Almost every day there’s a media article highlighting how COVID-19 has plunged our country into a child care crisis. With alarming headlines like “When Schools Closed, Americans Turned to Their Usual Backup Plan: Mothers” and “A million mothers are out of work during the pandemic,” these news stories have highlighted that mothers have been particularly affected by the closing of child care centers and schools, and have uncovered how women are responsible for an unequal share of unpaid care work in many households.
But the link between child care and racial inequality hasn’t received as much attention. It’s only buried deep in the articles where you find the racial breakdown of the impacts of COVID-19, and it’s only then you see that Black and Latina women are faring the worst.
The true history of child care in the U.S. helps explain how we’ve reached such a crisis point: society has historically undervalued the work of Black women — and more recently, non-Black women of color — as caregivers, which has led to a child care system that is broken, inefficient and doesn’t serve Black women.
The child care system in this country originated during slavery — since before our nation was founded, white women of a certain economic class were able to outsource care work to Black women who were enslaved. For enslaved women relegated to house work rather than field work, this included child rearing in addition to other care work like cleaning, cooking and laundry. Slavery also robbed Black women of the opportunity to care for their own children. Dorothy Roberts notes that slavery was the onset of when Black women’s worth was tied to their role as the caretakers of white children and not to their own motherhood, which has driven cultural narratives and policymaking ever since.
After slavery ended, many Black women took on paying jobs, and they largely worked in the agriculture and domestic services sectors. The archetype and ideology of “Mammy” painted Black women as docile, unsexual and as the happy caretakers of white families’ homes and children (but not their own). While white women’s paid labor force participation almost doubled from 1870 to 1960, the participation rate for non-white women has remained constant. Black women have historically had the highest employment rate among women, including as recent as in 2019, and have often had to leave their children at home or with family or friends while they worked. This is in stark contrast to white women, who were seen as valid, ideal stay-at-home mothers, even while they often outsourced their care work to Black women.
The only national child care program in the United States’ history was set up during World War II, when a record number of white women entered the paid workforce to take on the jobs left behind by men at war. The government quickly realized that to further facilitate women’s much-needed paid labor force participation — particularly white, middle-class women who were least likely to already be in the paid labor force — they would need to address their child care needs. In 1940, the Lanham Act was amended to include funding for child care, which amounted to $1 billion and 3,000 daycare centers 49 states, granting thousands of families access to affordable child care. When the war ended, this funding was quickly withdrawn — as white women were expected to leave the paid work force but Black women continued to work outside the home — and the U.S. ended up with the inefficient, unaffordable and inaccessible child care system we largely have today, where costs are mostly shouldered by parents using private child care providers.
Today, the history of Black womens' underappreciated and exploited role in child care, and the lack of value placed on them as mothers since slavery, plays out in our child care system in two ways:
First, Black and Latina women are disproportionately represented in caregiving jobs, including child care work. According to the National Women’s Law Center, Black women make up 15% of all child care workers, while Latinas make up 21% and Asian/Pacific Islander women make up 4%. More alarmingly, the poverty rate among child care workers is more than double that of other women workers, with Black women child care workers experiencing the highest rate of poverty when compared to child care workers of other races (Latina child care workers come in at a close second) and a higher rate of poverty than Black women workers overall.
Second, access to and affordability of child care is a problem across the board, but it’s felt most severely by Black and non-Black people of color, particularly those who are low-income. According to diversitydatakids.org, Latinx (72%) and Black parents (69%) are most likely to experience unaffordable child care. Furthermore, low-income families (who are much more likely to be Latinx and Black) pay about 28% of their income on center-based child care, while the benchmark of affordable care, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, is 7%.
It’s time for us to reckon with the racist and sexist roots of our child care system by pushing for transformational change within the sector. To start, Congress needs to take immediate action so that the child care industry doesn’t further collapse due to COVID-19. Second, child care needs to be treated as a public good moving forward. This means the government should fund child care in a way that makes it accessible and affordable to Black and non-Black communities of color, while also ensuring child care workers are paid well and have workplace rights. Without a new, reimagined child care system, Black women will continue to be overburdened and undervalued in ways that will hold all of society back.