Op-ed: Every news outlet needs a childcare beat

January 24, 2022
Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via AP

In 2013, Jonathan Cohn published “The Hell of American Daycare,” a feature for The New Republic about how US childcare centers are largely unregulated both for safety and educational quality standards. Cohn’s report featured the harrowing story of a woman whose child died in a fire at a childcare center in Houston. It was, he says, one of the hardest stories to write and the closest he’d ever come to crying during an interview, listening to the grieving mother recount her loss. “The Hell of American Daycare” won the Hillman Prize for magazine journalism and, for a time, brought national attention to the problem of poorly regulated daycare.

As he worked, Cohn knew he was onto a big story. Still, he says, compared with other policy topics that he’d reported on, there was relatively little contemporary research or other reporting on childcare. “I was reading a lot of history books and translating academic books and reading original histories.”  

In the years since Cohn’s story was published, childcare as a public-policy issue remained largely out of the media spotlight. What stories did appear were typically confined to a parenting section or else scratched the surface of the business section, and often lacked context for why the problem being reported on exists in the first place. The body of reported literature on childcare remained relatively small; Elliot Haspel, whose Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It arrived in 2019, says that, at the time his book was published, “there were very few books on childcare.” 

During the past two years, however, reporting on childcare changed radically—in quantity, if not necessarily in quality. In 2020, when covid-19 shut down schools, workplaces, and daycares, news coverage of childcare surged. During those early months of the pandemic, the number of news stories about the childcare industry increased by 90 percent compared to the same period a year earlier, according to data from the First Five Years Fund. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure package—which includes $400 billion to support childcare and early education, with stipulations for raising the wages of childcare workers, increasing subsidies to families, shoring up struggling childcare centers, and expanding eligibility—established childcare’s place among our national economic priorities. It also sent reporters and news outlets scrambling to cover a complicated subject that spans beats and topics—from business to healthcare to education to child development—as well as regulatory systems and funding mechanisms, state and federal. 

Rather than selectively engage childcare as an add-on or afterthought to those legacy beats, the time has come to make childcare its own beat. Complexity and urgency don’t pair well; it’s unrealistic to expect a reporter new to covering childcare to churn out a nuanced story on a tight deadline. Over time, however, a dedicated beat reporter can develop expertise in the nuances, policy implications, and people who shape a subject as complex as childcare—all while, hopefully, building public interest and rewarding it with new understanding. 

Parenting magazines and verticals are selling us things but not talking about hard or structural issues, and not delving into the policy conversations.

The usual complications of covering policy questions in a federalist system like the United States—where individual states approach and implement standards and licensing requirements in a myriad of ways—are compounded in childcare. (For example, in a state such as Massachusetts, anyone watching a single, non-relative child in their own home requires a childcare license. In South Dakota, a caregiver can watch up to twelve children without requiring a license.) What constitutes “childcare” also varies widely, and includes everything from licensed for-profit centers to informal friend, family, and neighbor care. In our research mapping childcare solutions at the Better Life Lab at New America, we’ve found that the childcare delivery system, funding, and quality metrics vary widely. 

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Haspel—who has written about childcare for the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Early Learning Nation, a nonprofit magazine about education—believes that the absence of a strong national infrastructure makes it harder for people, including reporters, to understand what makes childcare so complicated. “People do not fundamentally understand why it’s expensive for parents, why educators make so little, and why it’s hard to find spots,” he says. “It’s complicated and takes a couple of minutes to explain.” Local news outlets, which might have an easier time focusing on discrete local conditions, may struggle to reallocate modest resources, or hire new staff, for new beats. Still, those that have managed have been busy: Savannah Tryens-Fernandes, a Report for America corps member assigned to AL.com’s Alabama Education Lab, has published numerous stories at the intersections of childcare access, provider support, education, and public health. On the national level, The 19th, which has a dedicated caregiving beat, has also delved into the childcare and caregiving provisions of Build Back Better, detailing whom these provisions affect and why they matter. 

Absent a policy lens, childcare stories frequently take an individualistic approach—focusing on the circumstances of just one parent or family, for instance—or emphasize consumer products with affiliate links or listicles of what to buy. “Parenting magazines and verticals are selling us things but not talking about hard or structural issues, and not delving into the policy conversations,” says Kimberly Seals Allers, who wrote about childcare for the New York Times and Forbes before creating Irth, a maternal-health app for women of color.  “People are looking for that silver-bullet solution,” says Allers of the childcare crisis, “and there isn’t one.”

When Bryce Covert—who has written extensively about childcare, including for the New York Times as a contributing writer—began her freelance career, in 2010, she saw an emerging cohort of feminist bloggers writing about the repercussions of expensive childcare and a lack of paid leave, while a second cohort of “wonk bloggers,” mostly men, dissected the policies the US could consider to remedy growing economic inequalities. Covert, who saw little overlap between the two groups, has frequently worked in the space between them, publishing articles about the history of childcare in the US and arguing for massive public investment to correct the damage done by decades of reliance on the market economy. “You can’t report on just one aspect of childcare without showing readers how it connects to others—how quality and licensing procedures impact availability, how high costs for parents translate to low wages for providers,” Covert says. As with any new beat, covering childcare with nuance may present reporters with a steep learning curve; still, Covert says, journalists shouldn’t be intimidated. (“It’s complicated,” she says, “but it isn’t rocket science.”) 

Childcare is a key aspect of economic outcomes as well as social ones. During the past decade, an explosion of research has shown that a range of childcare factors—from how kids spend their days to the quality of their care providers and teachers—have a significant impact on personal development and future educational and economic outcomes. In the US, 60 percent of children ages five and under and not yet in kindergarten spend at least one day each week in the care of someone who is not their parent. In or out of a pandemic, childcare is inextricably linked to our political and economic past, present, and future. That should be reflected, in all its complexity, in daily news.

THE KICKER: Why do politicians fight back when teachers want to feel safe? 

Haley Swenson and Rebecca Gale are the authors. Swenson is the Deputy Director at the Better Life Lab at New America. Gale is a reporting fellow at Better Life Lab at New America. Both have written extensively on child care for a variety of news outlets.