Consistently showing up to work is tough for parents without reliable child care. Families dealt with a wide range of child care challenges in 2020 due, in no small part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. New data indicates that the obstacles remained elevated in 2021 even as vaccines became widely available. 

According to the 2021 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), 12.6 percent of families with children under five years old suffered substantial work disruptions due to child care issues. Those results are comparable to the 2020 numbers, and nearly 40 percent above the rate in the years leading up to the pandemic. Low-income families were hit the hardest, and there is reason to believe 2022 will not look much better: Employment in the sector is still well below pre-pandemic levels. That means immediate investments in family policy are crucial.

The income gradient

Child care issues have disproportionately affected lower-income households, as seen below. Nearly 17 percent of survey respondents under the federal poverty line and 15 percent right above it faced significant job impacts from child care problems — reporting they had to “quit a job, not take a job, or greatly change [their] job because of problems with child care.” Just 9 percent of survey participants in the highest-income category (400 percent+ of the federal poverty line) said they had faced such choices.

These job disruptions hampered families’ ability to earn income and afford essentials. For example, among respondents facing a significant job change as a result of child care issues, 28.5 percent “somewhat” or “very” often experienced challenges in covering basics like food and housing. Meanwhile, only 8.5 percent of those without a forced work adjustment struggled to meet their basic spending needs.

In each income bracket, parents who encountered job changes from child care (the red columns in the figure below) reported greater difficulty affording basic items than those without serious child care issues (the green columns). At the same time, a larger proportion of low-income respondents with and without severe work disruptions had trouble covering necessities relative to those in the highest income categories.

Notably, child care-driven work disruptions correlated with more poverty. The poverty rate among survey respondents with a significant work disruption was 42 percent higher than among those without one.

The policy implications

It is safe to say that families are continuing to experience child care issues. Employment in child daycare services is still 10 percent below pre-pandemic levels and work absences due to child care problems remain elevated. Policymakers should address the child care shortages by building up a variety of options for households to choose from. However, given the overall success of last year’s enhanced Child Tax Credit and the speed with which it was implemented, Congress should prioritize a permanent expansion of the program.

Expanded in 2021, the CTC was an effective tool in helping families meet their spending needs, especially those experiencing child care problems. Low-income families were eligible to receive the full credit — $3,600 for children five and younger and $3,000 for children between the ages of 6 and 17 — regardless of how much they earned and paid in taxes. Furthermore, the benefit could be received in the form of monthly payments.

The CTC has now reverted to its prior structure, meaning the overall credit is smaller ($2,000) and cannot be distributed monthly. Importantly, low-income families can receive only a partial benefit or are outright ineligible. They continue to face a disproportionate number of child care problems but no longer have access to the same level of federal support. 

A complete return to the 2021 credit structure is politically unlikely, but upgrading the existing CTC could swiftly provide stability to millions of those households. While returning to last year’s expanded CTC would cost $100 billion annually, making the current credit fully refundable – i.e., ensuring all low-income households with children can receive the entire credit – would only require $12 billion per year under current law. 

There is an opportunity to push for improvements now that the midterm elections have passed. Members of Congress have already called for House leadership to focus on CTC enhancements in an end-of-year package. We now know how badly American families still need that help.

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