WASHINGTON — Angelica Maria Gonzalez, found out she’d been accepted to law school while living in a homeless shelter.

Her world was turned upside down when she lost her child care subsidies roughly a decade ago, after an unsolicited, one time child support check from the father of her children resulted in a momentary spike of income. Years of economic instability followed for Gonzalez, a mom of three who gave birth to her first child at 17.

Gonzalez, now a law clerk and associate in Seattle, has a stable income and job, but still struggles to meet the twin demands of parenting and full-time work.

“I waste about an hour or more battling through traffic to transfer them to a daycare,” she said in her opening statement at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing last month. “I have to find many daycare providers and pay all kinds of prices depending on who it is and what I can find. This is a dance that so many parents have to do.”

Like Gonzalez, 62% of mothers are in the workforce, and many of them find it hard to juggle job demands and finding care for their children. In 28 states and Washington, D.C., center-based child care for infants and toddlers is more expensive than in-state tuition and fees at a public university, according to Zero-to-Three, a nonprofit that advocates for young children.

So parents sometimes resort to unlicensed, unverifiable care — a risky proposition. Gonzalez tried that for a while

“It was terrifying,” Gonzalez said. “I worried about my kids every day. The woman who watched them was watching many more children than one person can handle. She was the only option for so many parents. A neighbor told me she saw my three-year-old daughter nearly get hit by a car because no one was watching her and she ran into the street.”

Often, parents end up staying home with their children rather than joining the workforce. In 2016, 2 million parents did so, according to the Center for American Progress. Last year, a report conducted by the Council for a Strong America, a bipartisan advocacy group, found that gaps in America’s child care system cost roughly $57 billion a year “in lost earnings, productivity and revenue.”

Democratic Responses

Seventeen years ago, Nancy Harvey left her teaching job to start a daycare facility in Oakland, California. At Li’l Nancy’s Primary Schoolhouse, students go on field trips to the local observatory and exercise at the swimming pool. Staff members and interns work to give young learners essential skills in language, math and science.

But her business has seen its fair share of economic struggles. The costs of maintaining a child care center have risen in recent years, but Harvey said she can’t raise rates without losing business. She’s fallen behind on gas and electric payments.

“As child care providers, our jobs are about nurturing the future,” Harvey said. “But too often, we struggle to keep our doors open and pay our assistants a living wage. And we are not paid enough to provide the basics for our own families.”

It’s hard to explain why. In a 2019 survey conducted by Care.com, over 60% of parents reported that their child care costs had gone up in the past year. But child care workers aren’t reaping the benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that among the 1.2 million American workers employed in child care, the average annual salary is $23,240. Business owners like Harvey aren’t making more, either.

Taryn Morrissey, an associate professor at American University, said the economic gap could be due to increased regulations placed on child care facility owners — which make running a daycare center more expensive. But she doesn’t think deregulating is a good option.

“We have better regulations,” Morrissey said. “For good reason, states and localities limit the number of infants per adult and that sort of thing. There’s better health and safety inspections than there used to be. So that results in more cost. That’s not a bad thing.”

Democrats in early 2019 proposed the Child Care for Working Families Act, which would places a cap on how much parents pay for child care. No family would pay more than 7% of their household income for child care if they earn less than 150 percent of their state’s median income.

Morrissey said the proposal could bring the child care supply gap down, with the government subsidizing child care centers while keeping costs down for families. She said the plan would essentially pay for itself.

“You get what you pay for,” Morrissey said. “And right now, we’re not paying enough. We’re investing very little in the education of our youngest citizens, the future workforce. But then child care also has that two-generation aspect to it in that it supports working families today.”

The Campaign Trail

With the Democratic primary in full swing, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has made universal child care a core tenet of his campaign platform. He’s aiming for more than the Child Care for Working Families Act. In February, his campaign outlined a plan to offer free, full-day child care and pre-kindergarten education for every child. The federal government would work with states to double the ranks of child care workers while setting guidelines and federal mandates for child care providers.

“Our current child care system is an embarrassment,” Sanders said in a January debate in Iowa. “It is unaffordable. Child care workers are making wages lower than McDonalds. We should not be one of the few countries that does not have universal, unaffordable child care.”

Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore supports the sentiment in Sanders’ plan.

“Senator Sanders has a lot of wonderful ideas. I think it’s really important for those ideas to be on the table. As a woman, a mother and a grandmother, I see the provision of child care as being really essential toward the best interests of the child.”

The sticking point: a $1.5 trillion dollar price tag over 10 years. Sanders wants to pay for that with his wealth tax, a tax on the top 0.1% of U.S households, which his camp expects to fund an estimated $4.35 trillion over the next decade

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the cost of universal programs would take money away from other useful government sectors. He believes in incremental changes.

“It’s too expensive,” Haskins said. “We can’t afford it. There are a whole lot of other better places to spend the money. I have nothing against expanding child care policy but we’ve gotta do it in stages. That’s what we’ve been doing. “

Former vice president Joe Biden has been far less explicit in his plans for child care legislation. He supports universal pre-kindergarten programs, and indicated agreement with Sanders at the Iowa debate. But Biden has yet to push forth any specific proposals for child care.

Moore said that’s not a problem. She’s confident that as president, Biden would sign any child care bill that Congress could push it his way.

“And we have a great many members of Congress who are concerned about child care, the lack of equity, here in this body. And I think that if we were to have a Democratic president you would see that package put together so fast your head would spin.”