Congressional parents mostly silent on child care struggle amid Covid

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid March, schools and day cares across the nation were forced to temporarily close. Next, summer camps were impacted, with nearly two-thirds opting not to open their doors over the summer. And now about 60% of school-aged children are settling into the new academic year virtually. Meanwhile, working parents are struggling to keep pace and juggle all their conflicting responsibilities.  

Nearly six out of 10 American households say they’ve had serious problems caring for their children since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Of those, over a third report experiencing serious challenges keeping up with their children’s educational needs, according to recent polling conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults with at least one child living in the household in July and August. 

And it doesn’t look like there’s any support coming: Additional funding to help child-care providers, schools and, ultimately parents, has not materialized. The latest Republican-led relief package, which did include about $100 billion in funding for education and child care, failed to pass the Senate earlier this month. And legislation earmarking $50 billion in funding for child care remains stalled in the House.  

Yet, this is arguably a personal issue for some members of Congress who currently have children. How are they juggling the responsibilities of their office — which may include regularly traveling to Washington D.C. — with caring for their kids? 

CNBC Make It researched the biographies and public statements of the over 500 current members of Congress to learn how many have children under the age of 18. Through this (arguably inexact) research, we found that about 160 members, or roughly 30%, have children ranging in age from infants to teens. 

But when we attempted to reach out to ask congressional parents how they were managing school or child care this fall, just 11 provided answers through their staff. 

Of those, Reps. Jhana Hayes (D-Conn.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) all reported their children are currently attending school remotely. 

“I have three kids all in different grades, which means different teachers and schedules. Keeping track of that requires a complicated, color-coded spreadsheet,” Porter said in a statement. “We definitely are straining our Wi-Fi to its maximum when all three kids are in Zoom classrooms, and I am doing a virtual hearing or video event.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) did not specify, but implied her two daughters are attending school remotely, saying in a statement: “As much as I want my kid to get back to being taught by a trained educator, schools must have the necessary equipment and safety guidelines before they can reopen.”

Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), Troy Hollingsworth (R-Ind.), Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) all noted their children were attending school in-person this fall. 

The silence reflects our societal norms

The general lack of responses from congressional parents regarding child-care plans isn’t surprising, says Melissa Boteach, vice president of income security and child care at the National Women’s Law Center.

It comes down to a couple factors, she says: income, societal norms and historical perspectives on child care. When it comes to income, Boteach points out that members of Congress earn a $174,000 salary. That’s more than double the $65,712 that the median U.S. household earned in income last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey released last week. 

Although some members of Congress have been champions of the issue of child care, it may not be as much of a personal struggle for them as it is for the average parent. “This does not hit them in the same way because they have the resources to pay someone so that they’re not trying to juggle all of this as much,” Boteach says. 

There have been a few politicians weighing in: At the Democratic National Convention last month, Elizabeth Warren spoke about how her Aunt Bee helped her raise her two young children when Warren was teaching law school in Houston in the late ’70s. “Two generations of working parents later, if you have a baby and don’t have an Aunt Bee, you’re on your own,” Warren said. 

These historical and societal norms are still playing a role as well, says Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab, the work-family justice program at New America, a public policy issues think tank. “I think it’s so interesting that even members of Congress don’t telegraph their family issues,” she says. “That is sort of mirroring what we all do, because we all keep [our family life] under wraps.”

That’s due, in part, to the fact that in the U.S., the work culture is obsessed with this trope of the ideal worker, Schulte says. “You have to be all in. And the only way that you’re going to show how you’re dedicated and how you’re amazing and how you need to be promoted is to work as if you have no child-care responsibilities at all,” she says. 

To achieve that, Schulte says Americans, particularly women, go through these “elaborate dances” at work to hide caregiving responsibilities. In fact, in some workplaces, it’s dangerous for your career to even put pictures of your kids out. “Congress is reflecting our own work culture values…[because] they’re not willing to talk about it,” Schulte says. 

