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1 in 3 working families is struggling to find the child care they desperately need

An adult gestures while participating in a video call while telecommuting during the coronavirus pandemic. Children are playing in the room as the adult works.

Natalie Saldana would love to put her 1.5-year-old daughter in a quality child care program while she works and goes to school, but the $700 monthly price tag makes it impossible.

"Seven-hundred dollars is almost my rent," Saldana said.

Saldana, 22, is a full-time student, single mom and health insurance agent in South Carolina. She's one of the many parents struggling to find child care, even as many child care centers have reopened. According to a new poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 34% of families with young children are facing serious problems finding child care when adults need to work.

The poll also found that in the last few months, 44% of households with children under age 18 have been facing serious financial problems. That figure jumps to 63% for Black families and 59% for Latino households.

As Congress continues to debate a spending package that would expand child care and provide universal pre-K, parents across the U.S. are struggling to find ways to pay for the child care they desperately need right now.

How a lack of child care is affecting families

Safe child care for young children is inherently expensive. Among other reasons, one caregiver can't safely watch more than three or four infants or toddlers at a time. And the U.S. spends less public money on early childhood education and care than most other wealthy nations, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many existing child care centers had to shut down completely or reduce their enrollment numbers for safety reasons. As the economy has opened back up, child care centers, like a lot of businesses, are struggling to find workers. But many cannot provide the same employee incentives, like hiring bonuses, that bigger businesses can.

Joe Lopez, a father of three living in Sacramento, Calif., currently pays $1,000 a month to send his youngest to day care, but that high price tag doesn't guarantee reliability. Coronavirus policies at the day care center mean that sometimes, after Lopez drops his son off in the morning, he has to turn around and pick his son right back up again.

"I wake up, log in to my computer to start work from home and then I randomly get a text from the day care that they're shut down for two or three days," Lopez said.

In NPR's poll, 36% of adults in households with children say they experienced serious problems meeting both their work and family responsibilities in the past few months.

Saldana takes online classes in civil engineering and works from home. She said she'd rather work from an office and take in-person classes, but she needs to stay at home to watch her daughter.

"Hopefully I'll be able to make enough money to pay for child care in the future," Saldana said, as her daughter called for her in the background, "which would be so much better, because it's hard when she wants me to do stuff with her or feed her while I'm working."

While there are subsidized child care options in her area, Saldana is concerned about quality.

"I've seen facilities that teach children how to be self-sufficient, and I thought that was very nice," Saldana said. "But then you look at the day cares for low-income families, and, yeah, there's toys, but there's no interactions with the child to facilitate mental growth."

How the federal government could help

These child care struggles persist despite 73% of poll respondents with children reporting that they have received financial assistance from the government. Sasha Eugene, a mother of three living in Houston, has been heavily relying on the federal government's expanded child tax credit after losing her job this month. But the money isn't enough to cover the cost of a day care center or an after-school program for her children.

"[The child tax credit] either goes to them or my bills so that we can keep a roof over our head," Eugene said. "That check is the only income I get."

As part of his Build Back Better Agenda, President Biden has proposed expanding access to child care and providing universal pre-K. There's no guarantee he'll get those measures through, but Biden has made it clear that he wants expanded child care to remain a part of any bill the Senate passes.

"How can we compete in [the] world if millions of America's parents, especially moms, can't be part of the workforce because they can't afford the cost of child care or elder care?" Biden said at an event on Friday.

Quality early education has lasting benefits, especially for children whose families are struggling economically. But without significant financial support, there isn't a lot of hope that parents or their children will be able to reap these benefits.

"Anything would be better than balancing being a full-time mom, student and working," Saldana said. "Except paying so much for child care that I'm struggling to pay my rent and bills."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.