Image: A little white girl sits on an adult’s lap in front of a laptop, her small hands covering the adults as they use the computer. Image courtesy of Nenad Stojkovic CC BY 2.0

Democrats in Congress continue toward passing sweeping infrastructure legislation. Part of the infrastructure packages would provide funding for childcare including universal pre-K for three and four-year-olds, aid for working families to pay for the costs of daycare, and paid family leave. Social science research helps place this current debate in perspective, connecting it to larger conversations about who is responsible for paying the costs of raising kids, the consequences for families of the private responsibility for childcare, and what international comparison can show us about alternatives. 

Part of the question concerns whether we should think of raising children as a social, rather than individual, responsibility. Public investments in childcare, whether through public assistance to cover the cost of childcare or a public system of universal childcare, are one way that countries communicate who is responsible for reproductive labor: the work of having and caring for children. In the United States, this is often thought of as the responsibility of individual families and, historically, mothers. Feminist scholars, in particular, have critiqued the individualization of responsibility for raising children, emphasizing that the work of having and raising children benefits society across the board. Having kids creates the next generation of workers and tax-payers, carrying on both practical and cultural legacies. Scholars argue that because we all benefit from the work of reproducing the population we should all share its costs and responsibilities.

Other wealthy Western nations handle childcare differently. For instance, in Sweden there is subsidized childcare available for all children that is considered high quality and is widely utilized. In Germany, there is greater availability of well-paying part-time jobs that can enable two-parent households to better balance the responsibilities of work with the demands of raising kids. In the United States, there is now virtually no public support for childcare. Parents are left to their own devices to figure out how to cover the time before the start of public school at age five as well as childcare for before or after school, and during school vacations. The U.S. is not alone in expecting families to provide childcare, for instance, Italy has a culture of “familialism” that expects extended family and, in particular, grandparents to provide free childcare for working families. However, as Caitlyn Collins writes, the combination of little support for families, and cultural expectations that workers are fully devoted to their jobs, makes raising a child particularly challenging in America.

There are two important consequences to the lack of public support for childcare in the United States. The first is economic. Mothers experience a “motherhood penalty” in overall lifetime wages when they exit the labor force to provide childcare, or they may be placed on on “mommy tracks” in their professions, with lower-paying and less prestigious jobs that can better accommodate their caring responsibilities. Scholarship shows much smaller motherhood penalties in countries with more cultural and institutional support for childcare.

A second consequence of little support for caring responsibilities is emotional. As Caitlyn Collins writes, mothers in many nations feel guilt and struggle to balance the responsibility to care for their children and their jobs. However, in the United States this guilt and emotional burden is particularly acute because mothers are left almost totally on their own to bear both the practical and moral responsibility for raising children. The guilt parents feel, as well as the stress of balancing childcare responsibilities and full-time work, may be one reason that there is a larger “happiness gap” between parents and non-parents in the United States when compared to other wealthy nations that provide better public support for raising children.

The pandemic has brought a number of social realities into stark relief, including the fact that individual families have to navigate childcare on their own, never clearer than when school closings kept kids at home. As we imagine a post-pandemic future and the potential to “build back better,” we should consider what social research tells us about who should be responsible for caring for kids, the weight of that responsibility, and how public policy changes might provide better care for the nation’s youngest citizens.