While the pandemic may have pushed the issue of child care into the news more than ever before, it hasn’t shifted these societal barriers all that much. 

“This country has a long history of just devaluing and making care workers invisible,” Boteach adds, saying that child care has long been considered a personal problem and a private responsibility, rather than a public concern. 

“The more policymakers and lawmakers that speak up and share that story, their ‘Aunt Bee story,’ the more we move the needle toward building the care infrastructure that we actually need,” Boteach says. 

Voters say child care is essential

These prevailing attitudes toward gender equity and the value society places on children have real consequences, Shulte says.  

“The bottom line is we really have not made a whole lot of progress in terms of gender equality,” Shulte says. In the U.S., the prevailing belief is that while it’s OK for women to work for a living, they need to figure out their own child care and not expect the public to help, she says. 

This is why, she adds, you have Congress providing almost as much bailout money to Delta Airlines alone than they did to the entire child-care industry. About nine airlines, including Delta, agreed in April to participate in a program that aimed to award $25 billion in grants and loans to save the industry from the economic impact of Covid-19. 

Yet Congress only allocated a total of $3.5 billion in emergency child-care funding in March. The money was added to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which typically is used to funnel federal funding into child-care subsidies for low-income families with children under age 13. The CARES Act, however, allowed a wider pool of providers to use the funding to help with increased costs and low enrollment or closures related to the coronavirus pandemic.

And while subsequent relief packages introduced by both Democrats and Republicans included additional funding for child care and schools, there’s been no movement by Congress to pass them.

Unfortunately, those bills remain stalled in the Senate, Boteach says. “And now they are engaging in a partisan fight over Justice Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court, rather than providing relief to the people who are unemployed or who are struggling to homeschool while getting to their job and there’s no care option. It’s completely out of touch with the constituents who are crying out for relief right now.”

[Congress is] engaging in a partisan fight over Justice Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court, rather than providing relief to the people who are unemployed or who are struggling to homeschool while getting to their job and there’s no care option.

Melissa Boteach

vice president of income security and child care, National Women’s Law Center

Yet attitudes toward child care may be slowly changing, at least among the general public. “One of my great frustrations for years was how little coverage issues like this ever got,” Schulte says. “And so what I will say is that there’s more coverage now than I have ever seen of child care and the child-care crisis and things like paid family leave.”

In fact, about 84% of voters recently reported they believe high-quality, affordable child care for families with young children is an essential service like health care and education, according to polling data released Thursday by the First Five Years Fund, an early childhood education advocacy organization. The poll was fielded September 9-12, 2020 to 800 voters and conducted by New Bridge Strategy and Hart Research. 

About 79% of voters polled specifically say it was the pandemic that made it clear to them how essential a strong child-care system is. About 62% say they want to see Congress doing more for working parents with young children and 58% believe the government should be doing more for child-care providers. 

And businesses are finally beginning to see child care as an economic issue as well, Shulte says. In fact, about 30% are now offering access to back-up child-care services and another 30% are planning, or considering, rolling out this benefit to their employees, according to a recent Willis Towers Watson survey of over 500 employers earlier this month. Roughly one in four companies are also providing subsidized care at centers, as well as tutoring or other educational resources. 

But we can’t rely on businesses to set the standards, Shulte says. You’ll always have companies that go the extra mile to retain their employees, as well as those that don’t offer any additional benefits, which creates a wide variation between policies. Look at paid family leave in the U.S., for example. The U.S. doesn’t have a federally mandated paid maternity or paternity leave policy, so while some companies like Netflix offer a full year of paid family leave, others don’t offer any paid time off at all. Overall, only about 17% of workers have access to paid leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Similarly, there’s a call by many advocates for setting some kind of standard for more generous child-care benefits — perhaps even a universally-funded system. It’s important for the federal government to say “here’s the floor, and you are more than welcome to exceed it,” Shulte says. 

“I feel like we are at a really interesting place where inertia could take hold and nothing happens, or we could begin to have some really interesting conversations that could really change things. I think it really could go either way,” Shulte says.

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