William Grimm loves taking care of his grandchildren. Still, it’s a full-time job—from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week—that he admits he wasn’t prepared to take on in his mid-60s. When he retired from his job as a high school counselor, he imagined a life of hiking with buddies, working in his woodshop, and gardening. Instead he’s learning to flex with the minute-to-minute demands of a nine-month-old and a two-year-old, which include sitting on a couch littered with Hot Wheels cars and board books, trying not to wake the baby asleep in his lap.
“This is my first full-time interaction with little bitty ones, and having two is much more tiring than having just one,” he says.
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Juanita Mason, who lives in the same rural North Carolina county as Grimm, at 61 is caring for three children with health challenges resulting from their mother’s drug addiction. What started as a temporary arrangement to take over while her daughter was incarcerated has drastically altered her life plan. Instead of “sittin’ on the porch sipping coffee,” as she says, she spends her days dealing with courts and meeting with social workers in two different counties to complete paperwork and other requirements that will eventually allow her to adopt the children. This past year, she spent three months driving to a specialist more than 200 miles away so that one of them, six-year-old Makinley, could participate in a clinical trial that would get her the medication she needed. “I’m not 20 years old myself anymore,” she says. “I mean, it’s a blessing, but it’s also a shuffle. A shuffle every day.”
Like millions of other baby boomers, Grimm and Mason celebrated Grandparents Day in September as they do every day: by providing the regular child care that enables the millennial generation to go to work. With the Oct. 1, 2023, cutoff of the American Rescue Plan funding that stabilized the child care sector in 2021—what has been deemed “the child care cliff”—even more families are now likely to turn to grandparents, or other family, friends, or neighbors (“FFNs” in child care parlance) for child care. More than 70,000 child care programs have been projected to close in the year following the cutoff, leaving millions of working parents in the lurch.
What’s more, there’s clear evidence that the reduction in the child tax credit for 2022 has already tipped about 3 million children back into poverty. A recent report from The Century Foundation estimates that lost productivity and taxes resulting from the demise of federal funding for child care will result in more than $10.6 billion dollars in lost state revenue as parents leave the workforce or cut back their hours to stay home with their kids, and because early educators lose their jobs due to program closures.
Grandparents are likely going to pick up much of the slack for this lapse in public investment and federal support of the hidden economy supporting America’s worker-parents. And today’s grandparents already feel exhausted, stressed, out of the early education loop, and out of practice.
Already, grandparents and other FFNs represent the most common form of care for infants and toddlers, according to the National Survey of Early Care and Education, especially among immigrant families, dual-language families, and families with low-income backgrounds. Many grandparents, like Grimm and Mason, volunteer to take on the lion’s share of child care duties to prop up their adult children’s household finances, or stand in for parents struggling with addiction, mental health crises, incarceration, and poverty, or who just have unreliable transportation. Even in difficult circumstances, kinship care often protects children from further trauma and stokes their resilience with a sense of belonging. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” concedes Mason, “but I sure could use more help.”
Mason’s statement reveals what’s deeply flawed at the heart of America’s broken child care policy. Families are expected to bear the full cost of care and early childhood education, but that cost is out of reach for many. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said, “It does not work for the caregivers. It does not work for the parents. It does not work for the kids. And because it does not work for them, it does not work for the country.”
“Child care is not just a private family problem,” says Natalie Renew, executive director of Home Grown, a national initiative that works with home-based child care providers around the country. “We must recognize it as a public good, care that nurtures young children’s development, enables parents to work and go to school, and that supports local employers and the community as a whole. And we should fund it as a public good, through programs that strengthen the infrastructure for child care, including subsidies and supports for grandparents who are taking care of their children’s children.”
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Grimm’s son-in-law works for a wholesale greenhouse, and his daughter works for The Family Place, a hub that provides information and support groups for parents and families. Together the two make enough to pay their monthly bills, but not enough to also pay Grimm for the time and effort he puts into caring for his grandchildren.
Grimm’s wife also still works full time as a high school principal. For elders without ample retirement income or good health, and for working parents without nearby family, the child care problem is even more fraught. The cost of child care averages more than 20% of family income in the United States, and there simply aren’t enough affordable child care centers available to serve today’s working parents.
