Every year during Women’s History Month, I get tired of people paying lip service to women’s rights. Acknowledging gender inequity is important, yet words fall short when they’re not coupled with deep structural changes. If I have the honor of serving in City Council, I will fight for structural changes, such as universal childcare.
Universal childcare is deeply personal to me. After giving birth to my second of three, I left my job to take care of my children, because childcare costs were too high. I was lucky to have a partner who could support our family while I raised our babies, but we barely scraped by, living paycheck to paycheck. I know what it’s like to need to borrow $20 from family to cover groceries, or how any unexpected expense could feel like a crisis.
Unfortunately, this situation is far too common. Nearly one in four women switch from full-time to part-time work after giving birth, and many more women leave the labor force altogether. In the short term, leaving work may save on childcare costs, yet there are long-term consequences. There is an estimated cost of 1 million dollars in lifetime earnings for mothers who pause their careers to care for their children. This “mommy tax” can be resolved with free, universal childcare.
For women who stay at work, lack of reliable childcare closely relates to employment instability. This is especially true for parents in low-wage, hourly work with few protections, and no paid time off. When a low-wage worker lacks reliable childcare, they often need to take time off work. This means an immediate loss of hourly income and potential termination.
For families who would otherwise enroll in childcare, costs are outrageous. A spot in an infant care facility costs $21,000 annually, which only 7% of NYC households and 1% percent of single parent households can afford.
Additionally, New York City parents lack access. Nearly half of all NYC neighborhoods are infant care deserts, or areas where births significantly outpace childcare capacity. Unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods with the greatest access are overwhelmingly white, mostly in Manhattan, with median family incomes over $100,000.
Conversely, the 11 neighborhoods with the least childcare capacity are predominantly low-income communities of color. Two neighborhoods I am running to represent have among the lowest capacity in the city. In Richmond Hill, there are only 16 infant care spots for 3,781 children under two. This makes Richmond Hill one of the most severe infant care deserts in NYC. Similarly, Rego Park has capacity to care for just four percent of their newborns.
Universal Childcare is an idea that is both moral, logical and financially prudent. A child’s early developmental years are among the most important. When a newborn lacks adequate support, there are long term consequences for the individual and for taxpayers. Studies show that when a child doesn’t get the care they need, they are significantly more likely to need public assistance as an adult. Conversely, studies suggest an 8:1 return on investment by funding childcare over the long term.
Infant care is pricier than toddler care, with an approximate $1 billion annual cost for universal childcare in NYC. This accounts for higher minimum staffing ratios and fair compensation for workers — 93% of childcare workers nationwide are women earning exploitative wages. To remedy this, any universal childcare platform brought to NYC must establish income standards that are on par with DOE employee wages.
Thus, for between $1.5-$2 billion (the combined cost of universal childcare, 3-K and Pre-K), NYC could guarantee free childcare coverage from birth through kindergarten for all NYC families.
The most pervasive counter argument to this proposal will be “how will we fund it?” I recognize the challenging financial times we are in. Yet, what we choose to fund has deep implications as to what our priorities are. When our city council members agreed to spend $11 billion on new jails, or when the $3 billion in subsidies for Amazon were proposed, few elected officials questioned how it would be possible to pay for it. Yet, when we talk about literally funding our future, people routinely balk at the figure. We must reprioritize our budget to invest in the health and well-being of our city’s residents. In addition, one obvious solution to fund a program like this is to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers.
Many models worldwide prove such a program’s viability. In Quebec, universal childcare has been hugely popular, costing a similar $1.52 billion for the province. Proponents of the Quebec model argue that the tax revenue generated from allowing both parents to remain fully engaged in the workforce cover the upfront investment.
Universal childcare is best for the child, the family and society at large. We must get it done.
Gagarin is a mother, nonprofit leader and community activist running for City Council in the 29th District, in Central Queens.