Feb 5, 2021 | OPINION | By Emma Logan | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian

The economic and political boundaries of public childcare in the U.S. perpetuate the inaccessibility of what can be, by all measures, a necessity for millions of families across the country. One major so-called solution currently in law, The Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families (TANF), does little to address the practical needs of families and, through its language and usage, perpetuates harmful narratives about the role of women, motherhood, and parenthood. To confront the childcare crisis, this program needs serious amending.

This crisis especially impacts the 11.5 million single mothers in the U.S., as childcare can consume a large part of their paycheck and perpetuate poverty. The average annual income for single mothers is $25,493, while the average annual cost of care per child is $9,589. The average family with children under the age of five spends 10% of their income on childcare, which is 40% higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of affordability.

However, childcare is an essential resource for single mothers, as scheduling limitations can hinder full-time employment, and staying home unemployed has negative impacts on personal savings. Although government subsidies are available for families struggling to afford childcare, fewer than one in six subsidy-eligible children receive assistance. This has led to nothing short of a childcare crisis in our country.

Economists, politicians, and parents have developed various solutions to this problem, including six month paid parental leave, improving salaries of childcare professionals to prevent turnover, limiting licensing/hiring fees, increasing subsidies, reducing training requirements, and having employers provide childcare benefits. Increased research on the issue has found that $2.2 billion in productivity is lost solely in Colorado every year due to a lack of childcare and that other states show similar lost revenue rates. A 2017 poll showed 89% of voters think that providing childcare for working families should be a priority. This issue has bipartisan support, and proof that subsidizing child care increases earnings over time has been distributed widely to decision makers.

Yet, despite the successful implementation of these strategies on a local or state level, access to care is anything but standardized. This is due to factors beyond economic and political control, leading to barriers that prevent the successful execution of existing solutions on a national level.

By looking at previous attempts to make childcare more accessible nationwide, and why they failed, we can begin to understand the underlying cause of childcare inequities, especially for single mothers.

The closest the U.S. has ever come to a subsidized universal childcare program was when the Comprehensive Childhood Development Act of 1972 was passed with bipartisan support, and promptly vetoed by President Nixon. Many experts on this event claim he was motivated by pressures from various organizations concerned that the act would disrupt the role of motherhood in American families.

This intrusive factor of sexist and oppressive ideology in discussions around the availability of childcare for American families is an ongoing narrative to this day. Claire Miller of The New York Times calls childcare a “moral argument,” while Alison Phillips, a program coordinator for The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, claims that the hesitation in allowing public funds to encourage non-traditional family structures may be a leading cause for the limitations of available programming.

Childcare inequity and inaccessibility is not about money or politics. It is about familial gender roles for women.

There are few groups more drastically impacted by this narrative than single mothers, as a very limited number of programs are aimed towards single-parent households. The most cited is The Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families (TANF), which replaced AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) in 1996. However, many critics denounce TANF as exclusionary and accuse this prominent piece of legislation of perpetuating harmful portrayals of the childcare crisis.  

TANF does not require trauma-informed services, and a study of 103 caregivers showed that infants whose families received trauma-informed programming went on to earn more in adulthood than those who received standard TANF care. Another study also confirmed that the previous program AFDC, which provided an average additional $28,000 per family, resulted in 0.44 additional years of life per child than TANF. This suggests that despite a $16.4 billion budget per year, TANF funding may still be narrow. TANF also includes a lifetime limit of only five years for each family, limiting support for non-traditional families with children born further apart.

However, the primary criticism of TANF’s role is that its messaging is closed-minded, as seen in its four primary ways to address childcare costs: [1] By financially supporting parents to stay home; [2] By preventing unwanted pregnancies; [3] By encouraging the formation of two-parent households; and [4] By promoting job preparation, work, and marriage . 

States have the power to design programs and distribute funding however they see fit as long as each of these four goals is partially addressed. Goals [2], [3], and parts of [4] are all examples of how TANF directs funding towards the prevention of single motherhood as opposed to the support of single mothers. Phillips critiques TANF’s focus on a traditional family structure by saying, “It harkens back to serious gender issues around what a family looks like and what a women’s role should be.”

A solution to specifically address the limitations of TANF, and the traditional familial gender roles it perpetuates for women, would be to amend these primary goals to be more inclusive of unique family dynamics. This amendment, through legislative action, must include input from state organizations — who actually distribute the funding — to ensure that new language would provide the ability to add additional strategies of support, as opposed to cutting existing ones.

Although states will still have the freedom to form their own programs around these goals, they will be more motivated to refrain from perpetuating harmful narrative that single parents, specifically mothers, should not exist. Rather than focusing on preventing single-parent households, the program must aim to provide existing ones with vital childcare.

The legislative history of TANF shows that budget restrictions and minor content changes have been addressed various times within the last decade to confront parts of these limitations, setting a precedent that this program can evolve. Therefore, reform of TANF, specifically of its primary goals, may be a viable way to confront the issue of exclusion of single-parent households in childcare support and bring us one step closer to ensuring that all families, and the women within them, receive the care they need.

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