Transylvania County, North Carolina, where both Grimm and Mason live, sprawls across 381 square miles, with a population of about 35,000. There are only two licensed home-based child care providers in the county, plus a handful of part-time, church-based programs, and four full-day child care centers for children age 5 and under. These programs typically have long waiting lists for few openings. When the American Rescue Plan funding ends, the number of child care centers is likely to drop precipitously and parents and grandparents will be left to foot the bill through their labor or their pocketbooks.
Moreover, grandparents often take on the duty of care for grandchildren in the midst of their own financial, health, or other challenges. Mason used to work full time at a local grocery store. “I was planning to work until 65,” she explains, “but I had to quit because the day care shut down during COVID and there was no one to care for the youngest.”
Since losing her health care benefits and income, Mason has scrambled to get herself and the kids back on Medicaid and food stamps. With no child support from the children’s biological parents, she’s grateful for the gift certificates she gets as an incentive for participating in a network of FFNs facilitated by Smart Start Transylvania, money she puts toward modest Christmas gifts for the kids. Meanwhile, she rides a roller coaster of daily child care demands.
“The day care [center] isn’t open on Friday,” she says. “I have to enroll the toddler to get some days and keep him eligible for summer care, but the hours are not really enough. I pick up the older one from school, then go get the toddler, then wrestle the youngest one’s booster seat into the car, and sometimes I have to take all three to the doctor’s office and then wait an hour and a half. It’s hard!”
Mason shares her story with other parents, plus more than a handful of grandmas and grandpas, gathered in a circle of plastic chairs at The Family Place. Networks like this one provide crucial moral support for caregivers. “Taking care of children can be a thankless task,” says Chelsea Stewart, who facilitates the group. “We want [caregivers] to feel seen and valued and empowered, because they are nurturing human beings, preparing children to be successful at school and eventually in our community. That’s an important contribution not just to their own families but also to society.”
But recognition and appreciation don’t go far enough. What’s really needed is support and compensation for home-based child care. The care grandparents and other FFNs provide enables millions of earners to power the economic engine of our economy. Those who provide care without pay save their grandchildren’s families more than $10,000 per year, and many sacrifice their health, finances, and social networks in the bargain. Broad-based federal programs like the Child Tax Credit, which in 2021 provided up to $3,600 per child that could be used to pay for child care and other expenses, had a demonstrated positive impact on child and family well-being, reducing the child poverty rate to its lowest level in 50 years.
Reinstating, expanding, or establishing new programs to buttress the child care sector promises similar gains, says Renew. Some states have taken measures to find a path along, but not over, the cliff. Fourteen states have passed some form of an expanded (and sometimes refundable) child tax credit. Some states choose to use federal child care funds to compensate grandparents and other relative caregivers; New York’s Child Care Assistance Program subsidizes legally exempt home-based caregivers, including grandparents. Colorado’s philanthropically funded pilot of the Thriving Providers Project gives FFNs a no-strings-attached income boost for up to 18 months. New Mexico’s recent early childhood education constitutional amendment paves the way for families of all backgrounds to afford child care, including care provided by grandparents or other FFNs. Private employers are also stepping up, extending parental leave to grandparents who take time off to care for grandchildren.
Still, these private- and state-level initiatives are no substitute for federal action and relief for FFNs of all incomes and in all zip codes, Renew says. Advocates are asking Congress to allocate $16 billion for emergency child care funding; along with these funds, they want the Biden Administration to clarify to states that these funds can and should be used to support relative and neighbor child care providers, including grandparents. Proposed legislation like the American Family Act would permanently reinstate the refundable Child Tax Credit established in 2021, giving families more flexible funding to support their informal child care arrangements. Strengthening the infrastructure for home-based child care by sustaining the grandparents who are already bringing up baby gives families more viable and affordable choices. It’s the break—and the paycheck—grandparents who are raising young children have earned.
Support for this project was provided by Better Life Lab at New America.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 8:05 a.m. PDT on Oct. 3, 2023 to correct the ages of William Grimm’s grandchildren. Read our corrections policy here.
Anne Vilen writes about child care, education, and mental health from her home in Asheville, North Carolina.