How can we talk about real stakes and threats without resorting to overly calamitous language and dubious statistics?
Today I have a story about one of the last remaining pandemic-era safety net programs that expires tomorrow. Some $24 billion in child care funding passed via the 2021 American Rescue Plan is set to end, and I took a look at what this means for child care providers and families, as well as what the politics look like now for improving access to child care.
Spoiler: There will be some real pain. Wages have gone up across the economy over the last two years, and child care programs have been struggling to compete with these big box retailers that can pay $20 an hour. (I wrote about that last fall.) Already high costs on parents may go up further. Waitlists may get longer, and some programs may close as a result. And yet, it’s also unlikely to be as bad as you’ve heard.
I have a bit of a rant which I admit is more geared towards my colleagues in the media but it’s on my mind so here we go. Because it’s a dynamic we see play out in so many different issue areas.
Basically every single major news organization has covered this upcoming “child care cliff” — with many of them having published multiple stories on it. And in virtually every story you’ll read, whether it’s NYT, WaPo, Bloomberg, Axios, WSJ, NBC, CBS, Philly Inquirer, LA Times, they all uncritically cite the same statistics that 70,000 programs will likely close following this deadline, and 3.2 million kids will lose their care.
(For some context: there’s about 3.6 million kids born each year.)
These data points comes from a report released in June from The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank in D.C. The Century Foundation does research but they’re also an advocacy organization and work frequently in progressive coalition with other nonprofit advocacy groups to lobby lawmakers on a lot of topics. They were a major player fighting to try and get child care subsidies included in the failed Build Back Better Act.
Basically, there's a real problem in media where general due diligence vanishes if it relates to topics that reporters are particularly sympathetic to, like child care. And issue experts or other advocates who know better are typically loathe to clarify on the record because they don’t want to be seen as trying to minimize a real problem, or get in trouble with others in their respective coalitions.
But journalists should be more skeptical before reporting that 25 percent (!) of young children are likely going to lose their spots. I worry right now journalists and their editors feel no incentive to not report the most dire possible picture, since like advocates, they want to create the short-term concern that motivates policymakers to intervene in some way.
So what do I mean specifically? Two things.
First, the widely-cited TCF statistic did not account for any of the state investments made over the last 2 years. That's a pretty big asterisk already, because a lot of states have made historic new investments in child care.
"That will make a decent difference in reducing the losses" TCF report author Julie Kashen acknowledged to me in an interview.
Second, the statistic was derived from an October 2022 survey of 12,000 early childhood educators that found 34 percent of child care programs reported that they would have closed during the pandemic if not for the emergency grants. The grants covered 220,000 programs and 9.6 million kids, so the Century Foundation multiplied those figures by 0.34 to arrive at its estimate.
But the grants were issued because Covid-19 was happening. Lawmakers deemed the child care sector “uniquely vulnerable” to the crisis, and less able to access relief loans through methods available to other small businesses. In a US Senate HELP Committee report issued this past spring, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Patty Murray (D-WA) noted that emergency relief was needed because child care providers began “hemorrhaging money during pandemic shutdowns” as fewer children attended and they faced unexpected costs to comply with reduced group sizes, cleaning materials, and personal protective equipment.
So taking a survey that asked people if they would have closed during Covid-19 if not for those grants and using it to say that many people would now close after Covid if the grants stop is a stretch. Now I think there is an argument that some programs won’t be able to continue the raises educators have received over the past two years without raising rates higher on parents if the federal subsidies end, but that’s not what this report is saying or what they estimated.
I don't really blame advocacy groups for coming up with a big inflated number. I mean I wish they’d be more rigorous but I'm more frustrated with journalistic coverage of this, because I think we in the media have to do the actual hard work of vetting info while still conveying to readers the real stakes and threats. And it’s hard and I’d even say a bit unpopular to try to and show why a widely-cited statistic is not very reliable, and also try to show readers why there still is a real problem, and likely new pain coming. But that’s our job and I long-term we’re going to lose readers if they start to think the information they’re reading has not been sufficiently vetted. It shouldn’t be a reader’s job to go look up the methodology of a stat.
I also appreciated this perspective from Jessica Brown, an economist who studies the child care sector. She called TCF’s estimate “wildly improbable” this morning.
Anyway, this stuff is hard — and you might say quibbling over methodology is not important when even the closure of one center will cause harm. I understand that point of view but I think it’s still on us to work to report things as they are — threatening and likely tough, but not sky-is-falling, at least based on the evidence we have now.
The last thing I’ll say is that the GOP debate this week made the affordability of child care an early and central part of the conversation. Which was both surprising and encouraging. (The moderator even cited the TCF estimate about 70,000 programs closing!) While Republicans in Congress have not been so eager to increase public investment in child care, it was notable to hear South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott condemn the fact that day care costs can now exceed $15,000 per child, and to hear North Dakota’s governor Doug Burgum stress that “child care is workforce infrastructure.”
As I note in the piece, among parents, the child care issue is far less polarized. A national poll conducted for the First Five Years Fund this summer found that 74 percent of voters, including 61 percent of Republican voters, back increased federal spending for child care.
You can read the full story here — on what the cliff likely means for providers, families, and politics ahead.