As Family Promise looks at our role in advocacy around the COVID-19 pandemic, we consistently see the intersection between homelessness, education and child care. The fact is, families have particularly struggled to make ends meet while caring for their families. Over and over I see that
. (We changed names for privacy.)
Take Jennifer, after her home situation became dangerous, she needed to quickly leave with her son Aiden. Prior to the pandemic, this would have been hard enough, but the childcare center in Salem where Jennifer used to place Aiden while she worked is no longer able to care for him. As a result, she has had to balance her conflicting housing, work, and childcare priorities alone. It couldn’t be done. Sadly, Jennifer lost her job.
Jennifer’s story is not unique. Even before 2020, Oregon had a reputation for having poor access to child care where long wait-lists and high demand contributed to expensive services and, sometimes, a challenging lack of availability. Now, childcare centers must limit how many children they manage at once while staff must acquire new expertise on the fly. The costs of gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer eat into the bottom line of these businesses, but most can’t afford to hire additional workers while making it affordable for families.
This is why childcare is becoming more expensive and difficult to find than ever before. Even families who have been on waiting lists for months are being turned away and priced out. For a two-parent, two-income, housed family, this alone can present an insurmountable obstacle to financial stability.
Affordable childcare is one reason that parents, especially mothers, are currently dropping out of the workplace to take care of their children. A parent’s departure from the workforce is not just a temporary hit to a family’s income. Even when it is possible to return to a competitive career after an absence, there is no way to make up the opportunity cost of raises, promotions, experience gathered, and reputation earned. The effect on a family already grappling with homelessness can be profound.
The majority of single-parent families are also headed by women, meaning that many such families rely on childcare both for their income and to ensure that their own children are safe during the workday. When there’s no home to keep the children in, childcare becomes even more critical. The salaries for these jobs have never been high, but they are critical resources in more ways than one. For many families, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is secondary to the immediate danger to their livelihood that inadequate child care represents.
Economic recovery from COVID-19 must include access to child care. That much is clear from the tragedies that we see each day at Family Promise. However, the child care system in Oregon was broken already. No system that crumbles under pressure is strong enough to assist the most vulnerable among us. Those of us who can empower better child care have a responsibility to do so to the greatest extent of our abilities. To do any less is to ensure that families with housing instability continue to struggle up the mountain of economic stability.