakers didn't intend for these centers to be permanent.
-This was seen as an emergency procedure.
This wasn't seen as women after the war should continue to work, and so after the war, many of these centers were closed.
Even though many of the women wanted to keep working, the jobs were taken away, given back to men who were coming home from the war.
This is still a society that believed in a breadwinner model of the families, so men were supposed to be the ones going to work and providing for the family, whereas women, we're supposed to be taking care of the home, taking care of the children.
-It was less than three months ago that we opened a new war front on poverty.
-It wasn't until two decades later that the government stepped in again as part of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty.
-This means that nearly half of preschool children of poverty will get a head start on their future.
-So there is the idea that one way to break the cycle of poverty was to intervene in children's early years.
-These are poverty's children, but like all children, privileged and poor, they hold promise and potential.
Head Start recognizes that promise and seeks to develop that potential.
-So in 1965, Head Start started as a pilot program in the summer for children in poor Black communities mostly.
This is in the middle of the same civil-rights push, so this is a way to counter segregation and a way to promote economic mobility among the poorest Americans families.
♪♪ -The world is changing.
-Fast-forward to the 1970s, more and more women had joined the workforce, driving up the need for care.
-Many policymakers and advocates are thinking that there should be some kind of expansion of Head Start to reach a greater population, a bigger population of children, so the next big mark on our child-care timeline comes in 1971.
The Comprehensive Child Development Act would have created child-care centers in local communities on a sliding-scale basis, so they would be free for those who needed it and for a fee for families that were of higher incomes.
And they would provide high-quality educational interventions, as well as nutritional and medical services.
-Congress passed the bill with some bipartisan support and sent it to President Richard Nixon, but there was a vocal contingent of conservatives who opposed the measure.
So Nixon vetoed it.
-Republicans, and especially conservatives on the right, what they saw as so objectionable was the fact that this bill could impact White middle-class families, that White women might use its provisions to put their children in child care and go out to work.
To them, it wasn't seen as objectionable that black or brown mothers, women of color who needed to work in order to provide for their families -- that wasn't seen as such an aberration of what they believed the family should be looking like and what they should be doing.
[ Applause ] -Two decades later, when President Bill Clinton made the next big change to child care in 1996, it largely focused on low-income Americans.
-From now on, our nation's answer to this great social challenge will no longer be a never-ending cycle of welfare.
It will be the dignity, the power, and the ethic of work.
-It's changed welfare and the way that welfare is implemented so that women were forced to go to work.
It's no longer feasible that you can get welfare assistance and stay home with your children for a long period of time.
-The law also expanded a program that provided families with vouchers to help pay for the child care they'd now need.
-The way that our federal child-care system is now designed, it's extremely fragmentary and it deepens inequalities because there are limited centers of high quality that will take those vouchers.
If a woman's schedule changes, she could lose her voucher.
If she works more hours one month than another, she might become ineligible and lose her subsidy, in which case, she loses her ability to work, and then she has to go back on the waiting list.
And then, because the system is underfunded, there's many eligible families who are not able to access that kind of support.
-So where does all that leave us?
Well, Americans are mostly on their own when it comes to paying for child care.
Federal tax credits can help offset some of the costs for families, and government programs like Head Start and child-care vouchers are available for low-income Americans, but that help is often not enough.
Over the past year, special correspondent Cat Wise has been reporting on child care for the PBS NewsHour.
She traveled to Mississippi to see how parents in the country's poorest state are struggling to cover child care.
-Come on, you ain't too big.
You ain't never too big.
-Ethel Williams is a 43-year-old single mother of 5 who lives in Biloxi, Mississippi.
-You gone like the wind, boy.
-She works hard to meet her kids' needs, but for years, she was only able to get low-paying jobs.
-Mostly fast-food jobs.
-Making as little as $5.25 an hour.
I think the most that I ever made at a fast-food job was $7.25 an hour.
-Like many parents, she couldn't afford reliable childcare, so she had to cobble together help, which included having her older kids watch their younger siblings.
-And it left them unable to participate in sports or any other extracurricular activities, and so their main job was to watch over the kids so I could work and put a roof over our head.
