This CEO explains what a functional US family care system would look like

Sheila Marcelo knows what it’s like to balance the demands of a job, motherhood, and caring for family members. She thinks we need a different system.
Sheila Marcelo knows what it’s like to balance the demands of a job, motherhood, and caring for family members. She thinks we need a different system.
Image: Courtesy of Care.com
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As a teenager, Sheila Marcelo had big plans. She would leave her native Philippines to attend Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, then go to law school and become a lawyer. But when she was in college, life got in the way of those plans—she unexpectedly got pregnant, something she says she wouldn’t wish upon any young woman. The experience of juggling motherhood with school, caring for sick relatives, and then professional life opened her eyes to the lack of accessible and affordable childcare for working women in the United States.

That experience led Marcelo to found Care.com, an online marketplace where families can find care providers, including housekeepers, nannies, special needs tutors and elderly carers. It has grown into the world’s largest online family care platform, available in the US and 20 other countries. It also helps employers set up care benefits for their employees through its enterprise solution, Care@Work.

Thanks to more than a decade of experience in the childcare field, and because of her own experience as a young mom, Marcelo has lots of ideas of how to improve the existing childcare infrastructure in the US to best serve young children and working parents. There’s no denying it needs fixing: on most states’ median income, childcare is completely unaffordable; early childhood educators are chronically underpaid and undertrained (paywall); and 51% of Americans live in childcare deserts, areas with fewer licensed daycare slots than the young children who need them.

Marcelo believes the solution to these problems is to invest in a 21st century system that treats care as a vital public good, like decent roads or efficient public transportation. The system should be centered around “choice for families, professionalization for the caregivers, and quality and standards for all,” Marcelo says.

Choice is key in this system, she believes, because “there is no single solution—child care centers, family child care, or in-home care—that fulfills all our needs.” Parents everywhere have different care needs and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. That’s why existing childcare schemes are not enough: As Marcelo says, “even the former leader of Head Start has said that if we want universal child care, we can’t just clone Head Start.”

A key component of the US care crisis is that there aren’t enough childcare workers to meet existing demand. The field is a tough one in which to make your career: The childcare workforce is perennially underpaid, undertrained, and unhappy. As expensive as childcare costs already are, “they’d be even higher if we weren’t essentially subsidizing those costs on the backs of child care workers,” says Marcelo. This means that childcare would be even more unaffordable than it is today if costs weren’t kept artificially lower by low wages.

To attract and train more childcare workers, Marcelo believes the government should help raise their wages and implement better protections for them, especially domestic care workers like nannies or tutors. They “need to be granted the same protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act [than] most of us are accustomed to,” she says. She advocates for a National Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, versions of which have already been adopted by California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Oregon, and Seattle, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Marcelo also believes that all US states should standardize their licensing practices, childcare curricula, and daycare requirements. Today, those standards are different from state to state. “Building consensus solutions around certifications and curricula would be a difficult but important step in making it easier for child-care workers to get access to better jobs,” she says, “and build public-private partnerships that can repair a broken workforce pipeline.”

Improving the infrastructure around childcare overall is important, not just for childcare workers, but also for the kids in their care. The majority of brain development happens before a child turns three, and loving relationships with caregivers go a long way towards children’s healthy development. The goal is that the places where parents leave their children to go work aren’t just safe and well-staffed, but also conducive to early learning and growth.

Marcelo’s suggestions are no less ambitious than the bold policy ideals that many Democratic presidential candidates have proposed so far. Elizabeth Warren outlined an ambitious plan for government-subsidized universal childcare, paid for by a 2% tax on individuals with a net worth of more than $50 million. Julian Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, and senator Kamala Harris also promised to implement universal pre-K in the US.

Marcelo says “it’s heartening to see politicians on both sides of the aisle prioritizing child care as a major issue leading up to the 2020 elections.” But there are major roadblocks to reform, including the fact that the US population is aging, and elder care will become an immediate need that some people believe will take resources, political oxygen, and scarce qualified workers away from the childcare field.

The good news, however, is that the US has plenty of countries it can turn to for ideas. “If there is a silver lining to being behind the rest of the world when it comes to developing a child-care infrastructure,” says Marcelo, “it is that we have many examples to study and learn from.” She points to the example of Scandinavian countries like Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, which subsidize childcare costs, offer generous parental leave policies, and invest in initiatives to increase the quality of childcare centers. And if it takes time, she says that’s okay: “This is a complex issue—and one that we need to get right.”

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.