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Maryland, U.S. are realizing that day care is an economic problem, not a women’s issue. That was before the pandemic.

2020 Women to Watch honorees and who inspires them, what scares them and what they love to eat.

Shanea Napper’s distress is evident in every line of the email she sent to Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

“There is no way I can go to work and home-school my 8-year-old son, and I cannot afford to pay someone to do it," wrote Napper, a 35-year-old mother who made ends meet with two custodial jobs.

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“There are many single parents like me that need to know what can we do so we don’t have to choose between working and our kids' learning. I DESPERATELY NEED SOME HELP WITH THIS.”

The coronavirus may be the defining crisis of our generation. It has exposed and widened the fissures in the nation’s social terrain, including America’s bifurcated child care system. Every U.S. child between the ages of 5 and 18 is entitled to attend school for free. But child care is a for-profit enterprise for which most parents must pay, and pay dearly — when they can find it.

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Experts say there’s been a gradual but growing realization over the past two decades that child care is an economic problem that crosses genders, races and income levels. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden recently unveiled a $775 billion proposal to fix the child care system, the first time a male candidate has made that issue a major part of his presidential platform.

“America bailed out the banks and the housing market,” said Tisha Edwards, director of the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success. “Why can’t we bail out the child care industry?”

According to “Child Care Demographics 2020,” a report prepared by the Maryland Family Network, 78.9% of children in the state younger than 12 years old had a mother who worked outside the home in 2019.

That amounts to 844,563 kids vying for just 213,960 available slots in licensed child care homes and day care centers. You don’t have to be a former math teacher like Maryland Del. Eric D. Ebersole to know those figures don’t add up.

“We have to realize this is a situation that might come around again,” said Ebersole, a Democrat who represents Baltimore and Howard counties and chairs the House’s early childhood education subcommittee. “The pandemic might not be the only time that kids in Maryland stay home while learning remotely via laptop computers and other devices.”

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When people become parents, he said, they begin to question the logic behind America’s two-tier system.

“Child care centers are not like public schools," Ebersole said. “They are not an entitlement that’s automatically supplied by the government. They are for-profit businesses.”

In every Maryland county, child care consistently ranks among the top three household expenses, according to the demographics report. In 2019, child care gobbled up between 17% and 32.8% of the average household income. In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, child care ranked No. 1, outstripping even housing payments and taxes.

The average weekly cost of child care statewide in 2019 ranged from $99 to $309 a child, the report found.

The child care crisis is so pervasive that it affects even high-income families.

Jessica Lee is an obstetrician for the University of Maryland Medical Center, and her husband is an economist for the federal government. When the pandemic struck, they were the parents of a 3-month-old son. Luckily, Lee’s in-laws, who were visiting from Germany, cared for the baby during working hours.

“In March we got a call from the German Embassy telling my husband’s parents that they had to go home in the next few days,” Lee said. “There were some weeks when my husband and I couldn’t find anyone to take care of our son. We were really struggling.”

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Relief came in late March, when Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order providing free child care for the offspring of health care providers and other essential workers.

“It was a huge quality-of-life improvement,” Lee said. “I work with pregnant women, and it became much easier to keep my mind on the job.”

Clinton Macsherry, the network’s director of public policy, said the disparity between the education and child care systems dates to the early 20th century. By 1918, every state in the U.S. had passed compulsory education laws.

Policymakers didn’t think to create a day care system because there was no need for one; in 1900, just 6% of married women worked outside the home, according to U.S. census data.

Women began flooding the labor market during World War II and again during the feminist movement of the 1970s. By 2019, more than 70% of women between the prime childbearing years of 20 to 44 had a paying job, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor Statistics.

“Our economy depends on having the labor of women, but it has not kept up by providing child care,” said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat from Baltimore. “Parents are largely left to their own devices to figure out their child care options. It is at the very least an oversight, and some would consider it a failure of the American government.”

In recent years, Maryland has taken what Macsherry describes as “very important steps to correct the problem.”

In 2018, annual income limits for the state’s child care subsidy program were doubled to $71,525 for a family of four. Earlier this year, the legislature passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which would provide universal pre-k for 4-year-olds.

Hogan vetoed the costly bill on May 7; Ebersole said lawmakers will attempt to override the veto when the legislature reconvenes in January.

When it became apparent that most Maryland public schools would remain closed this fall, several counties responded by creating “RecZones” or “learning hubs” where students can study online in small groups supervised by a proctor. Though the effort is laudable, Ebersole said, the centers are at best a stopgap with room for just a fraction of the children who need it.

Though the child care crisis has had a measurable financial impact on business — the Maryland Family Network estimates that employee absence and turnover cost local companies $2.41 billion in 2016 — corporations have been slow to fill the void.

Slightly more than half of companies nationwide offer some type of child care assistance to workers, according to a 2017 national study of employers conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management — and when they do, it’s likely a child care referral service (41% of U.S. businesses) or flexible spending accounts that allow workers pay for child care with pre-tax dollars (56%).

Just a handful of corporations provide employees with vouchers to pay for child care (2%) or operate workplace day care centers (7%).

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Among the rare exceptions is Johns Hopkins University, which provides a suite of child care benefits that include three day care centers on campus, child care vouchers of up to $5,000 a year, a scholarship program and an emergency caregiver fund. What’s more, high-wage employees earning up to $175,000 a year qualify for some benefits. (Johns Hopkins Hospital offers a similar package to its staff members, a spokeswoman said.)

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The vouchers help but don’t pay the full bill for most employees; the university’s day care centers cost $2,000 a month for infants and $1,500 a month for older children, a spokeswoman said.

“The university has invested tens of millions of dollars to support its employees' child care needs,” said Heidi Conway, the university’s vice president for human resources.

“This is a difficult time, and flexibility and compassion are what’s needed at this moment.”

By comparison

The U.S. lags behind other top-performing countries in providing government support for families with young children. At least, that’s the conclusion of the Kirwan Commission, the blue-ribbon panel whose recommendations are the basis of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

The report cited these examples:

Singapore provides a “baby bonus” that’s equivalent to about $5,800 for each of a family’s first two children, and $7,350 for each additional child. A Child Development Account can be used to pay for child care and educational expenses. The government deposits the equivalent of $2,200 in the account at birth and up to $2,200 in matching contributions for each successive year.

Finland provides the equivalent of a $118.50 monthly allowance for each child through age 17, with a monthly supplement for single parents of $63 per child. Shared parental leave of up to nine months is also offered at 70% of full salary.

Ontario, Canada: Full-day preschool is free for children ages 2.5 years to 5.

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