I worked as a correctional officer at one point, and I had to be at work at 6:00 a.m. And by that time, my kids wouldn't even be on the bus, so I would have to leave them at home.
And they would pretty much get themselves ready and be out waiting on the bus.
-Eventually, Ethel was able to get federally funded vouchers that low-income parents can use to help pay for child care, but there were strings attached.
Only some child-care providers accept vouchers.
-You can tell that the ones that accepted vouchers were lower quality, and you can just tell that the ones that accepted vouchers had a lot more kids versus the ones that were upgraded facilities.
-And in order to receive the subsidy, Williams had to work, but she couldn't make too much money or she'd lose some of those benefits.
-I needed child care that I didn't have to pay for because if I worked and tried to pay for childcare, I would be working to pay child care, and so it was a lot of times I would quit jobs or, you know, just stay at home because it was easier that way.
And so I made a conscious decision to go back to working at McDonald's because that's how the system was set up.
It was set up for me to work 30 hours at $7.25 an hour and receive benefits from the state such as SNAP and Medicaid, and it made me be able to live comfortably.
-What did you feel like at that time?
Did you feel, you know, this is not fair, this is not a good system?
-I felt like -- you know how you wake up every morning and you feel like you're just living under water and you're trying to figure out, "Is this even a thing?"
I felt a heavy burden, and I kept saying to myself, "It's got to be a better way."
-The rules that the state creates for what you have, how you qualify, the application process, how frequently you have to be re-determined eligible, what you have to do, could be made easier.
-Carol Burnett runs a nonprofit that helps low-income women in Mississippi.
-We do a lot of work trying to help parents navigate the minefield of applying for a child-care voucher, and it's not just the funding, it's the application process that's incredibly burdensome, the multiple obstacles that stand in the way.
-Child-care subsidies are funded by the federal government but distributed by states, and nationally, only one in seven children who are eligible actually receives them.
-We're very conflicted about whether we really want moms to be able to get that child care and not stay home with their children like they're supposed to.
-Why do you think that is?
-It's rooted in gender bias.
It's also rooted in racism because a lot of the assistance for poor families, and especially in my state here in Mississippi, where income... surfaces such race inequities.
Recipients of these vouchers are largely Black families.
So what are these tools for?
-That's a big reason she helped create a program in 2008 called Women in Construction.
Training in construction, a field that's dominated by men, gives women an opportunity to earn more money.
-Show the marks that you pulled them from.
-Hourly wages are around $20, almost triple the minimum wage in the state.
-Oh, there you go.
You're getting real good at it.
-But the program also offers another major perk -- free child care at local centers for six months while women are in the program and looking for work after they graduate.
Combining job training with child care -- is that a powerful combination?
-It is the magic road for economic security because job training is super helpful, but if a mom doesn't have child care, she can't do it.
Child care is super helpful, but if it's only to allow her to go to a $7.25-an-hour job, it's not all she needs.
-Free child care is what first piqued Ethel Williams' interest in the program.
-I had a lot of questions and a lot of doubt about a program that was offering free child care.
-You came here and checked it out.
-I put my kids in the car on a Saturday, and we drove down to see was the building real, was the space real?
-It was, so Ethel signed up.
And for the first time, she felt like her kids were getting high-quality child care.
-You could call at any time during the day.
They would give you an update on the kids.
You know, you could speak with the teachers.
If one of those things doesn't work for you... -After completing the eight-week training course, she was hired on as a teaching assistant and eventually became the lead instructor.
-Just give me a measurement.
-She now earns $20 an hour plus benefits teaching construction skills to other women... -I appreciate that.
-...like 26-year-old Ayanna Ruffin.
-I want to be able to, you know, just like, advance myself.
I just get out there and do it.
I just want to be a good role model for my son.
-As a hairstylist, Ayanna had a hard time putting food on the table for herself and her 1-year-old son.
-Once I finish this, I can go out there and pursue the career that I want to pursue, whether I have to start at the bottom or maybe be a helper or anything like that, but I'm willing to train.
And I see myself this time next year somewhere working on a good company.
I can see the future in it.
-How's the future look?
-Man, I'm living the future.
I'm stepping out now so I can get into a new field and be able to be a provider for my son and not have to depend on nobody else.
-What you got in your bookbag?
