By: Kayla Bokzam
February 7, 2022
In a UNICEF study of the national childcare policies of forty-one countries, the United States ranks next to last. The U.S.’s dismal childcare policy is detrimental to women, specifically those living at the poverty line. Women are traditionally the primary caregivers in their families, so inadequate caregiving support impacts women the most, especially single mothers. Without sufficient caregiving support, many single mothers experience housing instability as they are unable to find or keep jobs that would allow them to afford housing. Subsidies to lower the cost of caregiving and paid leave would provide women with the means to obtain stable housing for themselves and their children. But without it, women often have to take days off of work or find themselves unable to have a steady work routine due to the demands of caring for their family members. This is evidenced by the fact that women who are caregivers are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than people who do not have caregiving responsibilities. Additionally, caregiving reduces paid work hours for middle-aged women by a staggering 41%.
The difficulty of balancing caregiving and work can cause women to experience homelessness or make it harder for them to end their homeless experience. And since most women will try to avoid homeless shelters at all costs due to their potential dangers, they will often try to stay with family and friends, making them the “hidden homeless.” This “hidden homelessness” means many women are not recognized as experiencing homelessness by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. So in addition to inadequate caregiving support, they are also unable to receive federal assistance aimed at people experiencing homelessness.
While there is federal assistance for childcare in the U.S., many families that would benefit from this assistance do not receive it because their income is not low enough. Even those that are eligible often do not receive this assistance, possibly due to the difficulty of the process or a lack of awareness. Furthermore, these subsidies are usually not large enough to cover high-quality care, so parents are forced to place their children with lower-quality providers.
In many countries including Denmark, childcare is significantly subsidized. In fact, couples in Denmark only spend around 10% of their income on childcare while single parents spend a mere 3%. Compare this with the U.S., where couples spend about 25% of their income on childcare and single parents spend over 50%. Countries that provide adequate subsidies for childcare ease this burden for parents significantly, to the point where single parents in some countries, including Latvia, Greece, and Turkey, spend next to nothing on childcare. The same can also be said of Italy and Malta, where single parents and even couples spend nothing on full-time care for two children. And in other countries like Chile, the government pays for public childcare for children who are under five years old.
But subsidies are not the only way that other countries are able to ease the financial burden of childcare on parents. As a matter of fact, the U.S. falls further behind other countries by failing to provide adequate leave, as it does not have a universal entitlement to paid maternity leave. Other countries, luckily, cannot say the same. Britain provides 39 weeks of paid leave, Japan provides 52 weeks, Sweden provides 68 weeks, and Estonia provides 82 weeks.
These benefits might seem unheard of in the U.S., but President Biden is trying to do something about it. The American Families Plan proposed by the President would create a federal program that provides for twelve weeks of paid parental leave. While this is still significantly lower than the paid leave in foreign nations, it certainly is a step in the right direction. The plan would cap the cost of childcare for low-income and middle-class families at 7% of their income and would ensure that the care children receive is of high-quality. This is a similar model to Denmark’s, where the cost of childcare is capped according to family income or the local cost of care. This would be a huge improvement for Americans, as single parents with two children living at the poverty line spend more than 50% of their income on childcare annually.
The U.S. should learn from other countries and provide women and families with adequate caregiving support to ease the financial burden on those living in poverty or experiencing homelessness. Since women often find themselves as the primary caregivers in their families, providing them with adequate support is essential to gender equality.