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Congress is considering President Joe Biden’s historic plan for transforming our social safety net, including the grossly underfunded care economy that includes the elderly, the disabled and young children.

All sectors of the care economy need more resources, but caregivers working as home-based child care providers, who are disproportionately women of color, need the most. Some have embarked on a shared campaign called Care Can’t Wait to fight for better pay, working conditions and respect.

There are 6.4 million children in home-based child care, including both licensed family child care and license-exempt family, friend and neighbor care.

Families choose home-based care for many reasons: responsive relationships with trusted and loving adults, continuity of care, flexibility in hours and a culturally affirming environment for their children.

Black and Latino, Spanish-speaking, rural and low-income families are especially likely to choose home-based care.

It is time for our public systems to recognize the value of home-based child care for the millions of families that choose it, and compensate providers fairly for their work.

Related: Our fragile child care ‘system’ may be about to shatter

In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for example, the state provides just $13.63 a day for home-based child care by a relative of an infant, while paying $45.98 a day for care in a licensed child-care center. That’s less than $14 a day perinfant for a 10-12 hour workday on average.

Nationwide, home-based relative and neighbor caregivers, when paid, earn about $8,000 a year on average.

As we look to make our systems more equitable, child care advocates can find lessons in the more labor-organized elderly/disabled care sector, in which workers are better paid because there is a primary payer of care: Medicaid. Home caregivers earn about $16,200 a year.

That is still not nearly good enough for an industry that is rapidly growing and maintains extensive waiting lists for care — but stands well ahead of the state of play for home-based child care. 

Home-based relative and neighbor child care providers, when paid, earn only about $8,000 a year on average.

Elder and disabled care advocates are currently centering their advocacy around consumer choice and the desire to ensure that unpaid, unseen relative and neighbor caregivers are compensated for the care they provide.

The Care Can’t Wait coalition is advocating for $400 billion in home and community-based services (HCBS) to ensure that low-income consumers can receive the resources they need in the setting they most desire: their homes.

There is broad acceptance that institutionalizing care is not ideal for consumers or their families. These desired new investments would enable relatives and neighbors of Medicaid recipients to “bill” for care provided and ensure that caregivers can earn a living wage with benefits.

Child care advocates would do well to consider this more mature system and approach and to focus on family choice.

Half of all families with children in nonparental child care now choose relatives and neighbors to meet their care needs in a home setting. This trend has increased during the pandemic. Given that the families choosing home-based care are more likely to be Black, Latino, immigrant, rural and low-income, any equitable public system must include support for these families and caregivers.

As Congress considers making child care an entitlement and creating programs that may move us closer to a well-funded and supported sector, let us not forget what we have learned from our friends in the elder/disabled care sector.

Care decisions are personal and based on trust. Families deserve to have their babies and young children cared for in their preferred setting by the people that love them. Build Back Better can provide a rising tide of compassionate and commonsense funding to lift all boats. Let’s make sure it lifts home-based providers, including relatives and neighbors, as much as other caregivers.

Natalie Renew is the director of Home Grown, a national initiative committed to improving the quality of and access to home-based child care.

This story about home-based child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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