-As for Ethel Williams, her job is flexible enough that she can take care of her children when they get home from school.
-Okay, I'll sign that.
-It has not been an easy road for her and many moms in the same situation.
-Child care is a necessity.
It's essential that you have child care so that not only you can get a job but that you can maintain that job and that career.
Bringing it up.
-Today, she has a career, and for the first time, she's taking her family on out-of-state vacations, something she never had the money to do before.
-I'm just in a good space, and the things that I used to worry about, I don't worry about anymore.
And I feel like I have all the tools after coming and doing the program to accomplish anything.
♪♪ -The program Ethel and Ayanna were able to access was invaluable to them, but there are millions of mothers in the U.S. who don't have any help.
-The burden of child care largely falls on women, and it has for decades.
When a family can't find affordable child care, we've seen that women are 12 percentage points less likely to be able to work, whereas there's no impact on men's likelihood to be employed whatsoever.
-And still, today, more than half of women work outside the home, and most kids don't have a stay-at-home parent.
-We've seen, you know, large increases in the cost of housing, transportation, and child care that's made it really difficult even for middle-class families to be able to afford the American dream of, you know, the house with the white picket fence and, you know, Mom and Dad and the family taking vacations and things like that, and so that's why we're seeing this need for both parents to be working and making ends meet.
-COVID has made things even harder for parents, especially moms.
-So we know already this is a she-cession.
It's affecting the in-person occupations where you largely find women in terms of the hospitality industry, the personal-services industry, even the health-care industry that, you know, part that wasn't essential, and so a lot of women lost their jobs or had to reduce their hours because they were furloughed or laid off.
But a lot of women, when asked directly whether or not child care was a factor, we found that upwards of 25% of those who lost their job said it was solely because of child care.
-And even though the economy is recovering, many women still can't return to their jobs.
-It's definitely the case that the lack of child care is holding the economy back from its full potential.
The degree to which child care is holding us back compared to other factors like the lack of vaccination or the spread of the Delta variant, that's really hard to say, but we do know that the lack of child care is certainly holding individual women back and also harming their families in terms of the loss of income.
-There wasn't enough child care even before COVID, and now around 10% of child-care programs that existed pre-pandemic are still shuttered.
For those that did open... -Before, it was hard to find care and there were long waitlists.
Now the pandemic has just exacerbated that, where we've lost almost half a million daycare slots, and so it's going to be even more difficult to find care, just drives up the cost of care.
When there's fewer slots, more demand, you know, supply and demand says that prices will go up, and that's not something that's easy to undo.
And so it's going to take a while to grow those daycare slots back.
-In a normal year, the lack of child care costs the U.S. economy more than $50 billion because parents can't work or are less productive at their jobs.
That's "billion," with a "B."
Now, that might just be a small fraction of the overall economy, but in small towns, it has a huge impact on businesses and on families.
-So it's very important... -Cat Wise traveled around Nebraska to examine how affordable, reliable child care can help communities thrive.
[ Wind whistling ] -Right along Route 34 in southern Nebraska, there's a small railroad town called McCook.
[ Indistinct conversations ] It's a busy lunchtime hour here at Sehnert's Bakery.
The man behind the counter is Matt Sehnert, whose family has owned the bakery for more than 60 years.
He is very much a part of the fabric of this community.
-Jerry is making date bars.
This is a family tradition.
Everybody in my family has made this bar.
-Matt says there are a lot of ingredients that have made his business successful, and reliable workers have always been an essential part of that.
The bakery has 26 employees, but over the years, some of the staff have had to quit because of child-care challenges.
-As you see, we bake fresh products every day at the bakery, and so we have to have our people here to make it every day.
And they need to be here at a certain time to do it, and so it's really sad when we have child-care problems.
-And Matt says that became even more difficult during the pandemic.
-We lost workers because when our school closed down, they absolutely had no choice, and it wasn't like they gave two weeks' notice, either.
It was like, "I can't come to work tomorrow."
So in our business, we have to invest in things to make it work, and not everything we invest in directly makes money.
And I think that child care is an investment, obviously from the parent that needs to be part of it, but maybe the rest of us need to be part of it, too.
-But in this town and other communities in the area, child care hasn't just been a problem for small businesses.
It's an issue for employers of all sizes.
-Staci Dack is a family-practice nurse and a mother of two.
She started looking for child care while she was pregnant.
-Everyone was either full or had a waitlist, and I was in tears.
I was calling my fiancé and saying, like, "I don't know what we're gonna do.
I can't find daycare."
-That daycare was so important that at one point, she even considered quitting her job as a nurse, a decision that would have affected both her family and the community.
-I think more people are realizing that if us parents don't have daycare, then you don't get the food on your table, you don't get the health care that you need, and even our grocery-store workers and our truck drivers, they all have kids and have to have some place for their kids to go while they work and make the world go round.
-Then she heard about a new child-care center with available spots run by her family friend Chelsey Eng.
-[ Crying ] Mama!
-She's a single mother who grew up in McCook.
-I realized, like, how just expensive child care is and how hard it is to find child care in a small community, so, you know, being a single mom, I was paying my bills.
And I'm like, "I don't have any money left over after I paid daycare and my rent and all that," so I was like, "You know what?
I'm just going to go open a little daycare in my house, watch a few kids," and that's how it kind of started.
-She recently opened a new child-care center in a vacant church.
The program can take up to 50 kids at a time, including Chelsey's son and daughter.
[ Chatter ] She says none of this would have been possible without help from a local initiative.
In 2020, McCook created a $50,000 fund from local taxes, donors, and businesses.
The town offered grants to start new child-care programs and monthly incentives to existing providers to add spots for infants, who are more expensive to care for.
-What are doing, Gab-Gab?
I think it gave people more incentive to, like, "Okay, yeah, we need to step it up and do something with the infant care," because we had tons of people in the community calling and saying, "Do you have spots for infants?"
Even now, I do, and I can have four infants and I'm full.
You know, and it's awful to turn down parents because those parents need to work.
-The initiative has helped, but it's not a cure-all.
-What are you doing?
Where'd he go?
-Chelsey is still stretched financially and sometimes feels undervalued.
-I still don't think people realize that... we are your backbone.
Like, without us, you don't go to work, and, you know the schools -- if the school is closed, we're still here.
Like, we don't close.
Like, we take our weekends, but we can promise you we'll be here on Mondays for you.
♪♪ -150 miles away in the small town of McCool Junction, Nebraska, the Coffey family starts their busy day with pancakes.
-Almost all families need both parents working to support them, so it's not really an option most of the time for somebody to stay at home.
-Phil is an apprentice line technician for a utility company, and Sadie is an assistant principal.
-What's that called around the castle?
-They have four kids, ranging from a toddler to a high-school freshman.
I met up with them on a warm summer day, and we talked about some of their child-care challenges.
-Now it's just figuring out the transportation from child care to preschool and back from preschool to child care.
-They recently moved from a community that had a child-care model seldom seen in the rest of the country.
-While we were in Shickley, we were kind of on a child-care island, a resort child-care island where we really didn't have to worry about those things.
It was all-inclusive.
It was just very succinct and altogether one system, and as you travel away from that system, you get into some more treacherous waters.
And now we're begging, borrowing, and stealing from friends and family just to try and make it work, and it's just frustrating and overwhelming where you don't have that as a system.
-In 2013, the town of Shickley added an infant and toddler program to the public school.
-So while we were in Shickley, we were paying $27 a day, didn't matter what age your child was, and we had certified teachers in each room.
They had at least, you know, four years of formal education, and they were teaching your infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
Ooh, you got red on.
-Sadie wasn't just a parent who used the program.
For three years, she was also in charge of it as the school superintendent.
In a town of fewer than 400, the program has made a big difference.
It serves 40 kids from 6 weeks to 4 years old, and parents pay less than the typical rate in Nebraska.
-I miss being in Shickley.
I miss being a part of that system, and, of course, I miss my staff and my kids.
-It was a great program, so, you know, the kids really enjoyed being there.
And they loved the daycare providers.
-You wanna go eat?
-In their new town, where child care is scarce and more expensive, the Coffeys put their name on a waitlist at the only center in town and hoped for the best.
-We lucked out because the owner of the daycare is my cousin, so she had two surprise openings.
And she jumped right to us and said, "Hey, I have these openings.
I thought you guys first," and we jumped right on top of it.
-So currently, we pay approximately $400 more a month for daycare and preschool.
-It doesn't break us overall financially, but it is something that you notice.
It is a hit that you take, and when you do the math over the course of a year, I mean, you're losing $5,000 roughly.
So I mean, that's a pretty significant hit.
Shickley had such a nice model.
I think would be nice to see that in other communities where the school's tied in and everybody can receive that same level of, you know, certainty with your children's child care.
So I think that would be a nice thing to see may be expanded so it's not just in that town where everybody can, you know, trust in their school district.
-With the help of Phil's family, the Coffeys say they're making things work now, but they'd like to see more support from the government.
-You know, it'd be nice to see systems put in place with, you know, those federal dollars to make sure that there are programs like Shickley available to people.
We are in a very good situation, and we moved to a place where we had very limited options.
So, I mean, it would be nice if you knew you could just jump from one community to the next and know that you're gonna have the same high-quality available options.
Nobody wants to be taxed more, but, you know, dollars have to come from somewhere.
If it's a boon to society, I think it makes sense to take money from taxes for that.
-Early childhood and education funding, it definitely doesn't need to be, you know, run and managed by the government.
As a former superintendent of schools, it is extremely important to communities to continue to have that local control.
It would be great if we could just have the availability of some of this funding in order to continue the great things that we're doing in our communities and in our schools.
-That's a sentiment we heard from many in Nebraska.
They want more funding for child care, but they don't want the government to be in charge.
Folks in Nebraska aren't alone in thinking that way.
Americans across the country agree there is a child-care problem, but they're torn about how to fix it.
Would a standard nationalized program be best?
Should each community decide what's best for them?
And then there are some who say providing more child care isn't the answer at all.
-We can't have everything.
We cannot advance women's careers and boost the economy and optimize early-childhood development all at the same time.
This is just a tough reality.
-Before the pandemic, only one in five parents stayed at home with their kids.
-We need to be communicating to parents that for many, the most valuable thing they can do, mothers and fathers, is spend as much time as possible with their children when they are under age 4 or 5.
Research across the board is clear that for children from very disadvantaged backgrounds or very low-income backgrounds, and there's one recent research that has shown for children from single-parent backgrounds, high-quality child care is developmentally advantageous.
To me, the clear policy priority is spending enough to provide truly high-quality care to the most disadvantaged families that need it the most.
-Research has shown children can have lifelong benefits when they have nurturing, stable relationships with their parents and other adults.
-You want to do a standup?
Can you do standup?
-We know that children who attend quality care settings and have warm relationships with the adults who work in them do just as well, better on some fronts, than children who remain at home for their early-childhood years, but I would argue that families need to have a choice about that.
-The idea that parents should be solely responsible for their child's care and development is a very American way of thinking.
Many countries see taking care of children as a community, even a national, responsibility.
Almost every developed country in the world spends more on child care than the United States.
In France, the national child-care system is seen as a crucial foundational part of French society and the French economy, and it's often hailed as a model for how other countries could care for their kids.
-Camille is 16 months old.
She is normally an extremely happy baby.
She loves to smile and play, and she loves being outside.
Can you get your shoes?
Lately, what she's done is every day, every morning, she goes to get her shoes and brings them to us because she wants to go play outside.
My name is Katherine Bakotic.
I'm a marketing director here in Paris, but I'm originally from New Jersey.
-I am Chris Bakotic.
I'm here in Paris as a supply-chain director but originally from Detroit.
We've been in Paris now for 3 1/2 years.
-As working parents, the Bakotics appreciate how highly France prioritizes child care.
-There is lots of different options for child care, but I think the underlying theme is that the system exists so parents both can get back to work as quickly as possible.
So yeah, to me, I think it's set up with the parents in mind.
-One of the options in France, the one the Bakotics use, is called crèche, which literally translates to "crib."
-It's very, very welcoming to the child, and they really want to create the sense of discovery and learning.
It's not a regimented book-learning type of style, but they let the kids play, interact with each other.
Here at our crèche, they did a week where they had them all wear a different animal color, animal prints, and then there was a week focused on different colors.
Instead of different activities, just to kind of engage them in doing different things, like discovering themselves, discovering other kids, discovering and interacting with the adults, as well.
-These daycare centers are for kids under the age of 3, and the staff all go through government-required training.
Parents pay a fee based on a few factors -- their income, how many days of child care they need each week, and how many children they have.
But these crashes are mostly funded by the French government.
-Compared to friends in the U.S. who I know are paying a lot for daycare, here it's based on your income, and there's a sliding scale, as well as a maximum that you'll pay for a public daycare here.
So we feel that it's actually really affordable.
-[ Speaking French ] -In fact, Americans pay anywhere from two to four times as much for childcare as the French.
[ Singing in French ] The problem here is that demand is so high, it can be tough to find a spot, but the French government does subsidize a number of alternatives.
-I think there are a lot of options for each person to choose what fits for their families, so there's a crèche here.
There is home daycare, there is a private nanny, and also, there are drop-in crèches around the city, as well.
-[ Speaking French ] -In France, we have established a range of child-care options that allow parents to choose the best solution for themselves and their kids.
You can't say that one option is better than another.
It all comes down to the parents and which option is best for their situation in relation to where they live, the needs of their job, how many hours they want, the child's needs, and also the kind of care they imagine for their child.
Some parents want in-home child care because it's more family-oriented with fewer kids.
Others like the crèche because there is a more educational structure with more kids, but at the same time, there's more socialization.
It really is up to each and every family to decide, and it's difficult to say that one child care option is the best.
-[ Speaking French ] -And it doesn't end there.
When kids turn 3, they're required to attend preschool, which is 100% government-funded.
-And we might move back to the U.S. at some point, but we really need to think about what it would cost.
We've got friends who have had to make that tough decision.
Are both parents gonna continue to work, or will one stay home because of the child-care cost?
I mean, at least in one situation, one of the parents stays home just because economically, it doesn't make sense to both be working.
So that's definitely something we need to consider, and if we move back to a large city like New York, where we came from, the child-care cost there is significantly, significantly more expensive than here in France.
-It's a little bit more like when do we want to have a second kid, and do we want to have a second child in France or do we want to have the second baby in the U.S.?
And leaning a bit towards having it in France.
-This commitment to child care for all isn't cheap.
The French government spends almost $5,000 more per kid than the U.S. each year.
The French people pay more in taxes for a range of social services, including child care, but they see it as a worthwhile investment for parents and for their economy.
-[ Speaking French ] -When we look at other countries, women often have to choose between having a career and delaying or deciding not to have kids altogether because it's too complicated.
France's policy allows people to have a job and a family, and it's very important for the children but also the parents' happiness.
It allows parents to keep their professional life while trusting their kids are being taken care of.
This is a positive for companies, and we noticed that before moving somewhere, getting a new job at a new company, parents would check out where the crèches are.
Culturally, the system has existed in France since the Middle Ages.
Ideas can be taken from our system and replicated somewhere else, but we need to understand the culture of the country, its history, the way parents view their work and their family.
-[ Speaking French ] -Creating a model like this in another country would be a massive undertaking.
France could inform American child-care policy, but finding an alternative model doesn't require crossing an ocean.
There is a good example right here in our backyard.
-First, the youngest billy goat Gruff decided to cross the bridge.
-This child-care center is located on the Fort Belvoir Army base just outside of Washington, DC.
-"Now I'm coming to gobble you up!"
cried the troll.
-It's one of hundreds of child-care facilities across the U.S. that serve military families.
Each year, the federal government spends just over a billion dollars on the military's child-care system, which serves about 160,000 children from zero to 12.
-Every single day, you know, is an adventure in time management.
So, we wake up in the morning, we get the kids ready for daycare, we get ourselves ready for work, and then I'm lucky enough to have on-post daycare.
So I bring the kids in to work each morning.
I get to drop them off and give them a kiss goodbye, and then a moment later, I'm into the office.
And when I leave work for the day, the first thing I get to do is pick up my kids and bring them home.
And then we sort out as much family life as we can in between our other requirements.
-Major Paul Kearney is the father of 2-year-old Emma and 4-year-old Liam, and he says having child care for service members is essential.
-We have the ultimate goal of providing for security for our nation, and we want to make sure that we recruit and retain the right people.
There are trade-offs with all aspects of life.
You know, my brother wishes he had access to the quality of care at the price that I have, but, you know, he's also content with the fact that no one's ever pushed him out of an airplane at 1,000 feet.
So there are trade-offs with all things in life, but I think the quality-of-life care that we get in the Army makes it a much more attractive option for a lot of people who may otherwise not consider military service as a career option.
-Well, thank you.
-But this child care isn't completely free.
Parents pay a fee based on their income.
It can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $8,300 a year per child, and the government covers the rest.
That is still much less than the average civilian parent pays.
-I pay like a little over $400 a month, which isn't bad at all because in the civilian world, I was paying almost $300 a week for child care.
-Specialist Deja Lyles joined the military four years ago and says without child care for 6-year-old Paris, she couldn't do her job.
-I'm a single parent, so child care is very important to me because without that, then I can't go to work.
And being in the military, that's not an option.
-And it's not just the cost that's a life-saver.
The military program guarantees quality child care.
-Just do your best.
Kids learn through play.
We have areas in the classroom where the kids can go and pretend to be mommies or daddies or bus drivers.
We have baby dolls because some of my kids are still going through a stage where they want to be a bigger sibling and they want to play with the baby, just want to do puzzles all day, problem solving, so we have all those set up for the children to play with.
-Tammy McGruder has been a lead teacher at Fort Belvoir for 19 years.
She and her fellow teachers use a curriculum that aims to boost these kids' brain development and social skills.
We know that during the first few years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed each second, so having well-trained teachers during this time is critical for children's growth.
-We do continuous education training nonstop.
We constantly do training.
I monitor what's going on in the classroom, what's going on with that child, all the children's, and I do a lot of research on my own.
-It's important because when you drop your child off, you want to feel safe.
I want to make sure that I can do the best I can and be a substitution for their mom on that day for that eight hours or nine hours until they're able to get their child back in their arms.
I want my kids to feel loved until Mommy and Daddy come back.
-That kind of care provides peace of mind for Deja Lyles.
-I know she's safe.
I know she's going to eat a solid meal and be something healthy.
I know she's learning, she's growing.
I know she's getting her social skills, so when I'm at work, I'm focused on work instead of, "Oh, I wonder if my child is okay."
It's like I can actually focus and do my job.
-And she says she can see the difference from the private child care her daughter used to attend.
-Her education has changed because she's way more advanced now than she was prior to, when she was in a civilian daycare.
I think in both places, the child care is good overall, and the teachers are very genuine and they really do care, but as far as the education portion, I feel like the child-care development center, they're more advanced and it's more structured.
So regardless of what age you are, everything is structured.
You have class.
You learn about math.
You learn about writing.
You learn about science.
You learn about history.
And she's even coming home and telling me stuff that I never knew, I never even thought about.
She's really, really prepared to go to school, and her social skills have gotten a lot better, as well.
-The military system does share one challenge with France -- high demand.
-Now, along comes a fish.
-About 10,000 children are currently on waitlists for child care on military bases, and it's hardest to find a spot for the youngest kids.
So the military subsidizes private daycare, and it's launching a pilot program that would help families pay for full-time care in their homes.
-You're doing it.
-Paul Kearney says the military's continued investment in child care helps families like his to thrive.
I know that the quality of care that we receive in the military and the quality-of-life programs, including daycares, and having it at the affordable level that we have, it allows us to focus on our work and our mission when it is time to focus on the work and the mission without having to sacrifice the quality of life for our family.
-So what's keeping the rest of the U.S. from adopting this model?
Well, for one thing, not everyone agrees there should be one model.
Even among those who agree the current system isn't working, they don't agree on how to fix it.
And then there are those who say rather than helping parents leave their homes to work, we should be helping them to stay at home with their kids.
Look, whichever camp you fall into, if you're a parent in America, you know child care is one of the toughest choices you navigate in those critical early years, the years that start to define how our kids see the world, how they see their own place and their opportunities within it.
And if the saying is true that a society's character is shown in how it treats its children, at least we can all agree our kids deserve much better than many of them are getting.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -This program was made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.